One really gets of a sense of the “planning” aspect of urban planning when it comes to the superblocks. Superblocks made up the core concept of what the utopian architects of this city had planned. Here are some numbers:
Exhibit A- a building:
11 of these = 1 superblock
4 superblocks = 1 neighborhood (around 8,000 inhabitants)
15 neighborhoods = 1 wing
4 wings = Brasilia
If you want to see the true rationality behind it all, consider the naming system. Instead of following the tradition in Brazil of naming streets or buildings after public figures, every street, and building is a number. For example, here is the welcome mat of this building:
SQS = south wing
3 (odd number) = west of the Highway Axis;
(second in the odd series) = in the second row of superblocks west of the Axis
08 = the eight superblock in the north-south row, out (south) from the Monumental Axis
BL. B = Bock B of that superblock
The same occurs for north-south avenues but with W/E references. In practice, since not all Brasilian think best this way, people give directions just like anyone else “The bus stop next to the kindergarten” or “the market opposite of the church”. Churches or gas stations are good landmark indications because of the sameness of most of the buildings within a sector, the Bauhaus style more consistent here than I would guess anywhere on earth.
The idea behind the superblock was utopian in nature. In theory, each superblock was to be a small, self-sufficient community. There was a preschool and kindergarten, church, and a commercial block in each one. In theory great, in practice…not so much. Many superblocks are lacking the promised structures, though most of them do contain a commercial block, which is the liveliest part of the city I’ve seen. The buildings themselves, dreamed of a utopian place for those of all social classes to interact, are seemingly abandoned. Each of these buildings is required to have an elevated first floor so as to allow easy walking access. The first floor seems like an obvious meeting area, shaded and with amble seating area, but no one is there. I believe that it again goes back to the lack of numbers in the buildings. Perhaps 50 years ago this place was bursting with people walking back and forth but these days there is a feeling of abandonment throughout.
The residences of the superblock would be, say, the vice president of a large company. He could possibly live in the same superblock with his driver. This worked for a little bit, the mingling of social classes. But eventually the upper class moved out to the south part of the city next to the lake.
One can probably see how maddening the monotony of building styles could be to certain people. The city’s severe building codes frustrated people. Imagine living in a gated community with strict visual guidelines like what color you can paint your house and what style fence you can put up. Then imagine that community extending to your entire city, and not really having an option to leave. Times have changed since the 50s though, and I stumbled upon a neighborhood that, while originally all of the houses looked identical, the rules were relaxed in the 1970s. The area was originally built for merchants and professionals (whereas the superblocks were mostly for the workers who built the city), and the owners took it upon themselves to paint the houses different colors and expand the structures. One can perhaps sense a similar base for these houses if you know what you’re looking for, but they have for the most part taken on individual styles.
The nicest part of the city, home to many of the foreign embassy workers in the city, is South Lake. Because the apartments are still so costly in the city it has become most cost effective (in terms of money per square foot) to built a house in this part of town. Many of them sit on streets that border the large lake, ending with a cul-de-sac. Apparently, fences used to be illegal in this area, but the rule was scraped with rising crime rates. Every house I saw had one. Just as in the superblocks, I saw almost no one on these streets.
It seems as though the neighborhoods are trying to adapt and account for the plan’s deficiencies, but anything with this number of people involved and city building takes a lot of time (the 41 months it took to build the city is a rare exception). I’ll explore what this means for an aging city in my next post.
Roberto picked me up from my hotel in his Ford Fusion to start our tour. Yes, even though 90% of Brasilia’s famous sights are on the main street of the city, a car tour was the only way to go about seeing them all in one day. Like I’ve said before, not walker friendly.
Roberto was a great sport, expertly answering my rapid-fire questions about the city. He had lived here most of his life, so he had a lot of insight about the changes the city had seen in the previous decades. He explained something that I had actually thought a lot about-why there was no one downtown. When the city was built, all of the housing downtown was made for families. This entailed 4 or 5 person apartments. But that was 50 years ago and demographics have changed as children moved out and spouses passed away. I talked to a landlady who said that exactly 30 of her 60 units were occupied by single widowers. Meanwhile, the rent remains too sky high so young couples are moving out to the areas around the city, and the wealthier ambassadors and expats have moved to the neighborhood of South Lake. Downtown numbers are dwindling, a problem for the city’s design (that I’ll get into at a later post).
While not directly tied into my venture grant exploration, the buildings were what this city was built around. A utopian ideal of great architecture and monuments accessible to all. The monuments followed the city theme of “empty”, perhaps through the photo you can tell how astonishingly…well, empty, these places where. For instance, at the Palácio da Alvorada (Brasilia’s equivalent of the White House), I was one of 4 or 5 people there. I did find it pretty funny that, instead of a fence, they had a “moat” (I would call it more a shallow carp pond-compete with carp!-that a high school long jumper could easily hop across).
[On a related note, Roberto told me that, when asked the best time to visit Brasilia, Oscar Niemeyer responded, “Weekends, so there are no cars in front of the monuments.”]
For lunch, Roberto took me to get ‘real Brazilian pizza’ and mate, where I encountered the most people I had seen at once this trip. There were probably 5 or 6 guys eating at the counter silently watching the Brazil-South Africa soccer match. Brazil won.
One of the happiest coincidences of the days was that the National Museum (the circular building with a curving ramp sticking out of the side) was having an art exhibit on the Bauhaus movement! Ah, ‘twas a good day to be an architecture nerd in Brazil.
While the buildings didn’t disappoint, they did look…worn. White isn’t an ideal or sustainable building color. That being said, a lot of these photos are in black and white because these buildings are so much more about their form or shape, and to have the grimy concrete color in front of the building distract from the photo would kind of be a shame. Black and white really shows off the clean lines. I will say that the photos I had seen previously (and took myself) of the Dom Bosco Church (the one with all the small square panels of blue stained glass) did/do not nearly do it justice.
Yesterday was amazing. I didn’t get a chance to blog about it, but now I’m sitting in Colorado Coffee and it’s cold out and I’m wearing flip-flops, so I basically have no choice. Anyway. Yesterday we had an incredible opportunity to Skype with Kris Diaz, the playwright who wrote Chad Deity and was nominated for a Pulitzer. Idris talked to him for twentyish minutes about technique and about what it’s like to be a playwright of color (all the standard stuff–we’ve been covering this ground for a bit and we’re all seasoned race-discussers), but then we got the chance to ask him our own questions.
Playwrights are a very, very smart bunch. They’re very measured in the way that they talk, they know how to get a laugh out of you, and they know how to grab your attention when you might not be taking them seriously. Kris talked to us about how he builds characters, how he humanizes villains, how he gets his ideas down on paper, etc.
I haven’t had a lot of chances in my life to talk to anyone famous (and yes, for all intents and purposes I’m consider Kris famous) or otherwise eminent in the art world. One of my favorite things ever, though, is realizing that these people are human. They are just like me. How much more motivation could anyone possibly need to become a successful artist? Determination and dedication can get you anywhere, and talking to Kris just reaffirmed that for me.
There are a lot more things I could say about our conversation. The most important, though, is this: when I had the chance to ask him a question (I got to ask Kris Diaz a question, how cool is that?) about how to get out of my mind and onto the paper, he told me, in exactly these words, “it doesn’t fucking matter.” IT DOESN’T FUCKING MATTER. GAH. I can’t get over that. He went on to talk about how having a partially completed piece of shit play is better than having nothing at all, and all that jazz. But that was one of the best things that happened to me in a long time. Kris Diaz told me, not in so many words, that anything I write counts. And that is the best thing I could have heard.
I can’t get over this shit. Oh man.
Despite what TripAdvisor told me, the people at the front desk of my hotel do not speak English. That would have been fine if I knew that beforehand, but since I was expecting “Excellent English skills” I didn’t exactly do a lot of research, figuring it would be easy to just ask the front desk. Now, this isn’t because I’m the type of person who likes to travel and figure it out on the fly, quite the opposite actually. However, I’ve found that no matter how much time you spend researching a city there is just no way you’re going to know more than the people who live there.
First, let me clarify. Brasilia is not a destination like Rio. Going to Brasilia is a bit like traveling to Italy and choosing to go to Milan. No offense to any fans of Milan out there. I will admit my only experience with the city was a night sleeping on a cold marble bench in their train station, but you get the idea. To drive the point home, I was the only non-Brazilian on my flight. This is not speculative; I walked through the ‘foreigners’ customs line alone. I was pretty relieved to even be let into the country considering I look a bit like a mass murderer in my VISA photo (I’m gonna split the blame on that one with the Walgreens photo guy).
Check in with the front desk and my general questions about the area (like where to eat) did not go quite as smoothly as I imagined. After realizing neither of us could understand each other (I had a feeling that my one Portuguese phrase, “A menina come uma maca//the girl eats an apple” would not be getting me very far) we met in the middle and conversed in Spanish. I use the word ‘conversed’ lightly, it was mostly him speaking Spanish phrases or words quite slowly to me, followed by a lot of hand motions. But ultimately, as it often does in these situations, we had a good idea of what each other were trying to say, though the conversation ended with me putting my credit card number on a slip of paper for reasons not entirely known. I suppose I should start checking my bank account on a more regular basis just in case.
Apparently, because of Carnival and Brasilia’s poor pedestrian planning, nothing is open within walking distance. Oh well, what’s the saying? “There’s no better way than getting to know a culture than eating their frozen meals”?
The first thing I notice is how empty it feels here. I was the only one checking into (possibly staying at?) my hotel, and despite being surrounded by high-rises, I didn’t see anyone as I walked the block from where my taxi dropped me off to the hotel doors. It felt a bit post-apocalyptic. When I got to my room on the 16th floor and looked down onto the main axis (think of it like DC’s mall) I could see a few groups of people walking the immense stretches between cross streets like little ants. But that was the only real sign of life. This may just be my reaction to staying at a business hotel instead of a crowded youth hostel. I guess when one has spent most of their nights traveling on a bunk bed in a crowded room, one comes to expect certain things with their lodging (namely, a steady stream of loud young travelers coming into and out of the room at all hours of the night). But it still feels eerie, and I’m not exactly sure what to do with myself…
I was told it wasn’t really safe to walk around the hotel area at night, and I can kind of seem why. This is what the view of the place is at night:
Luckily I did do some research, and had written down the number of a highly recommended tour guide who has a background in architecture. One phone call later I am poised to meet Roberto tomorrow in the lobby of my hotel at 12 to begin our day of touring the architectural sights of Brasilia.
I’m excited to finally see Oscar Niemeyer’s extensive work in this city, as for so long they have been just been staring back at me from the pages of a book. I am a little worried they will not live up to the photos (some CC students may recall me dragging them through the streets of Vienna one night in a desperate attempt to find Otto Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank. I was met with several “this is it?” stares upon arrival) but architecture is an art form you must experience to really appreciate, so I remain deliriously excited to finally step into these buildings.
That’s it for now!
Well, Idris found out about my blog, so I’ve got to be more careful about what I say. Hopefully he doesn’t find my secret blog where I just complain about him–no one tell him where that one is.
Anyway, today we read a play called The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. It’s by a guy called Kris Diaz who we’ll be Skyping with tomorrow (what! what school do I even go to where we get to talk to Pulitzer-nominated playwrights like it’s nothing?) and it’s about wrestling. Sort of. It’s a monologue-heavy, direct-address, 4th-wall-shattering, New-York-Times-infuriating play about identity and cultural appropriation and misinterpretation and stereotypes and all that great stuff that gets you nominated for a Pulitzer.
I was so lucky that my friend James turned down Idris’s casting call, because it meant I got to read for the main character, Macedonio Guerra. Macedonio (Mace) grew up in the Bronx watching AWA wrestling and dreaming of the day when he could “tell a perfect story.” Mace talks about how wrestling might be fake and contrived, but how that doesn’t make it any less of an art form. He compares it to ballet, where (paraphrasing here) you know the swan will die from the beginning, but you watch anyway. Wrestling as an American cultural institution is often seen as a celebration of all America shouldn’t be: vapid, fake, garish, what have you. I’m definitely guilty of thinking these things myself. But after reading this play and getting an insight into the hopes and dreams of a man in love with wrestling, I think I feel differently. Maybe. I’m about to look up videos of the superkick. I’ll know then if I’m barking up the right tree.
That, though, is the mark of a great play in my mind. I talked about this phenomenon in my post on Hit the Wall. Even though I have little to nothing in common with the characters on the surface, I still feel them and empathize with them. They still ring these bells in my mind that makes them so familiar to me. Chad Deity was able to do that for me, and that makes it worthy of its accolades, no matter what that NY Times critic has to say about it.
Welcome to my blog detailing my venture grant! I suppose my 9-hour layover at the Miami Airport is a convenient time to write a first post. A quick introduction on me, where I’m going, and what I’m doing:
I am a senior political science major with a focus on international relations. Last spring I studied abroad in beautiful Copenhagen, Denmark, on a program studying non-European immigration and integration in Scandinavia. I also took a class there on how to read cities based on their architectural styles, maps, and structure. For my final paper I ended up merging these two diverse studies by looking at how various housing and immigrant distribution policies throughout Scandinavia were impacting social cohesion in neighborhoods. This is all a longwinded way of saying I’ve recently become very interested in urban planning, and how a city’s structure can have impacts on its citizens and the society at large. How can city design positively or negatively impact things like social capital? Why are some neighborhoods rundown and others are not? This brings me to my venture grant.
I am headed (in a few hours) to the capital city of Brazil, Brasilia. I bet you thought the capital was Rio, and that’s okay, I did too until sophomore year when I ran across the city in an architecture course. What’s so architecturally significant about a city most of us have never heard of? Surprisingly, a lot! Brasilia is an architectural haven, and a UNESCO World Heritage site to boot. You see, in 1956 it was decided that Brazil’s capital should move from Rio to the more centrally located Brasilia. There was just one problem. This is what Brasilia looked like in 1956.
The plan was to build the city up from scratch, which afforded the city complete control over the city’s structure and plan. It was the 1950s, so the utopian urban planning of the Modern movement was in full force. The entire city was completed in just 41 months. Lucio Costa designed the city, with famed architect Oscar Niemayer designing many of the public buildings.
What brings me to Brasilia is actually not the beautiful modernist buildings, but the many faults that people find with the city and its design. The city, designed in the shape of an airplane, has at times been used as a symbol of the failure of urban planning and architecture to take into account the real needs of the people who live in urban areas.
While the museum district is filled with beautiful examples of modern architecture, the city design has sparked debate about just how much government oversight there should be in urban planning, and if it is better to have cities arise naturally with population growth. It is a fascinating contrast to the neighborhoods I studied in Copenhagen which date back to medieval times. While Brasilia looks quite beautiful on a site plan or from an airplane, one finds, in reality, a city devoid of street life. This is due to a variety of factors such as the city being planned on a scale suitable for people moving at speeds of 60km/h (traveling by car) as opposed to a pedestrian friendly city, coupled with the use of single use neighborhoods and cul-de-sacs.
I am headed to Brasilia to see how the citizens of Brasilia have modified their urban environment to cope with poor design, and to understand how the people who live there deal with design issues. I am interested to see if the inhabitants of Brasilia have modified their urban landscape to deal with the sterile environment, if they have moved out of the central districts to create their own spaces outside the city, or if nothing has been done and no street life exists (and what the consequences are if that is the case).
I will primarily study this through photography, both because it’s the format I feel most comfortable with, and due to photography and architecture’s relationship with one another. I’ll be using photographer Marcel Gautherot’s beautiful black and white photographs from the book Building Brasilia for reference (all black and white photos posted will be his unless noted).
I’ll leave it at that for now, I promise more photos for the next post!
We read an incredible play today called Hit the Wall, by Ike Holter. It was a heavily dialogue-driven, witty, sad, razor-sharp, rhythmic play that I think will stick with me for a very long time. Hit the Wall is about the Stonewall Riot, an event in 1969 that many historians seem to agree was the catalyst for the LGBT rights movement. It concerns characters that fall into a million different archetypes and stereotypes, but as stylized as the characters are, the play is eminently relatable–and painful for its relatability.
As a straight white male, I had (superficially) very little in common with the protagonists of Hit the Wall. They were gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transvestite, black, Chicano, etc. etc. patrons of the Stonewall, a gay bar in the East Village in New York. I am none of these things, and this speaks to how well-written this play was: every single character said something that resonated with me.
I had the privilege of reading for a character called Tano, a “member of the Snap Queen Team.” He is a gay Chicano who assumes a subtle choral role in the play (meaning he is somewhat outside the action and acts as a commentator on what’s going on in the play itself), and he spits insults and Spanglish like nobody’s business. He was one of the most fun table read characters I’ve ever read, but that’s beside the point. What I’m getting at here is that as I sat onstage listening to the action that Tano wasn’t involved in, I was involuntarily flexing my arms and hands and jaw and clenching and biting and otherwise viscerally reacting to what was happening. Every single event made me want to hit someone, or snap my fingers like I was listening to a slam poem, or bite my own hands off.
That sounds crazy. But it’s true. Hit the Wall is an indisputably great play. It makes bold statements about historic events while staying fully in the present. It means something today, even though it’s based on events that happened over forty years ago.
Read it. It’s so worth your time.
It’s not good. It’s not terrible either. It’s just alright, but it’s also the longest play I’ve ever written, so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.
I have not written a lot of fiction in my life. This play, while definitely angsty and almost definitely shitty, is still dialogue-driven, still meets the page requirement, and still has some cool stuff going on onstage. So while I might not be proud of it, it’s on paper. (Actually no it’s not, it’s still just a lowly PDF, but I’m printing in a sec) That might be one of the more valuable things I’ve learned from this class: if you can get it out of your head, you’ll be able to edit it and make it workable. That’s what I did. I kept myself from saying “this is shitty, I shouldn’t write this,” and now I have a play. Doesn’t change its shitty factor. But it exists.
And dammit, that counts.
I’m 7 pages into my 10-pager, and I’ve fallen into every trap I promised myself I would avoid: I’m angsty, I’m not making jokes, I’m writing about things I haven’t researched fully, and I don’t know how I’m going to end it in the next 3 to 8 pages. Dialogue is really not my forte.
I’m so grateful that I get the chance to practice writing a dialogue-driven play, I just wish I had any idea what in God’s name I’m doing.
It’s about schizoid delusion. I’m not very happy with it at all.
I have a fifteen-page play due on Monday. I’m really not sure why I’m writing this blog entry right now, honestly–every waking moment should be spent on this play. I have a semi-story in my head, and about a page on paper. Right now my main concern is making it work without a lot of stage direction. That seems to be a weakness of mine; I did it in The Attic Play, and now that Idris has limited the amount of direction we can write in, I’m forced to write a play that relies heavily on dialogue. It’s a great exercise, because I’m terrible at dialogue, but also I’m terrible at dialogue, so this is exceedingly difficult.
I’m trying to write about a cult leader’s funeral. The more I think about it, the less I think it will work as a story. In fact, I think as I write this I’m changing my mind. Crap.
Updates to come again–we’ll see where I go.