Grassroots Urbanism, from Berlin to São Paulo with Daniela Sandler
By Natasha Tabachnikoff
In 2003, Daniela Sandler arrived in a Berlin that was vastly different than it is today. At that time, economists were worried that the city had failed to fulfill its post-wall prospect of becoming a global destination. While the slow process of condo-ization began to threaten the cheap rents and low cost of living that allowed for a thriving alternative art community, much of the creative class scoffed at the prospect of a widespread rent crisis, which would indeed come. Now, the city has clearly capitulated to globalization and gentrification, appropriating art countercultures into its tourist identity, and displacing the very creators of these countercultures with rising housing market prices. The radical communes, historical installations, and ephemeral art projects examined in Sandler’s first book, Counterpreservation: Architectural Decay in Berlin Since 1989, if they still exist, now seem like monuments to a cultural and economic battle that has since been won by the market forces of the 21st century.
Originally trained in architectural design in her home country of Brazil, Sandler turned her attention to visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester, where she studied Berlin’s processes of decay, community design, and activism. She has since leveraged her training in architectural design and cultural studies into a career as an architectural historian, where she consistently pushes the boundaries of the field through her emphasis on grassroots practice. Currently she works as an assistant professor of architectural history at the University of Minnesota, studying urban activism in São Paulo.
Here, she discusses Berlin and São Paulo, the principles of bottom-up urban intervention, expanding definitions of architectural and preservationist practices, and the broader concept of counter-spaces as relevant to design.
Natasha Tabachnikoff: How did you make the transition from training in professional architecture in Brazil to focusing on theoretical studies in Berlin?
Daniela Sandler: Back in Brazil, as an undergraduate, I was always interested in memory and the history of the Holocaust. I'm Jewish, and some of my non-immediate family were directly affected by the Holocaust. When I was in architecture school, I wrote a monograph paper on Daniel Libeskind. That was in ’97, so the Jewish Museum was still under construction. He was rising, but he wasn't a star like he is today. I was interested in the way that he incorporated history in his designs, but then I got really fascinated by how every design that he made was always conceptual and had thinking and writing and exploration in addition to the technical parts. That was the first time that I really started to study Berlin, because the Jewish Museum was there. I started so I could understand his work, but then I fell in love with Berlin.
Can you introduce the concept of counterpreservation?
Counterpreservation (CP) is an approach not to ruins themselves, but to ruination and the process of dilapidation whereby the people who engage in this approach intentionally incorporate that dilapidation and that passage of time as a way of treating the building, site, or landscape. On a practical level, it means not taking active measures, or taking very limited measures, to restore or even conserve—just enough so that it doesn't fall on your head. [It also means] finding ways to showcase and display the form of ruination.
On the term itself, I was very inspired at the time by James Young's ‘Counter-Monument’, partly because it was taking on this alternative approach to memory and monuments that is very self-critical and open ended. It doesn't try to give you a packaged narrative, but rather tries to engage you and everybody else as part of a construction of memory. I thought that was analogous to what CP buildings were trying to do. When you leave the building open to the passage of time, you’re also leaving it open to all sorts of different factors and forces that are happening at any one point in time. You open it up to narratives and different people and different meanings, and they are always changing.
I definitely wanted to keep the word preservation because I wanted to make clear that this wasn't neglect, that these people weren't vandalizing the buildings, letting the buildings fall apart, but that it was intentional. The “counter,” with that sense of self-criticism, with the sense of going against professional preservation practices and also making another link with Henri Lefebvre and his theory of the social production of space. Lefebvre believes that spaces become meaningful through human interaction rather than through developers and government forcing social meaning onto space. He talks about a counterspace where, through that everyday appropriation of spaces, even if you're not the official owner of the space, you can turn it into a space of dissent and a space of freedom and emancipation for people who are usually oppressed. That “counter,” to me, gives that important sense that you're countering hegemonic trends that are very problematic. In the case of Berlin, those trends were gentrification and globalization and a certain official German view of memory and the historical narrative.
Are they still counter or is there a sense of facadism or Disney-ification of ruin?
I completely agree with you that there's a way that even CP becomes a token and, in a way, devoid of its power. It’s that idea of how capitalism is able to incorporate even what is critical of capitalism and make it a commodity and make it into a part of itself, which I think is what happened in Berlin. People started going to Berlin partly because of the counterculture. And not just CP, but the parties, the techno clubs, the punks on the street, and so that counterculture that never wanted to be complicit in any of these processes became, despite itself, a tourist attraction, or an attraction for development.
There's a contradiction there, and you will never be able to solve it. CP became a facade and a tourist attraction, but at the same time, you can't deny the history and the presence of the people who tried to make it into something different.
Can you talk about how you became interested in organizing and activism, and how you see those actions as the study of architectural historians?
It really is a common thread in everything that I've done. It's something that is always in my mind, because I always have to justify what I do to certain audiences, like the Society of Architectural Historians. When I started going ten years ago, I would present my stuff and people would look at me like I had three heads, like, “That's not architectural history!”
I arrived in Berlin for my dissertation research with a very formal project. I was going to look at what the preservation policies of Berlin were doing in terms of building an identity and a sense of history for the city after reunification. I was looking at official preservation policies, and I was looking at private development in terms of renovation and adaptive reuse. At the same time, part of my research was just taking the bus and the tram and the subway and walking. What I started to see on the street was this other way that people were building a sense of identity and history and transforming their environment. It's not official, it's not on the books, but it's real.
People wanted to be in a building that looks like it's falling apart. To me that was something that was almost bizarre, coming from a context like São Paulo where, especially at that time, people are not proud to live in a place that's dilapidated. If they have any resources, even if they're very poor, they will complete the facade. I also realized that nobody had written about it, and it's not an official policy, except the Haus Schwarzenberg eventually became listed in the Denkmalliste [monument registry]. The reason why they listed it as a protected structure is precisely because of the dilapidation of the facade, but that was a choice of artists who had been in the building since the ’90s. Later some preservationists—they must be enlightened—recognized it and included it, but it is kind of the exception.
I think that these practices—like squatting in Berlin or grassroots urbanism in São Paulo, or tactical urbanism elsewhere—it's a new vernacular. Using the theoretical framework of the vernacular to understand it might make it a little more acceptable.
Can you introduce your current research on mapping activism in public space in São Paulo?
In São Paulo there are a lot of bottom-up initiatives changing the city or improving the city, what I’m calling urban activism and a lot of people have called tactic urbanism or Do-It-Yourself urbanism, as well as insurgent urbanism or insurgent public space—that’s a little more radical—about consciously changing a space of social and political oppression. A lot of these actions have been happening for a while, but in the last couple years they really started to concentrate and intensify. Part of my argument is that all of these things that are happening are more than a sum of their parts. They may seem scattered, but when you look at them together, they do something for the city, which is changing how people see the city. Like, here we're creating a design-build square, at the other place we're creating an open-air theater. I think that it's a transformation of imagination about the city and of expectations that could potentially turn into a larger political transformation.
I'm trying to map these examples, which is really hard. I want to document as many as I can, in part because when I started this project, a lot of the initiatives that were gaining attention were very hipster, very cool, in relatively wealthy parts of the city. I wanted to enlarge my scope to see, is there really nothing else going on? And so what I found is that there's actually a lot of stuff going on in parts of the city that are very poor. The mapping component is trying to correlate the initiatives with socioeconomic indicators. You can already start to see a correlation of how these examples of grassroots urbanism change depending on where they are in the city. The wealthy axis, which is the center of the city and the Western part, is all the design-build hipster stuff, and then the periphery is all the cultural and political. Those parts are the periphery of the city, so when you get pretty far away, it's very low income, it's mostly self-built. That's where you're going to find the open-air theater or the music workshop or the dance performance. It's not just socialcultural, it's also place-based, it's very contextual, it comes from a particular place, and it wants to change that place. And it's engaging urban issues.
I'm trying to understand what these differences are, do they have some points in common, and can we learn something from understanding those differences.
What do you envision the impact of this project can be?
I'm an academic and I'll publish a book—hopefully—but I also want this map that I'm making to be a public website, ideally in both Portuguese and English. The first thing, which is sort of a humble but very ambitious goal, is that the site can be self-feeding, in that people will find out about it and submit their own projects.
Maptivism is a thing, so I'm not inventing it, but it could be this great collaboration of people collecting the history of these movements. These movements are going to exist whether it be in a map or not, so I don't have any vision that I'm potentializing anything, but rather humbly documenting their history and putting that on a map. That's a way of understanding and valuing what they're doing as a history, even as it's happening right now.
What do you wish people who are in the design field would know about public activism?
That's a great question. Last semester I was teaching a class of contemporary architecture for undergrads, and I devoted one lecture to grassroots activism, and they had this skeptical look on their faces. I asked, "Do you guys not think this is architecture?" Maybe a third of the class were like, “Yeah, we buy it, this is architecture,” and then another third was like, “No this is not architecture,” and then the middle was like, “We're not convinced, we need more.” There's some skepticism, in the sense that people sign up for this career because they like to draw, they like to make things, and I totally understand that fun part of making and thinking through making. What I want is that, while designers might not all be activists, there is a recognition that activism has a place in shaping buildings and cities and spaces.
I think that the ideal step would be that people can then work together. As a designer, you bring very specific things that nobody else has. You have technical expertise, you have creativity, you have a certain thinking process. You bring that as a tool at the same level as what the community is bringing in terms of their desires. They also have knowledge. In that process you will make something new. That would be my goal, which I know is totally utopian, but, you know, I got a third of my students convinced so that's pretty good.
Originally published on En Pointe, an interview series from Point Line Projects.
Point Line Projects is an editorial and curatorial agency specializing in architecture and design. We produce high-quality books and exhibitions, offering writing, research, editing, agent, consulting, and design services to shepherd projects from concept to completion. With a special interest in promoting new and underrepresented voices, Point Line Projects works to encourage thoughtful, critical, and engaged discourse around art, architecture, and the design professions.
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