Alexandra Pechman at the fifth anniversary of Studio-X Rio

“Five Years Thinking the Cities” at Studio-X Rio. (All photos: Pedro Costa Barros)

RIO DE JANEIRO WAS INUNDATED. On March 16, the night the Cultural Secretary of São Paulo spoke at Studio-X Rio, I was elsewhere, shin-deep in rain-mud before my bus got stuck in traffic as water and protests surged. #OcupaBrasil had exploded. There was a pour-over from the weekend’s millions-strong marches against the incumbent Workers’ Party president, Dilma Rousseff. Her ministry appointment earlier that day of ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a gesture some assumed meant to shield him from prosecution in an ongoing corruption scandal, was blocked, and further stymied by the release of a leaked phone call between the two. (“Hotline Bling” remixes soon followed.) It was either apt or inopportune timing for the five-year anniversary of Studio-X Rio, the experimental lab of Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), located on the historic Praça Tiradentes in central Rio. Too bad we couldn’t get there.

The anniversary was titled “Five Years Thinking the Cities,” though outside the walls people were screaming about the country. The week of talks and exhibitions proved combative, and the program didn’t shy from the city’s architectural shortcomings—responsibility for which must be shared by both the left and the right. The session “Expanded Metropolis” proposed solutions for the urban stretch between Rio and São Paulo devised by GSAPP students, while “Lutar, Ocupar, Resistir” (Fight, Occupy, Resist) assessed the status and ingenuity of Brazil’s housing occupations, or squats.

Since 2001, occupations have spread across the country, as the social-housing project Minha Casa Minha Vida continues to deliver unoriginal, ineffective housing dominated by private-sector development. “Lutar, Ocupar, Resistir” highlights architects’ interventions into squats such as Mariana Crioula in Rio and Hotel Cambridge in São Paulo—the renovation of the latter brought on by the art direction for a film, Era o Hotel Cambridge, by Eliane Caffé. In remarks before the opening, Studio-X director Pedro Rivera, who curated the show, said the exhibition emerged from his trips to a milk plant turned squat in the early 2000s, since demolished to make way for Minha Casa Minha Vida housing. “Now they are being marginalized by this right-wing levante [uprising],” Rivera later told me, of occupation residents. “So the fact that coincidentally we opened this exhibition…” he laughed. “It’s not really coincidental.”

The day before the opening, Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, privately addressed the Columbia crowd at the Praca Mauá at the newly opened Museu da Amanha (Museum of Tomorrow). The mayor’s ties to Studio-X run deep: The city offered Columbia the building as part of a revitalization of the Praça Tiradentes, which will be eventually be accessible by light-rail. (Outside, the square is torn up by unfinished tracks.) “We are part of the process,” said Rivera, whose firm RUA Arquitetos participated in the exhibition “Uneven Growth” at MoMA last year and also won the bid to design the Rio 2016 Olympic Golf Course Clubhouse. The mayor has fostered plenty of revival (aka gentrification), including the Porto Maravilha project, which attempts to redefine the port zone as a cosmopolitan hub with new services and architecture, though not without criticism. After outcries that Porto Maravilha would displace thirty thousand people, developers have committed to building public housing. The $55 million Museum of Tomorrow, designed by Santiago Calatrava, is one of the most contentious buildings. It has no collection, and will mount temporary science-related exhibitions about “future scenarios for the next fifty years, approached from a perspective of sustainability and coexistence”—whatever that means.

At “Five Years Thinking the Cities” at Studio-X Rio.

Thursday’s panel for “Lutar, Ocupar, Resistar” featured Alejandro Castro Mazzarro, coordinator of the LatinLab at Columbia; Lurdinha Lopes, the coordinator for MNLM-RJ (the National Struggle for Housing Movement–Rio de Janeiro); and Ticianne Ribeiro de Souza, a Rio-based architect responsible for renovations at the Manuel Congo occupation in downtown Rio, one of the city’s best-known squats. The crowds were noticeably scanty despite the hundreds of online RSVPs. I imagine many who care about public policy were tracking protests rather than panels.

Lopes, who does community organizing with occupation residents, outlined how traveling to Rio’s center from the outer edges can take three to four hours. Thus, self-started housing is critical. Particularly pre-Olympics, improving social housing in the city center has not been a priority, especially for architects. The conversation soon evolved into a forum on architects’ responsibility in a city wracked by inequality and corruption, and a referendum on the legacy of the architecture of the Olympics.

“We see these atrocities: big museums that have nothing to do with the grounds they are built on. It’s absurdly disconnected,” Souza said, referring back to the Praça Mauá and the fact that, while the historic zone long supported Rio’s economy, it also received more slaves over hundreds of years than any port in the Americas. “What is the Museum of Tomorrow? Without judging it aesthetically or architecturally,” she said. “It’s a museum whose name is the Museum of Tomorrow. That doesn’t connect to the history of the place, a place where thousands of Africans were buried when they were brought to be slaves here. Look at the madness we make in architecture.”

The Spanish architect and professor Juan Herreros gave Friday evening’s talk about his Madrid-based firm Estudio Herreros, which has overseen the construction of hybrid spaces around the world, and followed on the previous day’s thread. The firm has taken on projects meant to bring services and affordable housing back to the center, from social housing in Barcelona to a combined bus garage–residential structure in Paris. “Recycling existing buildings and reprogramming them is the real task,” he said. “The neutral mask is what 99 percent of architects do.”

By that night there were protests of the protests. As I made my way home from Studio-X, people trickled into Carioca Station from a demonstration at Praça Quinze wearing the red of the Workers’ Party and chanting “Não vai ter golpe”—“You will not have a coup.” There was—and continues to be—fear that an ouster of the current government might resemble the military takeover of 1964, since specific charges still haven’t surfaced against Rousseff. The following days brought a steady stream of rallies—Theater for Democracy, Brazilian Cinema for Democracy, Festival for Democracy—spearheaded by prominent local musicians, filmmakers, artists, and collectives. Questions of the city’s architecture and who it belongs to may have faded into the background—but it’s the background that will remain as the rest plays out.