A tale of three cities

My first job at an architectural practice ever was in Barcelona, with Eduard Bru, back when the 1992 Olympics were starting to be tackled by the architects in the Catalonian city. This was the ecstatic Summer of ‘89. I convinced my parents to do holidays in Costa Brava and one day I escaped to look for work in Gaudi’s city.

I felt an eagerness to enter a wider, more exciting architectural scene. But I was also perhaps driven by an unconcious desire to discover how dance music was turning European cities nightlife upside down. By then, it seemed entirely reasonable to ocasionally drift from Otto Zutz’s three dance floors to Mies van der Rohe’s pristine pavilion by early morning light.

Although I came back over the years – so as to progressively observe BCN’s touristification (or urbanalisation…) to a degree that seemed to produce general irritation – only this year did the city again produced a distinctive effect on me.

When I came to Barcelona for my classes at Biarch last September, I arrived on the day of the general strike. As the cab driver soon informed me, there had been violent confrontations between the anarchists and the police. When I wandered through the streets by dinnertime, there was an atmosphere that resonated of party endings and drunken abandonment.

© Txapi Bernal.

In Plaza Calalunya, the police surrounded a blazed, blackened car, as if it needed protection. The Ramblas were wet and fairly empty. Every garbage container in sight was overturned and some of them were still on fire. As I entered the Barrio Gotic, oblique piles of rubbish nearly obstructed the narrower streets.

A resident friend later confided how much he had enjoyed to feel again the darker, smellier side of a city that had been utterly domesticated and designed into being the most attractive of late 20th century Europe’s urban role models.

© Cirusde2.

I couldn’t help thinking that if the strike lasted for three, five, ten days, the city would soon become unrecognizable. It reminded me of New Orleans going feral over the course of a few hours. It made me think of the delicate balance that makes our city machines tick. Extasi, extano.

Meanwhile, three weeks later, I arrive in S. Paulo. As, the airport bus melds into the early morning traffic, I count fifteen rows of vehicles flowing into the city centre. It is expected that by 2012 São Paulo will be arrested in a gigantic traffic jam. As portrayed in an old postcard, the growth of the Brazilian megalopolis by the late Seventies now seems idyllic and romantic.

Halfway into the city, I suddenly hear a loud noise as if someone banged the coach. In a school bus by the other side of our vehicle, a bunch of children turn their heads to the window and press their faces against the glass. As I barely distinguish a black hooded head passing by, two fellow passengers briefly interrupt their babble and wifi browsing. “It’s a hold up…” one of them comments casually. He then turns again to his laptop.

Welcome to one of those extreme cities in which most of the planet’s population will live in one hundred years. S. Paulo is renowned for its amazing wealth distribution: a city of 18 million inhabitants in which, despite abundant poverty, there are nevertheless half a million millionaires. A glimpse of an urban future in which, as it’s being widely announced, the middle classes are a thing of the past.

Via Toma Lá, Dá Cá.

And why did I come back to São Paulo? Curiously to moderate a debate on another one of the emergent megalopolis of the exaggerated present, as many at the Once Upon a Place conference recently dubbed the nature of Philip K. Dick and other science fiction writers’ approach to reality.

Why is Luanda in our radars? While it is “only” the 15th fastest growing city in the world, the buzz must relate to the fact that in 2010 the capital of Angola became the most expensive city in the world, surpassing Tokyo and Moscow. Thus, there must be something going on. And there is. Oil, and diamonds, and again a shocking social and urban unequality.

If you are around this corner of the globe, do show up at the Centro Cultural de S. Paulo, tomorrow at 18h, when I will be stirring up the discussion on Luanda in the “Outlines for New Cultures” project.

Interestingly, this challenging event – put up by artist Graziela Kunsch and architect Paulo Miyada after Constant’s New Babylon –  is also the 4th issue of the Urbania magazine. Talking about the dissolution of print, here is a publication that really goes out to change its format with every new issue…

2 responses to “A tale of three cities

  1. Rafael Calado

    Estás sempre à frente uns 2 ou 3 anos …
    Escolhi o Bru e o Gil no meu Erasmus em 91/92 no fim do ano quando fui entregar o trabalho ao seu atelier, perguntei se havia trabalho para o verão dos Jogos, mas só o meu vizinho da Plaza real – o Bohigas tinha… pagava mal e não fiquei, depois arrependi-me…

  2. Pingback: Off the Beaten Track | shrapnel contemporary

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