Daniela Sandler explores activism in urban reinvention

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Despite boasting the wide, tree-lined streets of the Jardim America and Jardim Paulista neighborhoods, São Paulo is also home to countless dilapidated tenement buildings, or cortiços, that have the chance to serve as incubators for creative urban interventions. Despite boasting the wide, tree-lined streets of the Jardim America and Jardim Paulista neighborhoods, São Paulo is also home to countless dilapidated tenement buildings, or cortiços, that have the chance to serve as incubators for creative urban interventions.

For many, Brazil conjures images of rain forests, samba dancers, and favelas. It’s also the host country for this year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. A great deal of news coverage has detailed both the construction that has gone into preparations for these global sporting events as well as resulting public demonstrations demanding stronger social infrastructure for residents. This global attention, combined with Brazil’s mix of rural Amazon villages and densely populated cities like São Paulo, makes the country an interesting laboratory in which to re-imagine public space and examine the role it plays in our political and social interactions.

In response to these issues and their global relevance, the UVA School of Architecture is hosting a public talk on April 14 entitled “Empty Space: Popular Demonstrations and Architecture in São Paulo” with Daniela Sandler, a visiting assistant professor of art history, theory, and criticism from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Sandler studied architecture and urbanism at the University of São Paulo and her work often focuses on space- and place-based social inequalities. Her presentation will address urban activism in Brazil but will also draw on work by philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre and social scholar Michel de Certeau, as well as the Occupy movement in the United States and recent protests in Turkey.

Responsible for some of the most popular explorations of contemporary public space, de Certeau and Lefebvre both emphasize the role of the individual in re-imagining and activating public space. They argue that, whether conscious or unconscious, public space is defined through our navigation of everyday routines, including the routes we take to work or even the way we flip through a weekly newspaper such as this. In de Certeau’s book The Practice of Everyday Life, he proposes that something as simple as walking in the city can be a political action—if we let it.

Opting to take a shortcut through a public park rather than following the sidewalk can be a tactical and political response to institutional definitions of place. Curious? Try walking under rather than over the Belmont Bridge and you’ll get a glimpse of what he means. This subtle deviation can change your experience of the bridge and open up a variety of new ways to re-imagine this point of transition.

São Paulo’s Prestes Maia building is a great example. Long abandoned, by the early 2000s the Prestes Maia building had become one of the world’s largest squats, housing an estimated 2,000 people. In 2003, more than 100 artists led an occupation of the building to transform the space into a living artwork that simultaneously acted to bring public awareness to the plight of its occupants. Following mass evictions by the government in 2006, the building has since remained sealed by cinder blocks.

This site demonstrates the potential that lies in re-imagining a space that was originally defined by an outside institution for a different use. Though impermanent, a new social awareness and community engagement became possible when the everyday experience of Prestes Maia was actively reconsidered. A more general example of this is the popular practice of redeveloping warehouse and manufacturing zones into arts and culture districts in the United States and Europe.

According to de Certeau, small actions offer resistance to the increasing prevalence of private space and encourage everyone to become a producer of their own individually lived reality rather than a consumer of the institutionalized norm. By liberating spaces through creative re-use as political occupation, we subvert the rituals defined by institutions in order to contribute to a more public and democratic environment.

Likewise, Lefebvre encouraged people to understand and revolutionize their everyday life through changes in patterns. Space is a means of power and control, defining where you can go and what you can do in the public sphere. Deviating from these definitions can provide a rupture point in which the public can re-imagine everything from mainstream social hierarchy and definitions of citizenship to public safety and the accessibility of public transportation.

Lefebvre’s idea of the “right to the city” influenced the Brazilian federal legislature’s 2001 city statute, which works to protect social uses of public spaces over commercial uses and to integrate participatory management into city planning efforts throughout the country. In practice, the city statute has, among other things, helped São Paulo become a petri dish of sorts for urban reinvention—an interesting perspective to apply to local projects like the Landmark Hotel on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.

To encourage further exploration of these ideas on a local level, Sandler will share her experiences from São Paulo and share in-depth studies of similar projects to re-imagine public space and interactions.

What public space in Charlottesville would you like to re-imagine? Tell us in the comments section below.

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