Beyond the City: Somatic Collaborative
Chicago Biennial Bulletin 2019
Wednesday, September 18th 2019 3:00 pm
Chicago Cultural Center 4th Floor
Paprika! In conversation with Felipe Correa
and Devin Dobrowolski
Beyond the City: The South American
Hinterland in the Soils of the 21st Century,
2019, Mixed media installation
Paprika: 08:34 Can you tell us a bit about the project in front of us?
Felipe: 08:49 Very briefly, the project examines the larger processes and economies of resource extraction in South America and the models of urbanism that they have engendered throughout the 20th century. It’s a historical overview of the most important designed cities and designed urban projects that have emerged as a form of civic aspiration fueled by resource extraction. We start with the city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil, which is the first capital built from scratch in Brazil. Brazil has an incredible tradition of building capitals as a way to shape the Brazilian citizen. This started when Brazil gained independence and became a united states of Brazil. Belo Horizonte is a capital built in the state of Minas Gerais and built as a way to represent the money that was coming out of gold at the time. In many ways it was gold extraction that fueled this capital. Our exhibition shows the city on one side and it’s larger interlinked context on the other. It also shows the way that the related natural resource is distributed in a more contemporary manner throughout the entire continent. Ah, this is Jonah who is also part of the team. I am actually describing his drawings right now.
Paprika: 10:37 Hi Jonah, nice to meet you.
Felipe: 10:37 Jonah is doing his M.Arch I at Princeton right now.
They are from Yale, from Paprika!
Jonah: 10:44 Oh cool!
Felipe: 10:47 Didn’t a group of people from Paprika! come to our office? No, that’s from Perspecta maybe. We were sharing a space with them. Paprika! is the student magazine, completely independent right? It’s related to the carpet.
Paprika: 11:19 Yes that’s us. Haha.
Felipe: 11:19 Anyway, we show the resource in relationship to major mobility corridors, its connection to ports and ports in relation to global markets. Making the argument that these cities and the other urbanisms that have emerged are part of a larger transnational network. We look at nitrate and copper too. Primarily the way that nitrate fueled a process of urbanisation that created a constellation of cities in the Atacama desert, establishing a clear relationship between the Andean oasis that provides water, the nitrate cities, and the port cities that export into the global market. Water was brought down, for habitation, but also for extraction. Nitrate was extracted, taken into “switch-point-cities” and then out into the ports. This is one of the most incredible examples, which is the city of Maria Elena in Chile. It’s a company town financed by the Guggenheims. It is now becoming its own independent city because once artificial nitrate was invented all of the offices went bankrupt and then the infrastructure got replaced to extract copper. We look at oil and the distribution of oil throughout the continent. We focus on one particular project, the city of Judibana, which is a public private partnership developed by the government of Venezuela and designed by SOM. An open city paid for by the Rockefellers with Standard Oil but actually commissioned as a project that would be open to the market. You didn’t necessarily have to be part of the company town to be able to live in this city. Over time, once the oil industry died, a good infrastructure was left behind and allowed for a fairly successful city to emerge. It is fascinating to see the imagery with which SOM constructed that city which is emulating the suburbs of the 1940s and 1950s. Ciudad Guayana is a city built in the 1960s by the government of Venezuela and here Harvard and MIT were hired as consultants through the joint Center for Urban Studies. Originally meant to be the third major designed city after Brasilia and Chandigarh, very early on they realized that it was very different to build a capital that houses administrative bureaucracies like Brazilia versus one that was primarily housing migrant workers. As a result, the larger plan was implemented, but the city never gained the density that it was supposed to gain. As a framework to organize informal settlements, it became very successful though. This was also a city that was designed to diversify the industry of Venezuela from oil which had created a very wealthy Northern part of the country and a very poor southern part. So the plan was a much larger territorial plan that involved turning the floodplain of the river into an agricultural asset. In this way the plan went way beyond the city, and here we begin to see the contemporary distribution of iron ore, where it’s being exported and how Ciudad Guayana fits within the larger infrastructure of Iron.
Devin: 15:50 One of the things that’s very powerful about the mapping that we do is to tie these kinds of processes to larger global activities in business, and it’s no coincidence that we’re looking at these top 10 exports now. We try to spatialize this to communicate that the infrastructure and investment that’s going into the continent right now is coming from many places including China and is meant to feed these kinds of global markets that are really changing the organization and the flow of capital.
Felipe: 17:18 The last resource is water. It becomes an interesting one because of two larger industries that have emerged from water; hydroelectric power and agriculture. In terms of hydroelectric power, we started by looking at the town of Vila Piloto. A temporary town built to exist for two years while constructing the Jupiá Dam. The Jupiá Dam is the first Dam in a network of dams modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority, a major WPA(Work Progress Administration)project which was an initiative to move on from the great depression to investment in infrastructure. In this case, it was a bet on creating a national electric grid in a country that at the time thought it did not have oil deposits. Right now, Brazil has discovered incredible amounts of oil in the Amazon, but at the time this was a way to guarantee continuous flow of electricity that would fuel what became the city of Sao Paulo. So in many ways, Sao Paulo is actually fueled by this sort of a steady source of energy that comes from this larger hydroelectric network. We look at the issue of water at a territorial scale, but primarily looking at agriculture as the main source that consumes water, especially caused by the de facto policy from China to buy intensive water-consuming agricultural products such as soy, broccoli, oranges and a lot of citruses simply because China doesn’t have the capacity to grow those crops due to lack of water. So when you actually see some agricultural products being exported, it is primarily water that’s being carried in the container which is broccoli. That’s what the five case studies address.
Jonah: 19:47 I think one of the things that is interesting to think about is that hydroelectricity is back in South America in a very real way right now. The distribution of small dams shows very different contemporary development patterns from the preeminence of large dams in the 1970s and I think, at the same time, by overlaying that with this map of agricultural products allowed us to start thinking about the ways that different agricultural economies are shaping different parts of the continent, affecting deforestation and also, you know, “powering” the world. For example, 50% of soy products in the world are produced in Argentina.
Devin: 20:42 And by the way, only like 10 or 8% of soy products go to human food. The rest is animal food and other types of synthetic lubricants and fuel sources.
Felipe: 20:59 This is a model of South America, which they’ve
managed,very eloquently, to put it upside down. Not a political statement.
There was supposed to be a projection on top, but that didn’t happen. So we’re still waiting for an iPad that shows a video that animates all the different layers and expands the number of resources to really show what is the impact in terms of mobility, infrastructure, urban areas, and port activity within the continent today. I think the last component we can talk about, and Devin, you should speak about this, is the collage, what I call the Image Atlas but Devin might have a better name for it.
Devin: 22:15 It is a kind of Atlas of extracts from our research. We investigated actual figures of the gross product that is being produced and exported to the world and wanted to spatially define the exhibition but also to have another way of interpreting this data at a different scale to complement the maps of global networks with what these resources actually look like in a kind of raw and semi-finished and finished state. The transparency of the curtain screen is not meant to be a complete analogy, but I do think it works nicely that you can kind of look through and see the products in their various forms and bridge the scale between the mapping, the cartographic project, and the architectural project.
Felipe: 24:19 And then we bring it down to this scale also to give it a more domestic reading, because at the end of the day we’re engaging these products on a regular basis. And that’s not explicitly explained in the text, but that’s the point.
Paprika: 24:51 You seem to analyse these spaces and territories of resource extraction through a narrative in which architecture is the main
protagonist. Do you think your research feeds back into a design process?
Felipe: 25:32 That’s a great question. I think one way to ask that question is to say, well, if all of these projects that we see here were developed under a developmentalist government regime, some of them are public,
private, some of them are completely public, but they’re all sponsored by national governments. Now the era of national sponsored government politics is gone. So where is the space for design? What are we as architects? Who are we? If we were buddies with the president we used to get a city to design. What do we get now? How does the agency of architecture act now? And I think for me the answer to that has to do with a shift of focus from the national state to small and intermediate scale municipalities. I actually think it’s no longer about building new cities. It’s about upgrading existing cities. We cannot just look at resource extraction purely from the vantage point of economic development. And in many ways I think of course as architects, as designers, we are not going to provide an alternative economic model, but we can actually help guide economic resources into physical areas that are of importance. And for me, those areas have to do with small and intermediate scale cities and the way that we upgrade social and physical infrastructures of those cities. Also, if you take a completely a step back from spatialisation, then maybe it’s no longer relevant to architecture. I would be very critical of that. I also see certain issues that are important within the practice today, emerging. Issues that you don’t see in the projects from the 1940 and 1950s, 1960s. All of these projects say the same thing that Devin was saying before: this is urbanism done through architecture. It doesn’t mean that architecture can not be doing this, but what it means is that these are all projects built in one shot, right?
There’s: this is the vision, this is what it’s going to look like – build it. And that was great from the developmentalist era and it produced incredible projects, but I think today one – we can no longer do that or it is very difficult to do and two – I think that there’s an emergence of techniques that we have learned from the discipline of landscape architecture that I think have become much more mainstream. How you actually deal with landscape is something that could be heavily criticized in many of these precedents from the 1950s. How do you actually guide projects of this scale in relation to environmental stewardship? So these are elements that allow designers to engage with projects that might be less singular but equally effective in terms of the scale of which they are addressed. It’s not going to be one project that solves everything and it may be eight or nine or ten smaller projects that make up a larger whole.
Paprika: 31:09 Can you speak a bit about your interpretation of the Biennial theme …And Other Such Stories? and your contribution within the grander scheme of the biennial? As well as the biennial as a medium or platform for architecture.
Felipe: 31:17 Of course, I think that biennials are incredibly powerful places and spaces. Not only to bring larger audiences to the discipline of architecture, but also for the discipline to use those spaces as a space of self reflection. We can also as architects learn a lot when we come together. Architecture by definition is a collective project, and in many cases the best projects are those that emerge out of a culture of respectful debate at the center. I think one interesting thing about this Biennial is that there’s an incredible diversity of approaches and one might agree more with some than with others. But what’s important is that it’s not just one, there’s an instrumental and disciplinary diversity that shows the richness of architecture when it engages the built environment.
Paprika: 33:26 Lastly, let’s hear about your practice Somatic
Collaborative and the work that you do as
Devin: 33:43 The important thing about the practice is right now that it by nature works on many scales. The work that we’ve produced thus far kind of ranges, large scale, looks at global networks. It has many examples of the kind of research that, you know, asks questions: how did the city achieve this form, why does it look the way it does today? Can we use that to tell a story in a much more interesting way using the training and also down to the scale of furniture– which we have engaged with as well– and design at the human scale, which I think we can forget about and even the way that we have designed this exhibition to think about the way that people would move through it.
Felipe: 35:03 Yeah the only thing that I would add to that is that, in many ways, one thing that’s extremely important for us is to be able to address larger societal concerns without abandoning an aesthetic project. And I think that that negotiation between an aesthetic project that might be of interest to us and placing that at the confluence of larger societal interest is crucial to our work. That’s something that we all share. It’s something that we’re very committed to, that we as architects cannot abandon an aesthetic project, when we are confronted with some larger social pressures.
Paprika: 39:36 Thank you so much.
Felipe: 39:37 Great to talk to you guys. Say hi to Anthony.
You might see him before I do.