Reclaiming the public Realm in Belo Horizonte


The riots that broke out in Brazil last summer were culmination of several years of peaceful occupations of authority-controlled ‘public spaces’. And while the unrest has dissipated in much of the country, in its third largest city Belo Horizonte, different groups of activists that include architects and architecture students, are showing how to use and plan the city’s spaces while adding a political dimension to the popular movement


Bluprint

Words: Jane Hall

In December 2009, a beach appeared in the middle of Belo Horizonte, one of Brazil's largest cities in the interior state of Minas Gerais. It was named Praia da Estação (Station Beach), after its location in the square in front of the city's main train station, Praça da Estação. Every Saturday, people came to spend the afternoon tanning and playing in the fountains. The beach however was part of a much more important political movement that was occupying the square, in reaction to a recent decree by the mayor to prohibit any events in this central piece of public space.

 A street in Belo Horizonte was closed off by architecture collective Micropolis in 2012 to host a public picnic

A street in Belo Horizonte was closed off by architecture collective Micropolis in 2012 to host a public picnic

This imaginative collective transformation has since become emblematic of other ways that people in Belo Horizonte have chosen to occupy public space as a way to protest against local government plans to place restrictions on their use. The weekly event created a meeting place for a continuous open discussion that expresses a growing dissatisfaction with a politics that operates in the interests of big companies and the property market.

Building up over the past five years, these peaceful occupations culminated in last year's summer riots, which originally began in São Paulo and spread across Brazil. The force used against protesters by police became as much headline news as the social and economic issues at the centre of the uprisings. Since then, much of the action in many Brazilian cities has dissipated, with the protest movement largely dismissed by the political elite as a minor infraction on the ongoing attempt to stage the World Cup this year. But in Belo Horizonte, traces of last summer's unrest can still be found in pockets of public space. In turn, this has had wider implications for how an otherwise socially stratified society goes about planning and using the city, adding a more far-reaching political dimension to the existing popular movement, growing to include demands for improved public services and changes to transport infrastructure.

Protesters create a temporary beach in Praça da Estação to campaign against restrictions placed on how the square can be used

Protesters create a temporary beach in Praça da Estação to campaign against restrictions placed on how the square can be used

All of this is highly unlikely activity for a Brazilian city. The notion of the 'public realm' holds much less significance in Brazil than Europe, polarised as it is by economic differences and widespread concerns for safety. Yet in Belo Horizonte, the streets have a certain calmness that is being positively reinforced by the outcomes of last summer's protests. This is an interesting moment for the urban development of the city, a place that many outside of Brazil have never even heard of despite its status as the country's third largest metropolitan region after São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Historically it was famed for its association with the progressive president Juscelino Kubitschek, who in the Forties fostered an unusual partnership with Oscar Niemeyer, allowing the revolutionary architect to use the city as an experimental playground for his early ideas.

Since this golden era of modernist building , Belo Horizonte has unfortunately developed in a similar way to other Latin American cities, dominated by monolithic high-rises and multi-lane highways: another concrete jungle. But it is beneath the roads, and within its few squares created by the mega-structures of urban growth, that a new sense of what actually constitutes public space, and its central importance to the democracy of the city, is being articulated.

 

Carnaval in Belo Horizonte is characterised by theatrical displays that occupy public space in the city

Carnaval in Belo Horizonte is characterised by theatrical displays that occupy public space in the city

On Rua Aarão Reis, under one of the flyovers, a previously derelict space has now become the setting for daily musical events from samba to MC battles, while also hosting public debates on the future of Belo Horizonte's urban development, showing images and film footage from the riots. Among several other self-organised groups that use the spaces established since the protests is Assembléia Popular Horizontal (Popular Horizontal Assembly), which instead of demonstrating against the government and its policies, organises members into 'work teams' to tackle thematic political and social issues, suggesting its own alternative urban policies. The most successful so far is Tarifa Zero, which advocates a free public transport system. Although it has not yet been successful, it has been instrumental in preventing bus prices going up in the city.

Contributing to a growing 'bottom-up' culture, these groups have helped facilitate the unification of a diverse range of voices that are usually ignored by local government, which is a testament to the success of the city as a platform for their activities. The collective organisation of these groups and the theatrical character that the events adopt relate closely to the annual traditions of Carnaval that are particular to Belo Horizonte, where discussions about the production of urban space are frequently incorporated into songs and performances.

The transformation of these spaces through such spectacle plays into a much deeper existing narrative, long established by local architects and architecture students, who are negotiating a new role for themselves within this political culture of urban change. Vitor Lagoeiro, a student from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UMFG), comments that the occupations so far 'are mostly ephemeral and lack a tectonic character', describing the role of architects as 'agents who articulate subversive actions'. As an active participant, he has witnessed how the protests have similarly affected possibilities for architectural practice.

DOBRA architects installed Museu Do Instante, a one-day event in Belo Horizonte’s Praça da Liberdade to display unusual objects

DOBRA architects installed Museu Do Instante, a one-day event in Belo Horizonte's Praça da Liberdade to display unusual objects

Practitioners are now being challenged to formalise this progress into more permanent structures that engage a new political consciousness, capturing the public imagination as seen during the riots with equal vitality. Belo Horizonte is thus proving to be one of the first places in Brazil where it is evident that architectural design can distance itself from serving the wealthy, adopting a more critical view of the city, including the participation of all of the people who live in it to affect change.

Common ownership : espaço Comum Luiz estrela

Discussions regarding the use of public space as a tool for demanding improved public services has been a growing trend in Belo Horizonte, yet what constitutes public space itself and the ways in which it is managed frame a different conversation about political divisions within the city. The Espaço Comum Luiz Estrela, established last October, is one such project that calls for a new approach for operating within the public realm. The newly occupied space, inside an abandoned government building, historically used by the military during the dictatorship and empty for 30 years, has now been adopted as a collectively run cultural centre.

Here a continuous forum of events, meetings and activities are organised by a volunteer force that manages the space collectively. From this type of project, a specific differentiation between the idea of 'common space' and 'public space' is articulated. The former refers to spaces that are organised by the people, for the people, as opposed to 'public space', which in Brazil implies scenarios where spaces are controlled by local government or institutions despite their ready access by the public.

An abandoned building in the centre of Belo Horizonte has been transformed into a cultural centre run by local volunteers, hosting events and debates about the city

An abandoned building in the centre of Belo Horizonte has been transformed into a cultural centre run by local volunteers, hosting events and debates about the city

What is surprising is that the Espaço Comum Luiz Estrela has received unanimous support from all sorts of opposing political groups, from the conservative media to the black bloc protesters, which advocated direct-action tactics during the riots. This is due in part to the accepted lack of public space available in the city and has led the government to sacrifice its ownership, donating the building to the people in recognition of this necessity. Even the street outside the centre is now occupied with a makeshift living room that has been allowed to remain despite it blocking most of the road.

The success of Espaço Comum Luiz Estrela and the autonomy that this project has gained has established a precedent that many believe should encourage the popular movement to begin thinking more physically about how to create permanent changes in the urban environment. By taking on a project that has many architectural tropes, volunteers are being asked to reflect on how the changes they are calling for politically can also be negotiated in spatial terms.

Quintal Eletronika, a one-day event to occupy the street for a picnic, hosted by architecture collective Micropolis

Quintal Eletronika, a one-day event to occupy the street for a picnic, hosted by architecture collective Micropolis

Collective practice : micropolis

Formed by a group of six undergraduate students at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UMFG), Micropolis is an enthusiastic and endlessly optimistic collective that conducts interventions in the public realm, delivered as an extension of the members' education. Micropolis has an extensive knowledge of the social and political actions that determine how the city is used, conducting projects born out of a frustration with how architecture is taught in Brazil. The members describe the group's work as a 'collaborative practice that runs away from the traditional approach of describing a place or a city' and are advocates of self-build methods, learning through the practice of making while engaging the public in innovative performances that encourage people to interact in the most unlikely conditions. Their approach is sociological, teasing out the narrative of how the city is used by its inhabitants, the results of which often manifest themselves in publications as a way of inviting people from outside the discipline to act as accomplices in the production of their work: 'We like to have our ears open to what is around us because we don't want to come up with answers, we want to discover as we go,' they say.

Coarquitetura, a project designed by students of MACh arquitetos at UFMG

Coarquitetura, a project designed by students of MACh arquitetos at UFMG

Their projects have involved Picnic in Transit, where they staged a communal picnic to engage commuters on one of São Paulo's metro lines, and Quintal Elektronika, in which Micropolis united with other local collectives to close a street in Belo Horizonte for a picnic in 2012. Their latest event, Casa Instantanea, created a public living room out of objects brought by people to one of the city's main squares, Praça da Liberdade where the items were exchanged and the stories behind each piece shared.

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Like many other students in Brazil, Micropolis members have benefited from the generous opportunity, funded by the government to study abroad while taking their degrees. They therefore represent a generation of young architects who have been encouraged, by an open and wide education, to think more critically about architectural practice back at home. Remarkably dedicated to the cities where they grew up and studied in, these students are reinterpreting ideas specific to their localities, while incorporating a political dimension to their practice seen on a national scale.

Collaboration : MACh architects

MACh is an architecture practice based in Belo Horizonte, founded by architects Fernando Maculan and Mariza Machado Coelho. Formed with a collaborative ethos, MACh shares its studio (unusually) with two other architecture practices (Vazio S/A and BCMF) as well as a graphic design studio. Together they occupy a small house and extension near Savassi, a district of Belo Horizonte, sharing meeting rooms, the receptionist and even swapping employees.

Maculan believes this is indicative of the way in which architects are moving towards more horizontal structures in Brazil, working in a collective way that reflects a wider shift from 'architectonic objects to the city, from the individual to the collective'. For MACh, however, collaboration has always been central to its work, citing this process as a 'form of continuous learning' that informs both its approach to architectural practice and pedagogical work at the school of architecture UMFG.

The studio specialises in projects of cultural significance, with an interest in the relationship between public and private use. In addition, many commissions have resulted from professional collaborations with people from different fields of artistic creation, where even 'clients, users, engineers and builders can become creative agents'.

Designed by MACh arquitetos, a structure weaved from bamboo provides space for a new cooking school on top of Belo Horizonte’s famous food market

Designed by MACh arquitetos, a structure weaved from bamboo provides space for a new cooking school on top of Belo Horizonte's famous food market

Reflected in MACh's teaching work, this approach helps to foster the idea that architecture is produced through a set of working relationships, constituting a wider dialogue. Coarquitetura, a project with students at UMFG, sought to teach the complexity of architectural design through enacting the building process, with a selection of the students' work being built with funding from a municipal incentive scheme that encourages cultural projects. MACh's philosophy, to teach collaboration as an architectural design tool, plays into more recent local discussions about the 'right to the city', where its vision to see a more participatory system is beginning to find a more permanent voice. Hidden SpaceS : Vazio S/a

Carlos Teixeira's work at architecture practice Vazio S/A has developed from a preoccupation with the possibilities of the latent voids in the city. Vazio (meaning 'void') works on a range of speculative projects that look at the city under construction, focusing on aspects not usually dealt with by architects. Many projects highlight hidden spaces, occupying obscure structures with theatrical performances that relate to its interest in the interaction between the body and the city. This creates an ongoing dialogue with artists to help transform leftover spaces into spectacle, a common theme in its work, which Teixeira says, 'corroborates the idea that the scenic arts and small interventions can be triggers for urban change and resignify urban voids'. The practice's attempts to draw attention to such spaces can be seen in works such as Topographical Amnesias, where the amazing structural framework built to elevate houses on the hills of Belo Horizonte above a four-storey limit imposed by the authorities, became occupied by performances.

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Another of Vazio's proposals is to uncover the city's river that has slowly disappeared beneath highways. With such scarcity of public space, Vazio seeks to reimagine the infrastructure of the city on an urban scale for the purpose of leisure, which would in turn attract more people to the depressed city centre. Such projects also negotiate the psychology of the city, exposing new ways of engaging with lost spaces. This demonstrates a dedication by the practice to the city's history and the structures that make it both the megalopolis that it will surely become, and the potentially exciting place that this will be.

Cultural economy : DOBRA architects

Parallel to the increasing occupation of public space, many institutions and the local government have begun to promote events in the city through an incentive scheme, in which big companies financially support cultural projects in place of paying some taxes. Despite this backing, often the projects manage to retain quite critical views, such as the latest event to take place in Praça da Liberdade, designed by the young architecture practice DOBRA (meaning 'fold'). Its project Museu do Instante proposed occupying the square with everyday objects and events that constituted an alternative type of cultural expression. Its intervention was a comment on the contemporary museum as a closed, privileged space: 'We wanted to show that spontaneous ways to occupy the streets are just as much "cultural" -- and perhaps more political -- as those that take place inside museums.'

Staged events attracted new visitors to Praça da Liberdade for DOBRA’s installation

Staged events attracted new visitors to Praça da Liberdade for DOBRA's installation

DOBRA filled the square with activities aimed at uniting different points of view across the city to promote a new experience of the public realm, if only just for a day. These experiences, it believes, reinforce the idea that public space should be used as a place for leisure, alongside all the recent political activism, to achieve real urban improvements. In doing so, DOBRA fulfilled the brief to broaden the demographic of visitors to the museum while also expanding the purpose of the institution itself. It also collaborated on this project with other groups engaged in cultural projects across Belo Horizonte to make the project 'richer and and closer to what happens all over the city'.

As a result it brought together a new generation of architects who are seeking a more critical and purposeful attitude to the production of architecture, finding ways to do so through both conventional and atypical means.





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