Paulo Tavares, a Brazilian architect and urbanist who teaches at UNB in Brasilia, is founder of Autonoma, an agency that works with the idea that if the city, if the territory, if the space is a right, architecture is a form of advocacy. His work is concerned with the relationship between conflict and space within the arrangements of cities, territories and ecologies. Grounded in research-based methodologies and commitment to field work, Tavares’ practice combines design, media-based cartographies and writing. He co-curated the Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2019 and received the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale this year for “Terra,” a joint curating project with Gabriela de Matos, representing Brazil. This interview was conducted through an exchange of email and voice messages in June 2023.
Paulo, you come from a more traditional architectural background at Unicamp, which seems to be strongly focused on design, infrastructures and the urbanism of metropolises, guided by modernist notions and techno-economic modernization. During your training in London you moved away from these characteristics to adopt other languages and contexts of action. Could you talk a little about how this process has shaped your current practice and how it is reflected in your pedagogical activities and socio-political activism? In this sense, how has your practice fit within Brazilian institutional structures?
You are right in pointing out that the college where I studied architecture [UNICAMP] was created—and I was in the first class—with a very traditional and even engineering bias, focused on a more formal and traditional education aspect of architecture. But, since I was a student, I had already been exploring other fronts and spaces, other disciplines within UNICAMP itself and beyond the university. I think it’s important to highlight my participation in the Rádio Muda collective and my involvement in media activism during practically my entire education process. This had a huge effect on how I came to think of space and architecture as a form and instrument of power. And it was very natural. Furthermore, I think that this other bias is also due to a navigation through other fields of knowledge, such as geography and the field of technology, mainly the dialogue with Professor Laymert Garcia dos Santos and media activism. So much so that my final graduation work was a television broadcast. Throughout my education, we did street television, street radio, etc. So it was very natural that these questions somehow led me to find a home at Goldsmiths Center for Research Architecture in London, which was a place that was developing a lot of questions regarding architecture and politics at that time as well.
There is a notion of fieldwork in your practice that extends beyond the common understanding of this activity (as seen in anthropology, for example). In this sense, how did your involvement with the Amazonian territories and the populations that inhabit them come about?
I think this training process is very connected to other spheres outside the field of architecture, very influenced by the field of arts and human rights. It influences my practice in relation to an aspect of militancy for human rights and political activism—what I call architecture as advocacy. If the city is a right, architecture is a form of advocacy. I believe that, also in my more theoretical, artistic and curatorial work, a critical and speculative approach to architecture is present.
Thus, my involvement with the Amazon, with the Amazonian peoples, began primarily as a matter of investigation, of research. I was interested in understanding how the coloniality present in Brazilian modernism, as I wrote, mainly in the case of Brasília, unfolded in the military regime for the entire Amazon, with a series of “territorial planning” operations designed and implemented in the Amazon—perhaps the most ambitious territorial-planning process of the twentieth century worldwide. And allying this with activist and political concerns, and also after working with the development of the practice of forensic architecture, which had already been developed in other territories, I began to collaborate with different communities for the defense of the rights of territories, with the understanding that architecture can be conceived and thought of as a form of advocacy.
Around 2012 you produced a video about Non-Human Rights. Since then, much has changed in the acceptance of these ideas in cultural terms, but they are still challenging in other arenas such as the field of law or urbanism. Could you talk a little about this video and how it led you to interact with fields adjacent to architecture?
This video is a very old work, and at that time I was very interested in the issue of rights and understanding how the constitutional revolutions, mainly in the territory of Bolivia and Ecuador, were understanding that nature could be considered a subject of rights. These ideas were still very incipient at that time and, as you mention, it is interesting to note how, since then, there has been a presence and dissemination of these ideas, mainly in the field of art, which has been reflecting a lot on this. After that work, they had several exhibitions, including an exhibition called “Rights of Nature,” curated by T.J. Demos, and these questions have become increasingly contemporary in the art world. But, as you also mention, there is a difficulty from a more political point of view for these ideas to be implemented in the territories. But we also see significant changes about it. In different parts of the world we observe rivers, mountains and other elements that make up nature being considered as subjects of rights or recognized under other forms of protection, such as the patrimonialization of cultural landscapes, etc. I believe that in the context of the climate crisis and the ecological crisis, these ideas—which originate in the philosophy, cosmology and politics of indigenous peoples—are gaining more and more space and this is a very positive movement.
A key issue that still seems to emerge would be the complex relationships between colonial violence and the modernist erasures that form a large part of the sociocultural matrices of the so-called Global South. But beyond this axiom, do you see any way out or resolution (even hypothetically) to this impasse? Or are we fated to live between these conflicting matrixes? I believe that a bit of this permeates your projects, I think of the recent books you published: “Des Habitat” and on Lúcio Costa—as well as the notion of reparation in architecture.
Well, I don’t know if I see this as an impasse, in fact, where we have to define between two matrices. I see it more as a structural relation of these colonial violences and modern erasures. So perhaps this is not an impasse, but a crossroads, one where we don’t have to choose paths, but rather untie a knot. And it’s not a knot from the past, it’s a very present, contemporary knot. And, in the specific case of Brazil, due to the ideological strength that modernism has and assumed in the representation of nationality, it is an even more important, deeper and more essential knot to be untied.
No doubt. We attempt to untie this knot through affirmative actions: the inclusion of subjects historically oppressed, which once included in the social systems, begin to perform somehow as representatives of these other matrices that form the country. However, I am concerned that there is always the risk of institutional appropriation, tokenism and institutional restriction, that is, the risk of a “controlled” inclusion to fulfill an inclusive-discursive agenda, but without allowing changes in the power structures. For example, now we are seeing in Brazil the attempt to approve the “Temporal Framework” (Marco Temporal), referring to the demarcation of indigenous lands. The demarcation (another untying of the knot) is a first, and essential step, toward repairing colonial violence, but I ask you, what comes after the demarcations? Because we know that the forms of restriction and oppression do not stop at access to land or to places in society, they are broader and often subtle, such as access to knowledge, tax regimes, financial credit, the health system…
There is now a serious setback, which is the “Temporal Framework.” And as Gabriela de Matos and I said in other interviews, we hope that the Golden Lion, the award at the Venice Biennale—which is recognition of the architecture of indigenous peoples presented in the pavilion—will serve as a symbol against this setback that is happening precisely in the Lula government, the government that created the Ministry of Original Peoples. And we have a very conservative congress that is not really seeing the issue. As you said, demarcation is the first form of reparation, but reparation is related to different structures such as education, health, access, all these elements as you put it. And I think that, in that sense, people are very organized. In fact, I believe that the original peoples and the indigenous movement were what held Brazil back during the Bolsonaro government. They were always on the street, always on the front line of battle. They are very organized to include these demands. We see today a transformation of the Brazilian University, with different indigenous intellectuals, now even graduated. We see a very large autonomy of the indigenous movement, mainly by PIB, with an expressiveness, a strong representation mainly in the field of law, with Elóy Terena and Maurício Terena among others. And we see now, with the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, also the movement to resume indigenous health, which was very scrapped during the Bolsonaro government. So, I see this ancestral movement of peoples for reparation as a continuous movement of struggle, and more alive than ever.
Can we associate the land issue, the issue of agrarian concentration and deforestation with modernist architectural and urban practices?
Certainly, the very idea of modernity—as it was conceived—and then, again and especially in Brazil, it is associated with deforestation. I would go even further and say that the very notion of Brazil as a nation, as national formation and identity, is closely related to deforestation, as if the deforestation followed an ideology, let’s say, imperialist Brazil about Brazil itself. We have to remember the phrase of Getúlio Vargas, when he said that Brazil has its own imperialism, which would be the conquest of its own lands. And deforestation comes in the wake of this image, of a kind of internal colonialism as the very engine of the foundation of the nation, of nationality, and, consequently, of national modernity. But it is clear that there is also a broader dimension to this, which is the very idea of modernity in its foundation, in its Western, European and white matrix, which is closely related to a kind of colonialism, the domestication and rationalization of nature, and within this aspect, deforestation is also a constituent element.
You have previously worked with land, both as evidence and as a witness. I think of your “mud evidence” work as well as the legal processes of demarcation of indigenous lands you are involved in. Now, in the Brazilian pavilion at the Architecture Biennale in Venice, how was the earth treated? Whether in metaphorical terms and as a subject, but also as the material that embodies the pavilion, in a kind of installation—exhibition display.
The earth is the central element that sews the pavilion together, as the name implies. We work with different territories, landscapes, artifacts, indigenous and Black heritage architectures in Brazil and all of them are related to the theme of the earth. And we are also questioning the idea or representation of land in the constitution of national identity or national formation, mainly through the first room—”Decolonizing the Canon”—which takes a critical interpretation of Brasilia as a colonial city that saw the land as a colonial space. And in that sense, as the pavilion speaks of heritage in different ways. We understood that the pavilion building itself, designed by Henrique Mindlin—a very key figure of modernism—also carried certain ideological positions as well as being a heritage object that is not neutral in the exhibition space. So we should work with architecture itself, making an intervention in critical dialogue with this heritage and with the history that, in some way, it represents. Hence this kind of site-specific installation that we call grounding, which brings the building down to the ground and perhaps to another story. The entire pavilion is then covered with a dirt floor that alludes to the dirt floors that are so popular and traditional in Brazilian housing and also makes the entire exhibition system a kind of earth archeology, alluding to an earth archeology that indicates the name of the second room, which we call “Places of Origin, Archeologies of the Future.” Making this connection between an ancestral past and another possible future for planet Earth, the common home of all beings.
Sometimes it seems that the only places really saved from the contemporary system in which we live are those inaccessible to man, untouched, forgotten. It may seem like a certain utopia perhaps, but would this be a path to a more accelerated and effective preservation of endangered biomes, I mean, total isolation? Because in the history of humanity, it seems to me that most attempts at preservation fail in the face of the prevailing economic-capitalist apparatus.
I’m not very comfortable with these terms, because I think it’s hard to talk about untouched, forgotten places. It is difficult to think of a more generic term in which you place this figure of man, as a universal and homogeneous being, throughout all places on planet Earth. I think that much of my work speaks of this, because learning from several archaeologists and botanists in the Amazon, that the issues of preserving the planet’s biodiversity, from the most interesting, most sophisticated experiences, to the most contemporary knowledge, they are precisely in those places where people, communities, humanities, in their plurality and diversity, have learned to cultivate a relationship, a different technology with the Earth, which is not this predatory capitalist, grounded on environmental destruction, which is what you mention. These practices, they are very much alive and present, they are contemporary—they are not practices of the past. So I think we would have to look at these practices, and in many ways the Terra pavilion is about that. As we said, it is about another future, but one that is already present, already existing and at the same time radically new, which is the relationship that we identify with the Earth, of this different knowledge and technologies of communities, of indigenous and Afro-Brazilian peoples.
Thank you for accepting this provocation, Paulo. It emerges from how I observe the general understanding of the subject of preservation, the romanticization and appropriations that Western materialist culture promotes (greenwashing, for example), and the difficulty of Western thought to understand the cosmologies and ways of sustaining life in these other environments. This reminded me of a recent interview with philosopher-politician Roberto Mangabeira Unger, where he defends mobilizing a development for the Amazon that combines the richness of biodiversity with the help of scientists, local knowledge and companies—a project that, according to him, confronts the current administration of Marina Silva, which he identifies as one “based on primitive and artisanal extractivism.” But it seems to me that we are once again experiencing a time of dispute over narratives about development models to be implemented without having the voices of the subjects who live there in the equation, I mean, that knowledge is not really being considered… It seems to me that the new Ministry of Original Peoples founded by Lula’s government could be a more appropriate forum for these discussions, if we really want to see more changes in the inclusion of other matrices of knowledge in our society.
Moving on to another topic now. When you participated in the curatorship of the Chicago Architecture Biennial there was a fact that stirred the event related to the sponsorship of an oil company BP (involved in natural disasters). In the case of the Pavilhão do Brasil, although keeping the due proportions, we have the master sponsorship of mining company Vale do Rio Doce. In these experiences of yours, do you believe there is any room for a more forceful institutional and strategic critique of the uses (and tokens) that culture provides for the image of large corporations and economic agents responsible for maintaining exploratory and unequal matrices, the continuation of colonial matrices?
I think that in many ways culture and cultural and art spaces have increasingly become a front for very relevant political struggles, in relation to what we could call climate justice, but also on the issue of the decolonization of many narratives about spaces. We saw the constitution and strengthening of this front, of museographic and cultural spaces as a political action front, mainly in the context of Black Lives Matter and the movements that erupted in 2019, of contestations about the role of art institutions and their alliance with the oil industry. There are some significant directions for this. If I’m not mistaken, the Tate and now the British Museum severed their connection with British Petroleum and we see other fronts taking place in this direction. Of course, these are very slow changes due to the urgency that the situation demands, but it seems to me that somehow something significant is happening.
In the case of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, there was a very interesting debate about whether the fact that the Biennial was sponsored by British Petroleum would eliminate its critical potential, which was something very important in the Biennial. If I’m not mistaken, this was a headline that came out in Frieze magazine, whether oil would somehow stain the political perspective of the Biennial… When we were making the Biennial, we were very aware of this process and we believe that the debate, having been generated within an Architecture Biennial, was quite positive and productive, especially in a Biennial that had a very strong political dimension. There was even a work directly critical of British Petroleum within the Chicago Architecture Biennial, produced by the Territorial Agency, and these issues were very important for us to think about for the curatorship. It is clear that, even though these spaces (art, museums, biennials and, again, the curatorship of the Terra pavilion) are of political intervention in this sense, I think that it is not the only front and that it definitely has its limits .
But, to conclude, I also think that the interesting movements that are happening in this sense do not start so much from an institutional critique in the traditional sense of art historiography, but I think that they come a little from another field, which is more related to ecological activism and environmental justice. And I think that difference is significant to think about.
My interest in this subject actually points to a broader aspect: the Tate institution itself, for example, comes from a colonial slavery association linked to the sugar industry (which was recently publicly recognized by them). Many of the world’s great financial institutions, investment banks that sponsor culture, originated as insurers for the ships that carried out the slave trade to the colonies. In this sense, the very economical and political nature, I would say, of what we have as institutional environments today (including cultural ones) derives from past actions that have a lot to account for in historical, financial and human terms. In this direction, the ideas and actions of reparation seem to be more and more pressing… So, to end the interview, my last question: you move through the fields of architecture, botany, art and the law. How have the collaborations been in this regard and how do you see the new projects for the agency you founded, Autonoma?
Recently, with Autónoma—which is an agency that works with this idea that if the city, if the territory, if the space is a right, architecture is a form of advocacy—we are using the instruments of architecture and media in defense of human rights and environmental rights. Now we are working on different cases that are quite relevant from the political point of view and from the point of view of rights, which are related both to police violence in community areas in Brazilian large cities, as well as cases of territorial reparation of original peoples, mainly in the context of ongoing discussions by the National Truth Commission.