Staking a Claim in the City Center

Livia Alexander
February 23, 2018

With photos by José Pelegrini

Towards the end of a long day of a walking tour of São Paulo with an international group of prominent architects visiting the city with the Van Alen Institute[1] to explore issues of density with civic leaders and socially-minded organizations, we walked into Teatro Oficina. Designed by the legendary Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi in the 1980s, it is striking in its unusual set up, blending street architectural vernacular of the samba procession with the theatricality of indoor spectatorship. Captivating in its elongated path/stage, it is surrounded by towering vertical three-story stadium seating. The inside space and the outdoor seamlessly blend, with an impressive retractable glass rooftop providing natural light, and a massive tree at the center of a garden that protrudes from the inside out as if sticking out its neck for fresh air and the warmth of the sun.

There is perhaps no more apt allegory than the Teatro Oficina building to embody the state of affairs in São Paulo today. Operating with minimal funding, it is threatened by the tidal wave of capital and the development of an adjacent vacant lot into a massive shopping mall that, if built, will cast a dark shadow over its current charm. An alternative space of cultural production and leftist ideals of justice and equality, the theater has served since its inception as an important meeting place for leading Brazilian artists and activists such as José Celso Martinez Corrêa. Activists are organizing to lobby against the mall and proposed out-of-character architecture. Instead, they are advocating for the city of São Paulo, who partially owns the land with SBT broadcast corporation and business tycoon Silvio Santos, to create a public park and green space.

For Friso van der Steen, Director of International Projects at the Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo and a member of the Van Alen International Council, one of the most surprising aspects of the visit to São Paulo is finding out that even public parks in the city are in private hands. Private control over the few remaining green spaces in the city sparked a heated debate a couple of years ago when Syrela and Setin, the two companies who own Park Augusta in the heart of downtown São Paulo, sought to convert it into a luxury apartment complex. In many ways, the struggle is not merely about defending the park as a public good and preserving the few remaining green lungs in an over-crowded metropolis, but also about the right of citizens to have access to public spaces in which they can congregate for political demonstrations as needed. The public commons, where people can come together and engage, is clearly shrinking.

Earlier that day, we watched our step as we climbed to the second floor of a non-descript apartment building in downtown São Paulo. Dilapidated and crumbling, Ocupação Sete de Abril (formerly known as Santa Leonor) is now home to one of the occupation movement sites, where longtime residents and the city’s poor are populating long abandoned apartment buildings as part of a fight for the right for housing and economic access in the midst of accelerated gentrification and a real estate development rush. Like Teatro Oficina, it too belies a great roar and battle cry at the heart of Brazilian contemporary life. “Resistance! São Paolo’s Homeless Seize the City,” decries a Guardian headline in a recent review. The ephemera on the walls provide important evidence of the movement’s arsenal of mobilizing tools – information sessions, community workshops, house rules to maintain a safe environment for all residents, etc. This type of self-organizing by activists does not allow for the question of economic access and dignity to disappear from Brazil’s collective landscape, persistently marking its presence and ongoing urgency against steadily rising housing costs.

Sadly, it’s a familiar urban story in the age of global neo-liberalism and the widening economic abyss between the fewer have (lots) and have nots. It is also a tale of the stubborn persistence of racial discrimination in the Americas. Against the visible signs of street demonstrations, media outcry and parliamentary political maneuvers, a parallel struggle is staged inside these “private”, domestic spaces. For Paula Querido van Erven, a community organizer with and a contributor to ArtsEverywhere, the apartment recently rented by the group and developed into a community “museum” serves as a means of raising discussions on resiliency and economic dignity. “It opens up a little gap within this not so comfortable modernist structure” van Erven tells me, “to designate new uses for such private spaces, to allow for discussions to take place elsewhere, for residents to meet one another, for ideas to flow internally.” Unlike the bar at the foot of the apartment complex at Rua Paim from which the group initially started its activities, this space, she points out, is primarily frequented and used by women.

The complex on Rua Paim at ground level.

A few days later, at a lunch hosted by, the organization that orchestrated the day long walking tour of São Paulo, I met Kadija de Paula and Pipa Ambrogi. Over a sumptuous meal, they shared with us a taste (no pun intended) of their upcoming collaboration, using the organizational platform at the heart of this modernist low-income two building complex towering over a narrow dead-end alleyway to engage its residents in collaborative food planning and preparation as a form of economic empowerment. Known as a vertical favela, it too is seeing its share of pressures on its long-time residents to leave in the face of rising costs and real estate development in downtown São Paulo. The narrow alleyway, once seen as a threatening inaccessible space of gang violence, now carries the potential for hospitality and protection of another kind — a public/private space where a community can come together to stake a claim to stay.

[1] The Van Alen International Council is a nonprofit platform for exchange among leading architects, designers, developers, and planners, representing practices across more than 26 cities and 15 countries. Members meet twice annually to identify and investigate issues facing cities around the world, and to guide the impact of the Van Alen’s public programming, research, and design competitions.

Livia Alexander

Livia Alexander

Livia Alexander is a curator, writer, and Chair of the Department of Art and Design at Montclair State University. Her work is focused on examining the relationship between art infrastructure and artistic production, urbanity, cultural politics of food and art, and contemporary art from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. She has curated and produced numerous art and film programs, exhibitions and events, showcased at the MoMA New York, Tate Modern, Sharjah Art Foundation, Queens Museum, The Film Society of Lincoln Center, Cinematheque Tangier, and many more. Alexander is co-producer of the research-based interactive documentary, Jerusalem, We Are Here (Canada/Palestine/Israel, 2016), directed by Dorit Naaman. Her award- winning scholarly writing has appeared in the Journal of Visual Anthropology, Framework, MERIP, and as book chapters and catalog essays. She regularly contributes to Hyeprallergic and Harpers Bazaar Art Arabia and founded the online publication ArteEast Quarterly. She is the editor of a year-long series commissioned by the online platform with Residency Unlimited, centered on artist residencies at the nexus of urban placemaking and social practice.

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