Sailing the Islands of São Paulo
Sailing the Islands of São Paulo was an enquiry into São Paulo's fragmented urban space through an on-foot exploration. The project aimed at revealing unseen lines of fracture or tension in the continuity of the urban matter. The exploration took place in the context of the 10th São Paulo Architecture Biennale in November 2013.
The 10th São Paulo Architecture Biennale proposed a reflection on the making and using of the contemporary city. Arquipélagos Urbanos invited all those interested to approach the city through the practice of walking as a tool to discover and reflect on urban transformations. Experiences such as the Transurbance practised by the Stalker collective in the marginal spaces of Italian cities show that when the urban space is confronted on foot, cities reveal themselves as uncharted and unpredictable territories. “Walking conditioned sight, and sight conditioned walking, till it seemed only the feet could see,” wrote land artist Robert Smithson while exploring the Yucatan in 1969. Indeed, through the practice of walking humans explore and shape territory at the same time. In the 1980s Swiss sociologist Lucius Burckhardt with Annemarie Wackernagel coined the term Strollology for a method to tackle the urban space and identify its intimate aesthetics through aimless wandering. The beauty of the place thus appears in its more specific features, both spectacular and trivial.
As if within an uncharted territory, the practice of walking functions as a twofold method of direct exploration and place-making. The project focused on this very method as a way to deal with several questions regarding São Paulo today, such as bottom-up appropriation of public space, urban mobility, and the balance between planned and unplanned development.
The exploration followed a West-East route, departing from an area near the Pico do Jaraguá, the highest part of the city accessible by means of public transport. Despite being relatively close to the city centre, the Jaraguá park in fact also represents the North-Western boundary of the city. The group walked along the park, experiencing the progressive intensification of the city as we progressed. This allowed the walkers to notice the tensions between developed and undeveloped areas, wild and built environments.
After an overnight stay squatting the Architects Association’s building, we continued our exploration on the morning of the second day proceeding Eastbound toward the hill that marks the historical foundation point of the city, and the plains between the rivers Tamanduateí e Tietê.
The endpoint to the walk was in the Patriarca neighbourhood, an area typically considered a suburb, even though the city extends itself for another several kilometres to the East.
The project was designed in order to allow for the individual contributions to nurture interaction between the participants and provide multiple research perspectives to the subject matter. We used two forms of movement in space, which we called navigation and exploration. They both relied on walking understood as a form of investigation and not merely as a goal. The navigation mode consisted in walking as a group point-to-point. It happened mostly in silence to keep concentration and pace, and to allow for the use of individual observational skills.
Once an island of urban matter had been reached, on the other hand, the group entered exploration mode. Some of these island stops had been designated in advance, some were recognised as the project unfolded. During exploration mode, the participants explored the area and collected documents according to the thematic cell they had been assigned to. In both modes the group behaved as a social structure, an ephemeral, yet coherent organism.
After received several applications, we paid attention to build a diverse and balanced group to include a variety of perspective. The group of 30 participants included 20 Brazil-based participants, and 10 from abroad, was age and gender balanced. Besides architects and architectural students, the group included geographers, historians, photographers, journalists, artists, musicians, and educators.
During the first meeting prior to the actual urban walk, we introduced the group to the aims of the project in more detailed and we asked each one what angle they wanted to explore, study, and research during the project. Each participant proposed a theme, which was pitched and discussed collectively to refine it, and attract interest.
During this process, the perspective of each individual question was widened and conceptualised in more inclusive terms. As a result, we were able to form six “thematic cells,” each one characterised by a key term and perspective:
Thematic Cell 1 Step: rhythm, corporeality, access, appropriation;
Thematic Cell 2 Place: emptiness, void, negative and positive, inclusive and exclusive;
Thematic Cell 3 Perspective: individual and collective, visible and invisible, familiar and unfamiliar;
Thematic Cell 4 Object: culture, communication, iconography, relic, trace, function;
Thematic Cell 5 Line: boundary, orbit, transition, horizon, limit;
Thematic Cell 6 Flux: development, construction, nature, ephemerality, resilience.
Espace and Time: Sailing the Island
" We set out really early—at 7am on a Saturday in November [...] We could see the top of the Jaraguá stillcovered in clouds. There was a lot of movement on the street. It was just 7:30am but a street market wasalready being set up. People are surprised to see our big group of blonde guys with cameras andbackpacks. One of the vendors is curious about what we’re doing. We’re walking. Where to? São Paulo. But where are we from? São Paulo."
Júlia Tranquesi, Logbook
The exploration followed a West-East route, departing from an area near the Pico do Jaraguá, the highest part of the city accessible by means of public transport. Despite being relatively close to the city centre, the Jaraguá park in fact also represents the North-Western boundary of the city. The group walked along the park, experiencing the progressive intensification of the city as we progressed. This allowed us to notice the tensions between developed and undeveloped areas, wild and built environments.
During the first day of the journey, while en route toward the city centre from our Eastern departure point, we could register an extremely fragmented urban topography. We crossed very diverse and heterogeneous urban textures, rich in detail and perspectives over the city. We managed to recognise the paths we would be following and the boundaries we could be crossing already from a distance as we were approaching our final destination for the day. Some of the islands we had identified on the map, assuming their existence from some preliminary historical and topographical research in fact proved almost or entirely inaccessible. This was mostly due to the hierarchical primacy of car over pedestrian circulation, and the spontaneous zoning. We crossed the palimpsest of a railway network in several spots, and noticed the persistence of economic and industrial activities linked to the previous transport connections offered by the trains. Also the fragmentation of the territory in islands interesting persisted. Moving as a group served very well to amplify and emphasise the spatial tensions of these hinterlands.
After an overnight stay squatting the Architects Association’s building, we continued our exploration on the morning of the second day proceeding Eastbound toward the hill that marks the historical foundation point of the city, and the plains between the rivers Tamanduateí e Tietê. This region bear the marks of an industrial past, and it is possible to find relics of this age in several elements of its urbanisation. These include several model villages that were built by the industrialists to house the many workers flocking to the city from the countryside and abroad. Remarkably, some of the villages survived over the decades and present themselves as islands both in time and space.
We made a long stop over in Vila Maria Zélia to have lunch at Grupo XIX de teatro, study its architecture, the layout of its streets, and speak to some of the inhabitants. The settlement is still walled-off and there are many relics of the time when it was self-contained and self-sufficient. The infrastructure on which it relied in its early years was purpose-built, for the neighbourhood was not part of the city proper yet. We visited the buildings formerly used as school, pharmacy, market, and the dwellings designed for the managers. The entire settlement was established through private initiative to respond to private interests.
This urban area is characterised by a fragile morphology and a precarious balance betweenradical extremes. The visit helped us to grasp a sense of similar transformations happeningin other parts of the city, where the initiative is all in private hands. Seeing how the former model villages keep being inhabited by dwellers who are not connected to the now dismissed economic enterprises also provided an interesting subject of speculation.
As we moved away from the river basins, proceeding toward the Western part of the city, were gained wider visual perspectives on the spatial unfolding of the urban mass. The path wefollowed on the second day also mirrored the first as we moved toward less intensifiedneighbourhoods, often inhabited by communities that are to some extent isolated from thefinancial and political core. The endpoint to the walk was in the Patriarca neighborhood, anarea typically considered a suburb, even though the city extends itself for another severalkilometres to the East. We were received and hosted by the art collective “Dolores Boca Aberta Mecatrônica de artes” who offered us their rooms. As in the case of the other organisations that had hosted us along the trails, there were guest talks and an open conversation. In addition, with the found objects we collected along the trail, the project participants created a psychogeographic panel showing our journey, which was eventually donated to our hosts.
Three days after the end of the urban walk, we met the participants in the Biennial’s venue, where most public activities and presentations connected to the event took place. The structure of this meeting had been agreed on in advance, and it included formal presentations by each of the thematic cells. The participants of each strand collectively gave an overview on their experience and put forward proposals how to collect and present the research work done during the project.
We the facilitators provided case-to-case feedback and presented our plans for an online archive. Over the following months we worked remotely with the project participants to facilitate their addition to the web archive.
Besides the website, which is open to the public, we created aparticipant-only archive of images and other digitalised documents that is designed to fostercontinued collaboration between facilitators and participants. Other resources include adetailed bibliography based on the reading list that was circulated to the selectedparticipants previous to the project, and enhanced to respond to the theoretical questionsrisen during the post-production. A social media profile is also still active to help circulateadditional work created by the participants over the last months, and other relatedinformation. We plan to develop on this experience with future projects and interventions.