a city

under the


This set of questions was drafted by Alejandro de Castro Mazarro, who, along with Francisco Diaz, led Capital of Rio de Janeiro’s Built Form workshop. It was sent to all the participants on August 26, 2013, a week after their final review. Selected responses from Leah Guszkowski, Michael Schissel. Alejandro Stein, and Zhewu (Alan) Zhuang.

AdCM: Is it ­necessary to be in Rio to conduct this workshop?

LG: This is not an easy question to answer. I think in order to run any GSAPP workshops the location is essential in motivating the passion that drives brainstorming. When Alejandro and Francisco chose Rio, I think they were looking at the current cultural shift in Brazil in general, and Rio is just where Studio X is located. If either of them had their way, however, I think we would have been in São Paulo (neither of them bothered to hide their adoration of the never-ending city). I personally prefer Rio, and I am also of the opinion that the results of this project were more interesting than if they had been located in the economically driven São Paulo.

MS: At this particular historical moment, yes. And at any point, it’s good to throw yourself into an unfamiliar environment to work. You can do all the research you want from a computer, but the effect of moving through the very environment under consideration colors the entire approach to the project. It gets you closer to the work – you can’t make too many assumptions about the nature of your site when it is right in front of you and you have to walk through it to get back to your bed at the end of the day.

AdCM: What does Rio add to the workshop?

LG: Rio added a lot of playfulness. It is a laidback city that knows how to work hard, but party harder. Cariocas have a reputation for this in all of Brazil. In 2013 Rio is in a position where it might actually be taken seriously internationally, and I´m not entirely sure if it wants to be. This crisis of identity is what made Rio really interesting to explore. Our project intended to explore three states of capital: physical, economic and social. Given the identity crisis, Rio is really at odds with itself about which of these is the most important, and therefore the balance is all out of whack.

AS: Rio is in a unique moment of development due to two major events coming in the near future: The 2014 FIFA World Cup (in multiple Brazilian cities) and the Rio 2016 Olympics. This abnormal situation allows for speculative proposals that can take advantage of the investment going into different areas of development.

MS: Rio is a particularly pertinent site for an inquiry into capital and development. The coming of the World Cup next year and the Olympics in 2016 is fueling a fury of development in the city. The history of “Mega Games” development and its impact on cities, particularly the already marginalized populations, is sordid at best. The Rio municipal government is forcibly relocating sectors of the population and seizing property using eminent domain. A city under the knife is a pretty great place to look at how cities are made, and to try and sort out a better possible method for their evolution. On top of this, the topography of the city, among other things, has helped to create and maintain a close spatial proximity between dramatically separated economic classes.

There is a palpable intensity in the city that seems to arise from this. I did not sense this as clearly in São Paulo, where the favelas are pushed far to the periphery, leaving a much wealthier core.

AdCM: Would you say that you performed research during the workshop?

LG: Depends what you mean by research.

AS: Yes, but this may have been a mistake.

MS: Yes.

ZZ: Yes, but not deeply because of the time limit, language barrier and unreliable Internet access.

AdCM: If so, what kind of research would you say you did?

LG: Informal and non-intentional research.

AS: I tried to inform myself about the current situation.

and development of a specific favela (Rocinha) that was in close proximity to my site. I found it to be impossible to get a decent grasp of the complexity of their situation in two weeks and with only “Internet based" research. Any actual proposal based on that would have been very uninformative and top-down. In my particular case, the specificities of the research only led to dead ends, so I could only use them as background information for a broader speculation.

MS: Some of your standard, first-pass googling, of course. But living for two weeks in the place you are “researching” is its own form of research. You can’t look it up. I fell in love with an architect that I had only recently discovered in history shortly before the workshop began. I went back to visit some of her buildings three times. I also worked on my grasp of Portuguese.

AdCM: How did the readings add value (if they did) to the design process?

LG: The readings added value to the design process by forcing us to continue to pull all-nighters like usual.

But actually, they were a really great way of regrouping every day and having new experiences from a common perspective, since we were a mixed group of planners and architects. I actually wish this would be more common in our semester-long studios. The readings were not only contained within the discussions we had each morning; the content would frequently come up in conversations even after we had a few beers. These conversations definitely permeated my design process in unexpected ways.

MS: The readings were exquisitely curated. They introduced to us the basics of “zero-sum” economic theory in history and the subsequent expansion of economic modeling and its application to critical social theory, energy and resource politics, and urbanism. The game that was proposed for play was complicated. I think it took a long time for everybody to wrap their heads around the implications bound up in the rules of the game. The readings provided a really great road map. The daily discussions were always interesting and took place at remarkable architectural sites. This created an inevitable relationship between the spaces and history of the city and the theory being discussed.

ZZ: They definitely added a lot of value. Our workshop is based on the theory put forth by the readings. They acted as the rules of a game and we played our design/planning within the rules.

AdCM: Would you say that the workshop questioned the “business as usual” way to do architecture/planning? If so, in what sense and how? If not, what is the "business as usual" way of proceeding in architecture/planning projects?

AS: Playing the game in which there had to be a clear loser forced us to consider things or make decisions that we wouldn't think of under "normal" conditions. We usually work under some loose conception of an "everyone wins" ideal outcome. In this case, making sure someone is really loosing helps in making more drastic or "out of the box" decisions. I'm not sure if this is necessarily different from the professional "business as usual" way to do a project, but I noticed some of us struggled with having a real loser in the game.

MS: Yes, absolutely. I think the implicit argument of the Capital game we were presented was that somebody always has to lose, that the accumulation of capital is not cyclical, but historically unidirectional. If you broaden your view of the making of architecture and the planning of cities to accept the limits of a finite playing field, i.e. a finite resource pool, then you start identifying the hidden losers in glossy advertisements for “socially responsible” mega developments and hyper-paced urban makeovers. The workshop asked us to interrogate the processes of urban development in terms of capital and then try to discern what unintended consequences might be integral to those processes.

AdCM: What type of architecture/planning profession is the workshop advocating for? Does such profession exist? If so, where? Do you like that profession?

LG: This workshop definitely advocates that the two professions consider each other, that it is impossible to separate the two. Interestingly, in Brazil these professions are taught in the same program.

AS: It is advocating for a broader profession that doesn't deal solely with specificities of the built environment, one that can formulate strategies and interventions that aren't necessarily physical in nature. The profession must become more versatile and expand into other fields. Side note: In several universities in South America, students go through a six-year program and graduate with a title of "Architect and Urbanist." It is not a coincidence to find programs like these in areas of the world that have some of the largest projected urban growth in the next 50 years. It is not necessarily the solution, but perhaps a step towards a more versatile profession.

MS: While critical of the system in play, the workshop advocated pragmatism by acknowledging the crucial functionality of capitalism in the day-to-day operation of the world. You can’t just pull the plug, but you have to be critical of the given rules of operation. I like this as a profession very much; it is critical while optimistic. This sort of profession exists in universities, but we need to find a way to pull it deeper into the practice of architecture.

ZZ: From my perspective, the workshop advocates for the concept of zero-sum development. There must be losers and winners. The question is then how to measure transformation. There is no universally acknowledged way to measure social and cultural capitals. I like the idea and believe this is a critical issue.

AdCM: How do you see the difference between quantitative and qualitative ways to measure social and natural facts?

LG: In general, people are more likely to accept quantitative measurements than qualitative.

MS: The former relies on the unassailability of scientific methods and standards in our culture to produce truths while the latter engages the world on more nuanced terms to produce understanding. I’m pretty sure that’s not the answer you’re looking for.

ZZ: Qualitative ways are ideas or arguments. Qualitative ways are tangible and easy to communicate with other fields.

AdCM: What would you say the workshop was about?

LG: Overall, I think this workshop was an experiment in teaching. But for me specifically, an excuse to move to Rio.

AS: The workshop was about not being architects or planners as we are used to, but applying the systematic thinking that we learn in school elsewhere. It was interesting to design a strategy rather than an object.

MS: The city.

Image from Alejandro Stein