By Claudia Seldin*
The pursuit of the ‘creative city’ in developing countries has taken many forms over the past couple of decades. In Brazilian cities, international theories of a ‘creative economy’ and the need to attract an international ‘creative class’ have often failed to thrive due to the very singular local urban contexts, marked by rampant social, economic and territorial inequalities.
In Rio de Janeiro, the country’s former capital and the so-called ‘Global South’s’ largest tourist destination, bottom-up, temporary and improvised cultural appropriations of space have often done more to foster innovation and develop alternative cultural options for neglected and marginalized populations than service and knowledge-driven policies. This trend can be perceived as both an emerging alternative in planning and as a subjective resistance movement against the outdated policies which have been officially implemented in past years.
During the 2010s, the official urban projects linked to Rio’s placemaking strategies focused on the implementation of ostentatious cultural facilities endowed with spectacular architectural design in strategic areas able to attract tourism and foreign investments, as is the case with the Marvellous Port (Porto Maravilha) urban operation. Meanwhile, the peripheral neighbourhoods and favelas, where lower-income workers dwell, received very little investment from the state, often facing a scarcity of traditional cultural and leisure facilities due to an uneven distribution of resources.
This reality pushed local inhabitants to come up with their own improvised solutions to break the negative stigma connected to the peripheries, ensuring that their identities and practices are perceived as integral parts of the city’s culture. The research lab “Culture, History and Urbanism” (Grupo de Pesquisa Cultura, História e Urbanismo – GPCHU) from the Graduate Program in Urbanism of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (PROURB/FAU-UFRJ) has investigated such solutions for the past 15 years, uncovering the ways in which temporary interventions can be used as tools to create alternative spaces of cultural production and socialization.
The strongest conclusion of the lab’s recent projects is that temporary urbanism in the peripheral regions of Rio de Janeiro does not consist in a placemaking scheme per se, like in many European and North-American cities, but rather in a response to basic needs, often conveying a social and political undertone linked to insurgent actions. A clear example of a new insurgent space marked by temporality is the “Realengo Flyover Cultural Space” (Espaço Cultural Viaduto de Realengo)– an improvised cultural centre under a flyover.
The Realengo Flyover Cultural Space
The Aloysio Fialho Gomes Flyover is located in the peripheral neighbourhood of Realengo, in the Western region of Rio de Janeiro, where urbanization developed in a disorganized way, leading to inefficient infrastructure and poor mobility. The flyover was built in 2012 as part of the infrastructure projects that aimed to connect different areas of the city in the context of the 2016 Olympic Games.
After the construction, which meant the demolition of existing houses, the leftover space generated under the flyover began to attract muggers, contributing to the general sense of insecurity in the neighbourhood. This urban gap was especially problematic at night because of the poor lighting solutions. Nevertheless, the circulation of pedestrians remained intense due to its role as a connector between the train station and the southern part of the neighbourhood. Given this strategic position, local cultural producers occupied the site in 2013 under the leadership of the collective Original Black Sound System (OBSS). This group was formed by young musicians, DJ’s, MC’s and graffiti artists, who wished to strengthen the local hip-hop scene through multiple events.
In a short amount of time, the Realengo occupation gathered a large following. The practices of graffiti and tagging paved the way for users to feel like that site belonged to them because it allowed the artists to physically mark the space, indicating a sense of property. The suggestion of their presence on the built environment had a significant impact on the local sense of security because it let people know that the area was not abandoned.
Following the visual interventions, the site was further occupied by rapping slams and battles. By the end of 2015, several other activities were taking place regularly under the flyover, including open-air film projections, jazz and rock concerts, a barber school, skate boarding, basketball and other more ephemeral uses, such as fashion photography shoots and community meetings. The spot was quickly turned into a reference point for the entire western region of Rio de Janeiro, which has always had very few official and traditional cultural facilities. In addition, the artists gained full support from the local population, as proved by an online survey carried out as part of this research in 2018.
‘Which is your flyover?’
Overall, the Realengo spatial appropriation reflects an international tendency towards the occupation of sites under transport infrastructures because these spaces show extreme potential due to the presence of a clearly defined and covered area. In Brazilian cities, they are more frequently taken over as parking spaces for automobiles or even as informal living spaces for the homeless. However, their cultural appropriation is increasing rapidly, leading the local populations to claim for improvements in the local infrastructure.
The positive results of the occupation of the leftover area under the flyover made the OBSS members realize the importance of occupying similar spaces in other parts of the city. That is why, for the past five years, they have been working on a project entitled “the flyover circuit of Rio de Janeiro” with the slogan “which is your flyover?”. They consider the Realengo case as a pilot project, able to inspire similar appropriations throughout the city. Its goal is to create awareness amongst other artists about the potential of these sites in a context of little support from the government and private sectors. They believe that by establishing an independent network, the continuity of their activities could be enhanced and their influence in the cultural scene could become stronger.
Realengo is only one of the many cultural actions and alternative spaces that pop up in the marginalized areas of Rio de Janeiro today. Due to current austerity measures and the rise of the extreme right to power, their continuity is becoming increasingly difficult. In a context of decreasing public investments in culture, bottom-up temporary uses of space can be perceived as tactical because they infer a necessary type of resistance in the search for inclusion and legitimacy. However, these ephemeral do-it-yourself interventions are also extremely convenient for the neoliberal interests in power because they can be perceived as excuses for the state not to invest in these areas and to continue to prioritize only traditional cultural facilities that will result in some sort of capital return in the richer regions.
Cases like the one in Realengo lead us to ponder about the real effects of current urban planning trends and what creativity means to developing cities. It is the belief of our lab that temporary urbanism must be understood in its particularities taking into consideration the reasons and actors behind it because their existence might actually point to larger issues connected to basic rights.
The author wishes to thank Caio Barros, Pedro Vitor Costa, Thomas Ilg and Lilian Vaz for the contributions to her research.
Claudia Seldin is a Brazilian architect and urban planner with a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Urbanism from the Graduate Program in Urbanism of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (PROURB/FAU-UFRJ) in Brazil, with two collaborative periods at the Fakultät Architektur und Urbanistik of the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar in Germany. She is a former assistant professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at UFRJ and is currently working as a postdoc researcher at PROURB/FAU-UFRJ, where she co-leads the lab “Culture, History and Urbanism”. Her research focus on the existing relationships between cities and culture, and in contributions of social movements to alternative ways of thinking urban space. She is the recipient of the 2016 Capes Dissertation Award in Architecture and Urbanism (given by the Brazilian Ministry of Education) and of the VIII Milton Santos Award for best article in a journal (given by the Brazilian National Association of Graduate Research in Urban and Regional Planning in 2017). She is also the author of “Urban Images and Resistances: From Capitals of Culture to Creative Cities” (2017) and the co-editor of “Cultures and Resistances in the City” (2018). https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Claudia_Seldin