Notes to think about the issue of cities

Image: Willian Santos


Thinking about the future of big cities must be an effort that involves the most varied sectors of civil society

Almost simultaneously with the process of discussion and revision of the Master Plan[I] carried out by the São Paulo City Council, we had access to data from the 2022 Demographic Census released by the IBGE.[ii] Among the information disclosed, one particularly attracted attention, according to the Institute, the city of São Paulo had approximately 590 empty private properties, an amount almost twenty times greater than the homeless population. According to the Census of the homeless population,[iii] carried out in 2021, by the City Hall it was found that approximately thirty thousand people lived on the streets of the city. It should be noted that several specialists in the subject point to the underreporting of this population. Also according to the survey, 40,31% of this population lives in the perimeter of the Sé neighborhood.

Despite the impact caused by these data, the municipal administration seems to remain indifferent to the situation, just as it remains indifferent to the reality faced by the thousands of families that occupy abandoned properties organized in movements for housing.[iv] The popular housing policy of the São Paulo City Hall turns a blind eye to the dozens of vacant properties in the central region that could contribute to the solution of this chronic problem. However, the focus of the municipal administration, at least since Dória's administration, has been to prioritize the demands of the real estate market, which, coincidentally or not, always figure among the biggest donors to the campaign of the victorious plates.[v]

With the market dictating the rules, we can see the launch of new developments in the central region almost weekly, from new buildings to old ones that go through the process known as retrofit, thus attracting a varied audience: from middle-class families, young hipsters to investors who buy the property with the intention of future earnings. And in this interest game, once again the metropolis reinforces the process of exclusion of those who are not welcome in the cosmopolitan, sanitized and modern center. A center that, in the view of the creators of such projects, cannot be a region for everyone.

As professor and urban planner Raquel Rolnik well defined: To enter São Paulo is to be permanently exposed to its contradictory image of grandeur, opulence and misery, of wagons and armored cars, of mansion and hole, of shopping center and street vendor stall, of food truck and walking. Fragmented city, which appears not to be the result of order, but rather the daughter of chaos, of the most savage and ungoverned competition of individual projects of ascension or survival, of the dream of successive generations of migrants and immigrants who came in search of distant opportunities and of the power of the big city (ROLNIK, 2017, p.13).

Thinking about the future of metropolises like São Paulo is an urgent task, and not just for architects and urban planners. Thinking about the future of big cities must be an effort that involves the most varied sectors of civil society, seeking to effectively allocate this population that has the street as a home and those who remain in occupations that are sometimes precarious.

In a study on Brazilian architecture Nestor Goulart Reis Filho stated that, “in each era, architecture is produced and used in a different way, relating in a characteristic way to the structure in which it is installed” (FILHO, 2002, p. .15), so it is urgent to think about this relationship between architecture and structures. As a contribution to this process, which is not so easy to think about, I will try to present in the following lines the construction process of colonial cities.[vi] Without falling into the trap of anachronism, we can say that part of the exclusion we witness today has been built since the beginning of colonization with social-spatial segregation and the conception of the city adopted by the colonizers.

When we think about the process of urbanization and construction of cities in Spanish America, the first impression we have is that this was a completely planned process, where cities should represent a mirror of Spanish cities; a mirror that intended to reflect European enlightenment and civilization in American lands. However, the colonizer's desire to reproduce such cities on the new continent had to adapt to the reality of the new lands. It is exactly this process that we seek to reflect on throughout the text. In the first place, we must emphasize that when trying to transport a model of European urbanization to the American continent, one must consider the fact that Iberian Europe carries a strong Moorish influence in its architecture and culture, an influence that comes from the Arab occupation of the peninsula (GUTIÉRREZ , 2010; VINCENT, 2000).

According to Ramón Gutiérrez: Driven by the euphoria of the “reconquest” of its territory after eight centuries of Arab domination, Spain carried out its own “crusade”, projected in America. It was necessary to reach the last corner of the "Indies" to evangelize the infidels. In turn, the political-commercial articulation would lead to internal transformations that favored the ports (including those recently founded, such as Lima) compared to the ancient urban routes of indigenous cultures (Cuzco) (GUTIERREZ, 2010, p: 39).

According to the perspective brought by Gutierrez, we can propose a dialogue with Paul Virilio's interpretation of how the process of adaptation by the colonizer is outlined, according to Virilio: It should not be forgotten that behind the expression a perfect image, the essence of representation, which is the fact that technique does not give us anything more, but interrupts us in another way. It is necessary to stop omitting the concealment, the interruption, for the sole benefit of the demonstration and the spectacular character of the various techniques, including those of architecture and urbanism, by the way (VIRILIO, 2005, p.71).

Thus, mixing the commercial interest in exploring the conquered regions with a supposed civilizing mission, we follow the conquest of existing cities and the planning and construction of new cities. Before the beginning of the construction of these planned cities, we can see the policy of overlapping the sacred places of the conquered people as a first step in the civilizing mission. Just remember that, in “America, temples of indoctrination were built over the ancient huacas and places of worship of Mesoamerican and Andean cultures” (GUTIERREZ, 2010, p: 37). As Gutiérrez himself shows us in his work, this superimposition had occurred in the episode of the conquest of Granada, where mosques were transformed into Catholic temples.

In Spanish America we find a clear example of this superimposition when we focus on the case of Tenochtitlan where, after the conquest of the city by the Spaniards, the calpullis, a kind of neighborhoods, began to receive Christian names. As Eduardo Matos Moctezuma shows us in his work on Tenochtitlan: “With the conquest, the calpulli received Christian names and were located in the following way: the northwest angle San Sebastián Atzacoalco; in northwest Santa Maria Cuepopan and a little further north in the city of Tlatelolco; in southeastern San Pablo Zoquiapan and southwestern San Juan Moyotlan” (MOCTEZUMA, 2006, p: 101) .

Another author who is also dedicated to analyzing this period is the Argentinean José Luis Romero, in his work "Latin America: Cities and Ideas" Romero sees in the colonizer's attitude in destroying the cultures that occupied the conquered territories, a step forward in the attempt to build cities in Spanish America that would be the image and likeness of Europe, destroying the cultures that already existed there; whether through catechesis or giving new names to symbols of cultures that until then were sovereign in the region, provinces and calpullis, to rivers and mountains.

Let's see the passage written by Romero himself: “If in many regions the conquistadors only found primitive cultures – as on the Brazilian coast or on the River Plate -, in others they encountered high-level cultures that surprised them. However, in all cases, an unshakable prejudice led them to operate as if the conquered land were empty – culturally empty – and populated only by individuals who could and should be torn out of their cultural fabric to be incorporated into the cultural system of the colonizers by through religious catechesis, but kept outside the economic system they implemented. The annihilation of old cultures – primitive or developed – and the deliberate ignoring of their meaning constituted the essential step towards the fundamental purpose of the conquest: to establish a new Europe on an empty nature, to whose hills, rivers and provinces a royal ballot dictated that they new names were given as if they had never had them” (ROMERO, 2009, p:43).

Here we can see that in the case of calpullis from Tenochtitlan the change fits in with the practice of superimposition shown by Gutiérrez, as the area at that time represented one of the great cities conquered by the Spaniards on the new continent. In this way, the repetition of events that occurred in the conquest of Granada is latent. However, where cities or peoples with a culture considered high were not found, the practice also occurred, and thus from the conquered cities to the newly created ones, we follow the "crusade" of Spanish Catholics, who, in addition to exploring the conquered area, entered the territories with the mission of bringing "civilization" to the unfaithful natives.

Santo Domingo can be considered the first city actually founded on the landmarks of the Spanish New World. After the failure of the Columbus family in the administration of the Spanish Indies, Friar Nicolás de Ovando actually assumed the role of governor in 1501 and his main task was to stabilize a territory that at that time had its very existence threatened, either by internal disputes between settlers or due to lack of food and labor. During his government, Ovando manages to stabilize the island and in the words of John Elliot, “establishes the foundations of economic survival and efficient centralized control” (ELLIOT, 1998, p. 150). Also according to Elliot, Friar Nicolás Ovando:

He began by rebuilding the city of Santo Domingo itself, which had been destroyed by a cyclone shortly before his arrival in the spring of 1502. Rebuilt on a slightly different site, Santo Domingo became the first true city of the Spanish New World – the one that was the first to emerge in the eyes of an entire generation of newcomers to the Indies and to provide the model for the cities that would be born in continental America. In his Sumário de la Natural Historia de las Indias (1526), ​​the proud chronicler of Hispaniola, Gonzalo Fernández Óviedo, described it as superior even to Barcelona and all other cities he had seen in the Old World, “for how it was founded in our time (...) it was designed with ruler and compass, and all the streets planned in regular lines. The grid plan, which followed models already established in Europe, had safely crossed the Atlantic” (ELLIOT, 1998, p: 151).

And so, following mainly the route of production and extraction of silver, cities that followed or tried to follow this predetermined order began to emerge. Among the common characteristics in cities created independently of geographical adversities is the concentration of the city around a central square that formed a quadrilateral and served as the basis for four main streets, from which two more would emerge. In this way, the population always started from the center, as Sérgio Buarque de Holanda remembers in the seminal chapter of Brazil roots titled "The sower and the tiler", where the historian makes a comparison between urbanization in Spanish and Portuguese America, always emphasizing the superiority of Spanish planning that appeared in a meticulously planned way, while in Portuguese America sloppiness prevailed (cf SCHURMANN , 1999).

To better illustrate this difference, we will turn to another work by the author, in paths and borders When reading about the then village of São Paulo, we can notice the enormous difference between the settlement and urbanization of Spanish and Portuguese America. According to Sérgio Buarque de Holanda: “Some maps and texts from the 1975th century show us the village of São Paulo as the center of a wide system of roads expanding towards the sertão and the coast. The crude drawings and mangled names often misguide anyone who intends to use these documents to elucidate some obscure point in our historical geography. (...) In this case, as in almost everything else, the newcomers had to get used to the solutions and often to the material resources of the original inhabitants of the land. To the narrow paths and shortcuts that they had opened for their own use, those of considerable importance would add nothing, at least during the early days” (HOLANDA, 15, p: XNUMX).

Here we can perceive the enormous difference in the conception of the cities of Spanish and Portuguese America. While we can note in the passage above that generally in Portuguese America there were a series of tortuous paths and ragged paths in the connections between towns, in Spanish America we had wide and symmetrical streets starting from the central squares, cities that the Uruguayan Ángel Rama considered a true birth of intelligence. An intelligence that in the construction of these new cities reconciled remnants of medieval times with Renaissance ideas (GUTIÉRREZ, 2010).

Thus, with the passage of time, the conquerors moved away from this medieval urbanistic heritage, and with the incorporation of Renaissance ideas, allied to the acquired notion, even if gradually, that the new cities that emerged would be 'hybrid' models of the clash between the new/old culture European with local reality. For Ángel Rama: “Despite the adjectives that accompanied the old original names with which they designated the dominated regions (New Spain, New Galicia, New Granada), the conquerors did not reproduce the model of the cities of the metropolis from which they had departed, even if it faltered initially. and seemed to dwell on past solutions. Gradually, and in an inexperienced way, they were discovering the reductive screen that filtered the old experiences that were already known, the stripping down process, the effort of clarification, rationalization and systematization that the colonizing experience itself was imposing, no longer responding to real models, known and experienced, but to ideal models conceived by intelligence, which ended up imposing themselves on a regular and routine basis” (RAMA, 2015, p: 22 and 23).

This process of rationalization and systematization becomes more evident when we compare the construction of cities and the so-called "Laws of the Indies", which basically consisted of a set of norms written to guide the construction and consolidation of new cities in the colony. In these laws we can find echoes of the Renaissance spirit, as this set of laws in the words of Gutiérrez would be nothing more than a literary model written by the king. In practice, the monarch formulated a literary model, without much applicability. And that we can say today with absolute certainty, because there is no city in America that has been carried out exactly as the king proposed (GUTIÉRREZ, 2010, p: 40).

Thus, we follow a process that gives rise to cities that, according to Ángel Rama, “become governed by an ordering reason, (…) it is not society, but its organized form that is transposed; and not to the city, but to its distributive form” (RAMA, 2015, p: 23). And in this way, the city, which would be the ideal model of urbanization, now adapts to the local reality. In the words of José Luis Romero: “The formal city of the time of foundations – that of the minutes and the notary, of the sword and the cross – began to discover that it was a real city, small and almost always miserable, with few inhabitants and many risks. and uncertainties. She began to discover that she was in a real place, surrounded by a real region, connected by paths that led to other real cities through real rural areas, all with unique characteristics that escaped any cultural generalization. He began, then, to discover that from all this they guessed his true problems and depended on his future possibilities. Thus, cities became real, becoming aware of the region in which they were inserted. However, the real city also became aware that it constituted a real society, not that of the first inhabitants, but that of those who, after all, remained in it (...). The real city became aware that it was an urban society composed of its real members: the Spaniards and the Creoles, the Indians, the mestizos, the blacks, the mulattos, the cafuzos, all united inexorably despite their hierarchical organization, all united in a process that also inexorably led to their interpenetration and to the uncertain adventure triggered by the unforeseen events of social mobility” (ROMERO, 2009 p: 48).

A factor of outstanding importance in the constitution of cities is their division according to a pre-established social hierarchy, which becomes clear with the proposal of “two republics” (GUTIÉRREZ, 2010). Thus we follow the division of the city between the "city of the Spaniards" and the "city of the Indians". In many cases the square was the greatest symbol of this division. Taking the village of Yanque, in Peru, as an example, Rámon Gutiérrez shows us the symbolic force of this separation: “More than four centuries after the ”reduction”, the people are still divided between the people of Hurin and Hanan (upper and lower), who occupy specific areas of the village. Both enter the square through their own streets, which were framed by punctual arches. The square is divided by an invisible line, which starts at the side door of the church and defines the space of the two communities, whose members do not even marry each other. The temple itself has two towers, each with the bells of a community and three patron saints: those of each town and one more, the head of the church, which encompasses the entire village” (GUTIÉRREZ, 2010, p: 47).

Elisa Fruhauf Garcia shows us that even with the separation between Spaniards and indigenous people there was a relationship of exchange, either through culture or through commerce, thus the utopia of the pure city previously thought became increasingly distant. According to the historian: “Some cities had indigenous neighborhoods, established in accordance with the provisions of the republics of Indians, that is, to preserve them as much as possible from contact with the Spaniards. In Lima, for example, the indigenous neighborhood was also called fenced, due to a fence whose purpose was to separate them from the outside world” (GARCIA, 2011, p. 67).

As Elisa Fruhauf well observed, the Indians who lived in the enclosures did not remain on the sidelines of city life, their daily life was intrinsically linked to the reality of the localities, even chroniclers of the time perceived the "Spanishization" of these Indians who ended up assimilating the language and the habits of the Spaniards. In addition, the Indians become key players in the commerce and culture of the cities.

Another example of this coexistence can be found when we consider the case of Potosi, specifically in the peak period of silver production. Potosi is one of the cases that flee from the beginning of the idea of ​​a regular, ordered and centralized city around administrative and religious buildings. As the historian Jorge Grespan shows us in a work on urbanization and the economy in Potosi, in addition to the atypical geographical condition that required moving beyond the market squares, mining was another factor for the growth, opulence and cosmopolitan aspect that took account of Potosi making the city more luxurious than many Spanish cities.

We can see Potosi as a kind of symbol of the confluence of indigenous and colonizer culture, so it was easy to observe not only miners and rich merchants displaying their riches through the streets of Potosi. “Several reports show that everyone tried to present the greatest possible prosperity in their clothes and ornaments, even the Mingados and Mitaios Indians” (GRESPAN, 1996, p:311).

Finally, we state that what was planned to be a mere reconstitution of European cities, specifically in the case of Spain, cities that at first would be the image and likeness of European cities, cities built on top of an ideology that intended to be the representative of civilization before a "barbaric people". Cities that should be based on a series of models and rules that “were just variations of the same conception of ordering reason: the one that required the plan to be drawn a corda y regla, as the royal instructions to the conquerors often said” (RAMA, 2015 , p: 25) turned into an amalgam. Returning to the words of Gutiérrez “the culture of conquest is a culture of projection, synthesis, selection” (GUTIÉRREZ, 2010, p: 39).

And so we have: “A new architecture, which takes elements from all these sources and somehow generates a different product. Therefore, thinking that one can understand America or these Spanish products in America by doing a strict reading from Spain is a mistake. We must understand all this in a concrete relationship with the place. (…) To better understand this point, we can borrow the definition of Chueca Goitia, who said that America is more Spain than any Spanish region, as it is a synthesis of elements that do not exist concentrated in any specific place in Spain” (GUTIÉRREZ, 2010 , p. 38).

That is, based on the thinking of authors cited throughout the text (GUTIÉRREZ, 2010; RAMA, 2015; ROMERO, 2009) we must face the construction of cities in Spanish America as an attempt to realize the utopia of building cities that were image and likeness of the Spanish cities, but built to, on the one hand, enable the settlement of the colonies and guarantee taxation over what was extracted in the regions and, on the other hand, embodied in that aura of civilizers of the indigenous populations, they sought to bring the "infidels" to Christianity through of the "crusades" projected on the new continent (GUTIÉRREZ, 2010).

And so, through a vast process of "cultural exchanges" between Spaniards and indigenous peoples and vice versa, we see cities emerge that, despite the strong influence of the colonizer, are still influenced by indigenous culture and, as Gutiérrez states, the experience of Spanish America contributes for the consolidation of a true Spanish identity.

We end this reflection with the words of Mario Pedrosa, art critic and architecture scholar: “The deepest objection that is made to the very idea of ​​creating a city is that its development can never be “natural”. It is a very serious objection, as it comes from a fundamental conception of life: that social and cultural activity cannot be a construction because it is indissolubly tied to the biological, to the organic, to nature, in short. This is one of the most typical traits of the conservative mentality, at its best and deepest. For him, the city is not something that can be built: the city is born as a living organism. Nor is there any interference with society, whose growth and development have something inextricably biological or organic” (PEDROSA, 1981, p: 317).

* Daniel Costa graduated in history from UNIFESP.


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[I] Throughout the revision process of the São Paulo Master Plan, Jornal da USP opened space for the reflection of several architects and urban planners – Nabil Bonduki, Raquel Rolnik, Guilherme Wisnik – to debate the theme. Content is available on this link.

[ii] To consult the data referring to the Demographic Census. Access here.

[iii] To consult the complete data of the Census of the Homeless Population. access here.

[iv] On the struggle for housing in the central region of São Paulo see: Cartographies of popular territories – LabCidade. access here.

[v] Journalist Gabriela Moncau, in an article for the Brasil de Fato newspaper, sought to unravel these relationships that are not always republican. access here.

[vi] It should be clarified that despite citing cases that occurred in Portuguese America, we adopted as the main focus of the analysis the construction process of cities in Spanish America.

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