Article by Laura Sobral
This article was originally published in the Transnational Dialogues 2014 Journal.
For many years, those who thought about the city were not the ones actually involved in making it – two different, hierarchically distinct groups. The distance was such that those who thought the city no longer felt able to make it; and those making it, did so in an automatic fashion, without adding thought to what they were doing.
In São Paulo, Brazil, the discrepancy between project and performance reached such a level that the direct intervention on the city is gaining more and more adepts in the past few years. The act of making in public provokes a rupture on the daily life of citizens, thus leading to a reflection on the situation exposed by the action. If such making takes place on a regular basis and produces immediate solutions, it bears the potential to become a self-generated collective action, that is to say, something that spontaneously aggregates people, considering that the prototyping of urban solutions brings quick and visible improvements to the space.
Based on these findings, on January 2014, I decided to make a regular, performative occupation of the Largo da Batata, in São Paulo.
The Largo da Batata is a square located in the expanded center of the city, which has been through a re-urbanization process over the last ten years – a slow and expensive work whose results are devoid of urban quality. On 2013, this arid space was inaugurated, lacking the shade of trees and street furniture, making a clear statement of its role as a contemporary public space: an area intended for crossing, not for living, just as many other spaces in São Paulo. My goal was to transform part of it in a living space, by using methods of what the Brazilians call ‘gambiarra.’ It consists in transforming what you have in hand into what you need, i.e., to improvise with what is within reach. It has something to do with hacking, in the sense that the consumer’s passive role is counterposed, suggesting the production of new solutions based on the knowledge that already exists. Within this logic, every Friday late in the afternoon, me and whomever else was up to occupy the Largo used to take some street furniture and propose cultural activities there, thus generating a comfort space amidst that desert. The action ended up attracting local dwellers, regular goers of the surrounding areas, and also those who identified themselves with this cause. The group grew up and became a movement. Nowadays, people interested in conducting cultural activities there must enroll in an online sheet open for all, and we have already built street furniture there, where one can find wood benches made by us and other items donated to the space by sympathizers of the movement. It has now been nine months since we first occupied the Largo da Batata, and the changes to its dynamics are palpable – how ‘a space that is nothing can be everything.’ The potential of occupation of that space was evidenced, and we keep on fomenting the yet incipient culture of living the city from its outside. By recording and systematizing this urban intervention, our aim is to inspire people to occupy other public spaces on the city.
Laura Sobral has studied architecture and urban planning. She now works with cultural projects mainly about mobility (non-motorized transport) and democratization of literature. She is a participant in Transnational Dialogues 2014.