on the slab, our architecture under construction

Ligia Nobre and Kazuo Nakano

Paola Salerno, São Paulo: between utopia and dream, 2006 (São Paulo S.A./exo)

The place speaks for itself

In O lugar fala por ele mesmo (The place speaks for itself, 2006), a film by Italian artist Paola Salerno, in a one shot sequence-plan of approximately twenty minutes, on the top of the hill of one of the largest graveyards in São Paulo in the neighborhood of Jardim São Luiz, located in the city’s southern area, we identify from a distance the imbricate territories of the 1980s’ housing projects and recent slum quarters. Gray skies, mounts of red earth, yellow and white flowers in the lawn. By-passers stroll in slow, tired steps, stunned. Hugs are exchanged and hands-in-hands are matched. We see children running and flying kites. In juxtaposition, we hear the voices of three bros’ talking about the future of the youth, of the social movements, the daily narratives of their families and the many violent deaths in their lives. These are biographical and social times which no longer correspond to the progress promises of the times when their parents (or grandparents) had arrived in São Paulo. These are generations whose experiences of the city and its accesses are completely distinct, and have the challenge of building new fields of potentialities. With her movie camera Paola Salerno stands at a distance from the youngsters and in the dialogue that follows between them about their daily lives, family ties and dwellings, the concrete slab is a constant semantic and spatial reference. The slab - a horizontal surface of armored concrete of small dimensions - is spread out in the territories of vast extensions of popular “autoconstruction” dwellings, with direct implications upon the constitution and living experiences of the metropolis of São Paulo:

"... he stayed in my veranda and… my mother’s room has a bit of a slab, he went up through there, like went up to the roofing tile of the woman and escaped… Bro’, his tennis shoes were full of blood, like they left stains because it seems that he was shot in the leg and it was like the print of the sole of the tennis shoe was left all over the yard... but my aunt who lives next door was on her slab looking at him, she said like as he knew that crazy guy, that he lived on the back street, like he jumped from the roofing tile of the woman, he went there to talk to the guy, called him, then like, he gave him the car and he never came back… He was armed, my aunt said that she saw, she saw like when he entered by the slab of her house… On that day bro’, oh… not for me but for my brother, ‘cause, dude, it was oh bro’…"

Between 2004 and 2006, Paola Salerno lived on and off in São Paulo to take part of the project São Paulo S.A. invited by EXO experimental org., a non-profit cultural platform created and directed by Ligia Nobre and Cécile Zoonens in São Paulo from 2002 to 2007. EXO’s proposal was to problematize the insertions, dynamics and representations of the contemporary metropolis and its inhabitants. The work The place speaks for itself is part of the broader project by Salerno São Paulo: between utopia and dream (2004 - 2007), which articulates a series of images and videos focusing on possible narratives, multiple scales and experiences of São Paulo’s “urban condition”, connecting micro-phenomenologies with macro social and political processes. Segments of images that articulate trajectories through the metropolis cross three main temporal-territorial situations: the historical center (1950s and 1960s); the horizontal condominiums on the west suburbs (which had appeared in the 1970s and multiplied in the 1990s, supported by the speeches on violence, on fear and social status); and the “peripheral urbanization” of Jardim São Luiz in the southern area. These series of images and voices are capable of tracing connections between the spaces, territories, social networks and the biographical and political times of the city. The place speaks for itself places us as spectators in the threshold of the “encounter between others”[1], questioning us about the (im)possibility of aesthetical practices and contemporary politics.

São Paulo S.A.

We are aware that the 1950s/60s had been marked by the developmentalism, industrialization and modernization of the Brazilian peripheral capitalism and by the demographic explosion and unprecedented urban expansion in the country. Throughout these decades, São Paulo became the political, cultural and economic epicenter of Brazil and an example of the symptomatic world-wide phenomenon of great metropolises. São Paulo’s landscape had gone through fast and intense transformations, and current times seem to mark a new moment of inflection still with few foreseeable unfoldings. The city’s innumerous territories are marked by inequalities between the low and high income groups, each with distinct access to urban spaces, resources and public infrastructure, according to one’s social-territorial location. However, the borders are tenuous and porous between the territories and material expressions of the so-called ‘global city' and the places of the ‘excluded’ and ‘poor people’. There is a social net yet to be known which escapes from dual categories and models. The place [Jardim São Luiz] speaks for itself and points out to some of these socio-territorial situations at the boundaries between a Fordist industrial site, an acclaimed “global city” of recent times (Avenida Berrini and Marginal Pinheiros) and slum quarters constituted on the leftover areas.

In the 1970s/80s, São Paulo was the crucial scenario in the organization of the social and political movements which contributed to the long process of “re-democratization” of the Brazilian society. An old settling and one of the most important industrial poles of the “Fordist city”, district Jardim São Luiz did stand out by the prominent presence of the social movements of its time, which came to the public sphere articulated with the actions taken by labor unions, labor workers performances, large strikes with the supporting presence of the ecclesiastical base communities (CEBs) of the Catholic Church. The neighborhood began to grow on this period of abundance of industrial jobs and of dissemination of the idea of becoming a house owner, an idea that stemmed from precarious and informal urban settlements. As anthropologist James Houston highlights: “the illegality and the improvisation has been characteristic of the way urban population of low income has been creating spaces to occupy Brazilian cities, as well as for most of the cities of the Third World” [2]. In the 1980s, it was exactly through the temporality of the household zoning of life, in its fights for housing, for infrastructure and other aspects, i.e. for the “right to the city”, that a new formulation of citizenship began its constituency. In a long lasting regimen that is built within the intersection between legal and illegal, public and private, the social urban movements have been playing today an essential role in the creation of a new conception of “urban citizenship” [3].

In the last decade, the peripheries changed a lot, and they no longer correspond to the images of rarefied occupation and desolation of thirty years ago. There are completely new territorial configurations, with large private investments, such as supermarkets and shopping malls, as well as public facilities, such as hospitals, the Centers for Unified Education (CEU) built by São Paulo city hall and the FDEs state government schools. Specifically, Jardim São Luiz became one of the largest concentrations of slums in the city, under the impact of the proximity to the wealthy and claimed “globalized” territory of the city of São Paulo: the place where the flows of wealth and poverty become tangential to each other time after time, whether in the existing spaces for consumption, in the mixing of regular with irregular of which the territories are made of, and in the subcontracting and underpaid jobs, or even in the precarious access to housing. In the clash between ownership and illegal occupancy, the violence of the land conflicts irrupts in these extreme areas of the city [4]. In the “acting out urbanizations” of the peripheries of the southern or of the extreme eastern areas, the types of dwellings and their location in the urban fabric - with intrinsic variations of mobility and access – imply completely distinct possibilities and outcomes of life for its inhabitants.

It’s within these territorializing patterns of popular “autoconstruction” dwellings - the clandestine settlement, the urban land occupation or the slums in their final consolidated stages - that we find a common denominator: the concrete slab. The slab as a constructive component is used as a roof for the constructions, which also generate small plateaus of an artificial topography used in various ways. The production of the slab is intrinsic to the mode of production of the informal city: starting with the irregular access to urban land and consolidating with a peculiar way of building the houses gradually and adjusted to the topographic profile, according to the variations of family cycles and setting up of social micro-territories.

Access to the land

Although the land occupations and slum quarters bear manifold similarities to the ones of the clandestine settlements, the procedures and strategies of access to the land are quite distinct from one another. Clandestine settlements have been the main alternative access to land for the low income population in the peripheries of the metropolis of São Paulo. Due to its structuring role and importance to the Brazilian urbanization, such issue has been thoroughly studied by experts and researchers like Ermínia Maricato, Nabil Bonduki, Raquel Rolnik, Suzana Pasternak, among others.

The informal processes of production of urban lands for “autoconstruction” dwellings define territories with intense use and occupation as well as higher and higher built and demographic densities. Although these territories present different levels of precariousness and are located at large distances from the more consolidated areas of the city -with better services, facilities, infrastructures and jobs- there is an increasing demand for these urban areas occupied by the low income populations. Without alternatives, these groups use the illegal channels with informal processes of purchasing and selling of lots, construction of their houses and generate micro-economies in the original quarters of informal settlements.

The slow and long-term production and transformation process of the territorial areas of big cities, known as “peripheral pattern of urbanization”, modeled after the informal, segregated and precarious settlements, occupied by “autoconstruction” dwellings, discloses the back cover of developmentalism in effect, mainly, during the 1950s and 1970s, supported by the ideology of progress spread out by the image of Brazil as the “country of the future” and of São Paulo as “the country’s locomotive”. Access to urban land is a joint family effort usually encompassing several years of hard work and financial investment, the main purpose being the construction of their home. Since there is no national social security system to protect those families, owning a house becomes, even on an unofficial basis, a minimum guarantee for the coming years, assets that can be disposed of in emergency situations. It is precisely that guarantee that explains the efforts the family made over so many years. In this context, workers become “agents of the peripheral urbanization of the city” [5]. In the 1980s, the economic crisis and societal changes in Brazil as well as all over Latin America - parallel to the re-democratization and political opening process - the “dream of home ownership” melted down with the impoverishment of all social groups causing a large increase in numbers of people living in slums in São Paulo, whether built on public or private areas.

Houses built gradually

The gradual construction of the house is carried out by the inhabitants themselves, with the help of friends, neighbors, relatives and informally hired bricklayers, which process is similar to the families’ life cycles. Henceforth, the slabs’ construction and uses follow these cycles as areas for verandas, spared for new rooms, and places for collective sharing interconnecting domestic and urban dimensions.

It is about a family achievement that demands many years of work and financial investments. As a political and household dispositif, the slab is also a “sign of what’s yet to come”. It serves as support for expansions that might shelter families of the newlywed, children or relatives from out-of-town. Or it might even be sold or rented, emerging as a complementary income for its owners. All these activities in course in the peripheries of the metropolis and have given rise to increasingly denser housing and population patterns, which in turn generate other cycles of urban informality. The evidence of such process is visible in the emergence of multiple-storey houses.

Mutirões are orderly translations of those informal processes of “autoconstruction” within the scope of public policies and of popular movements in advocacy for housing. They can be considered as one of the most significant political unfolding of social movements emerged in the big cities of Brazil. As pointed out by architect Pedro Arantes, experiences of Mutirões carried through in the beginning of the 1990s and again in the 2000s in the city of São Paulo point out the political, social and economic dimensions based in collective values of the construction processes of popular dwellings [6]. The thoroughness of this collective dimension in the housing provision is yet to be accomplished. It would be interesting to analyze how the slab is, eventually, worked out in these housing projects carried out at Mutirões. Are they treated as an architectural and constructive dispositif whose meanings surpass the mere function of covering the building? Future analyses shall be able to answer this question in an adequate way.

The setting up of micro-territories

In the house, the slab is composed of simple constructive systems. In general it is covered with roof tiles, supported by small beams of concrete, and its permanent features comprise water reservoirs, asbestos roofing tiles, satellite dish aerials, clothesline with drying clothes among others things. The access to the slab is generally through narrow ladders, ‘controlled' or not by their respective house dwellers. Its multiple uses are composed by sociability, hospitalities, reciprocal help, and exchanges of experiences and of information, acquaintanceship.

The slab’s usefulness reaches its peak on weekends. On these occasions the slab turns into the place for family gatherings, visiting neighbors and friends, for the famous barbecue served with lots of beer. It substitutes the old backyards eliminated by the increase in density of these very settlements. The slabs are also represented in the samba, in rap and hip hop. On the slab, people listen to music, play domino, play cards and even soccer. They celebrate birthdays and marriages, or on New Year’s Eve watch the fireworks. Children fly kites, dogs play around, women chat, adolescents date. Active and passive contacts are established, encompassing looks, smells, sounds and bodies. In these houses with few and narrow openings, the slabs are “large open areas”, offering not only a view of the horizon but also room for urban negotiations. The slab is also omnipresent in the collective imaginary, appearing in samba, funk, and in rap lyrics of the hip hop movement, in everyday language, in daily life.

In the extreme case of drug trafficking, these concrete slabs with a privileged broad view of the territory, are occupied, establishing an almost absolute surveillance regime on the streets as well as a definition of closed territories. In this case, negotiations are shortened by authoritarian impositions which draw other diagrams of power relations. From “surface of sociability” to “surface of control and watch” [7], the slabs place themselves as architectural “quasi-objects” engaging the complex tangle of economic, legal, cultural and environmental relations in the metropolis.

On the slab

The slabs with their multiple dimensions and ambivalences pose us questions such as: which architectures and societies do we want to build for ourselves? Which “signs of what is yet to come” do we want to activate in our daily practices towards the future? The slabs configure open fields to infinite possibilities for shared narratives. In the fragment of dialogue featured in Paola Salerno’s film, the slab bears the narrative of the escape of a wounded man who leaves behind footprints of blood under the astonished look of a woman. The slabs configure a continuous and ongoing unfinished condition of these landscapes. They are potential fields for hosting heterogeneous kinds of narratives with creations or destructions of life and social fabrics. It is our responsibility to foster creative narratives on the big metropolitan slab.

* Translation (Portuguese-English): Marcus Sodré
A version of this text was originally published in Livro para Ler, 10 anos de Capacete, by Editora Associação Capacete Ltda., Rio de Janeiro, 2008.

A first version of on the slab was presented at the Architectural Association School of Architecture - Conference Intimate Metropolis (2003). On the slab last version was originally published in Livro para Ler, 10 anos de Capacete / Reading Book, the Capacete 10 years, by Editora Associação Capacete Ltda., Rio de Janeiro, 2008 and in SLUMLAB Newspaper, Fall 2009, U-TT GSAPP Columbia University

[1] “Encontro entre outros”: João Moreira Salles in Entrevista (Interview), in Sexta-Feira Magazine, São Paulo, Editora 34, 2006.

[2] Holston, James. Insurgent Citizenship, Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2008. p. 313.

[3] Caldeira, Teresa and Holston, James. Estado e espaço urbano no Brasil: do planejamento modernista às intervenções democráticas. In Avritzer, Leonardo (org.) A participação em São Paulo. São Paulo, UNESP, 2004.

[4] Telles, Vera da Silva and Cabanes, Robert. Nas tramas da cidade: trajetórias urbanas e seus territórios. São Paulo, Humanitas, 2006.

[5] Ibidem, Caldeira, Teresa and Holston, James (2004).

[6] See Arantes, Pedro Fiori. Reinventing the Building Site. In Andreoli, Elisabetta & Forty, Adrian (editors) Brazil Modern Architecture. London, Phaidon Press, 2004. Arantes, Pedro Fiori. Arquitetura Nova: Sergio Ferro, Flávio Império e Rodrigo Lefèvre. São Paulo, Editora 34, 2002.

[7] Thanks to Luciana Itikawa for her generous comments.