The Urban History Man. Richard J. Williams interviewed by Richard J. Williams

IMG_0383It’s an unusually perfect day in Edinburgh and I’m sitting in Richard’s 1878 tenement flat, in the kitchen to be precise where sun is streaming through the big sash window. He fusses with the kettle. Do I want tea? Coffee? A cocktail? (‘I make a great breakfast caipirinha’). I settle for water, fresh from the Pentland Hills that are just visible from the window. ‘Good isn’t it?’ he says, referring to the water. ‘It’s the lead that makes it.’ He pulls up a chair, which screeches on the wooden floor, frightening a cat from its slumbers. So why did he agree to this solipsistic exercise? Well, he says, scratching his beard, it was time to get a few things straight. And ‘I wanted to do a conversation about research’, he adds, ‘which you rarely get a chance to do in enough detail.’ So I start by asking him the question that all doctoral students dread. What is he doing? What exactly is his contribution to the sum total of human knowledge?

RW: Oh God (laughs). Well actually I invited you to ask that question because I’ve so often struggled with it myself, especially when asked to say something straightforwardly disciplinary. I always end up saying ‘I’m not this, and I’m not that’, you know, without ever really coming to the point. So I did want you to ask that question…

And…

Well the answer is actually pretty simple. I’m interested basically in why cities look the way they do. You’d think it’s an obvious question to ask, but it isn’t because the people who ask it invariably have some agenda. So they lament the way things are, rather than keeping the question open. And there aren’t very simple answers. People like to think there are, but there aren’t. The production of something as complex as a city involves multiple actors, most of whom are perhaps not even conscious of being actors at all.

Can you say what you mean by that?

Well, people – I mean us – habitually think that cities are somehow designed. I want a method of looking at cities that incorporates things like material decay, but also use and inhabitation, and also if this is even possible their representation in things like films and art.

That’s clearly impossible.

Of course it is. But still I’d like to try because our perceptions of cities are conditioned by all of these immaterial factors. We don’t simply see them. We see them, like any other object, through what we expect and have learned to expect.

Can you give an example?

Brasília is a good case. I spent a lot of the last decade thinking and writing about it because it seemed to be such a reviled object, at least in Europe, and particularly Britain. Critics and journalists would routinely invoke it as an example of why the 1960s were so bad. It was always a great disaster, a dystopia – everything about it was appalling. It had a quite amazing status. Of course practically none of the people who invoked Brasília had actually been anywhere near the place, and in the rare cases that they had, their impressions dated from the moment of inauguration, 1960, when Brasília was still a building site. So it was this amazing discursive object. I went for the first time in (scratches head) about 2001 and found a place that was for the most part clean, well-ordered and perfectly normal. Yet the myths, the stories people told about the place, the memories of the candangos (note: the original settlers of the city)  – these things were all essential to the perception of the place.

Did you have a method for producing this synthetic knowledge?

No. But I knew that visuality was important.

Why?

Well, anecdotally, it seemed clear that around the visual, almost everyone had a view. They’d complain about eyesores, and the way things looked, ‘mess’ and so on, as if these things were straightforwardly resolved. Even perfectly intelligent people would start raging against modernist architecture. They seemed to lose their minds in the face of the visual.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t know, exactly. But I think it has something to do with seeing the visual world as a threat, something about it resisting control. For that reason I want to start with the visual and use visual artefacts to keep questions open as long as possible. That is something that art history was always good at, when it was good. I don’t have much patience with art any more, but I do still respect the way art history at its best used visual objects to keep questions open. It showed how meanings could be highly contingent on circumstance, how reception was important as production, and how ambiguity is in fact the condition we all live in, rather than something undesirable that has to be corrected. These are all pretty good things to understand in relation to cities. Who knows, if we could understand these things better, we might build better ones.

So what you’re proposing is an art history of cities?

In some ways, yes. It uses the visual as a way of keeping questions open as long as possible. I did a PhD in art history and still have a lot of respect for the methods. Panofsky, Gombrich, Tim Clark later on.

But isn’t that just another way of aestheticising the city? I mean, you’re always railing against the heritage lobby, but this sounds like the same thing, just in a different style.

Ha ha! That’s a good point, of course. But I’m not principally interested in aesthetics, rather the way the visuality helps keep other questions open. I basically think cities are good for us, and I want the most people to have the most opportunities. Exploring the visual world is often a way of asking awkward questions. So, for example, I’m fairly certain that the adherence to a single design aesthetic, whatever it is, has a limiting effect on the material opportunities of a city. The green belt, for example in the UK. It is an aesthetic position more than anything else that ends up being a tax on the poor. I’m quite convinced of that now, despite having spent large parts of my life enjoying them one way or another…

How?

Walking my parents’ dogs, mainly. But I don’t think the interests of a few dog-walkers should be allowed to trump the access of millions to reasonably-priced housing.

Can you say more about the kinds of sources you use? You once said that you got a lot from what we might call ‘professional’ discourses – what architects and planners say to each other.

Yes, that’s right. I work with academic material like everyone else, and draw on the usual urban theories. But I’ve always spent a lot of time with the professions themselves, especially the professional magazines. There’s a tendency for academics to ignore this material as it’s not always very sophisticated in a way that they recognise. But often they’re dealing with ideas that are as complex as anything academics deal with. It’s just that they have to explain them to a range of different constituencies, with a range of different expertises. I spent a lot of time with architects in the 1990s and 2000s in the UK, and felt that what was being played out in public, in the journals was very important. In the early 1990s, the climate was still deeply anti-urban in the UK and the US. That it changed so dramatically has a lot to do with what was happening in the journals.

You don’t automatically bash the real estate business.

No, that’s right. Part of the urban story of the past 20 years is the realisation by the business that there were market opportunities in cities, so they had to learn a new range of concepts in order to make the most of it. Those shifts are quite legible in magazines like Property Week and Estates Gazette that really nobody apart from people in the business reads. But it always seemed to me that it was there that you really found out what was going on, why for example there had been a gap site somewhere for a generation  (…..) Then there’s the developers themselves. When I was starting to research cities for the first time, I found people connected with the business very open. At least the people I talked to. Howard Bernstein, the CEO of Manchester City Council, for example, a public official, but a man with a very sound business head. He gave me a whole afternoon of his time in, um, 2002 or thereabouts, and then let me have his head of planning give me a tour. They were both extraordinarily generous with their time, despite the fact that they were as busy then as they had ever been in their lives. But they saw I was interested in their ideas. The profit motive mattered, clearly, but they were interested in a much longer-term transformation. You got the same thing from Tom Bloxham and Carol Ainscow in the same city. They needed to make money, obviously, but they weren’t driven by it. Ainscow (note: she developed Manchester’s Gay Village) was as interested in sexual politics as anything else. If these people were just interested in making money, they’d have found a much easier way to do it. Real estate development is hell a lot of the time. You have to really like buildings to do it.

Are there any other developers you admire?

Of course I sound like a Neo-Con nutjob saying I admire developers (laughs)….But yes, I do, at least some of them. John Portman (note: inventor of the atrium hotel) is amazing. There’s a hilarious piece on his Bonaventure Hotel in the French journal L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui from 1977 or so where the writers are so determined to hate it because it’s a product of the market…but in the end they grudgingly admit it’s a really radical building, possibly more so than the Pompidou Centre. Yes, Portman’s great. A real iconoclast.

You really sound like a Neo-Con now.

I’m really not. I’m just not a fundamentalist. I don’t automatically believe that markets are evil.

What are you doing now?

A few things. We want to set up a research centre in Edinburgh of some sort on the cultures of cities, and we have seedcorn funding to start. My colleague Igor Stiks will run it. He’s an expert on, and a participant in various urban-social movements, particularly in south-eastern Europe, and we’re both interested in the way younger people are developing new modes of urban citizenship. That seems to be a global phenomenon, and also seems to cut across political divides to some extent. Igor’s particular interest is in progressive change, Occupy and so on. I’m interested in the way generally people are developing new modes of urban behaviour and urban aspirations. We’ve a bit of a network already. Christoph Lindner in Amsterdam. Sharon Zukin in New York if we can persuade her. We’ll see…

And there’s a book.

Yes, another one for Reaktion, a history of the so-called Creative City. I wanted to put recent developments in some sort of cultural and historical context. Almost everyone in the developed world seems to have signed up to the creative industries, whatever they are – and there’s been a predictable negative reaction from the academic left. What I’m doing is putting a series of quite longstanding debates in context. I’m also hoping to produce a useable urban typology. There are big things like media cities, for example, but also smaller and more informal phenomema. The whole feel of eating and drinking, for example, the excessive sociability. When I was growing up, there literally wasn’t anywhere to go, and I think that applied in many parts of the developed world. Now there’s such an excess of it. And it’s global.

Will there be anything in it about sex?

Maybe, following on from the last book (note: Sex and Buildings was published by Reaktion in 2013). There’s certainly a question around all that frantic socialisation. The Creative city looks like a highly libidinal city in many ways, and work often morphs into something that to older people must look like dating, or at least flirting. But I wonder how much sex is really happening. Really busy people seem to like the look of sex, but don’t actually have time for it. I need a decent evidential base for that argument of course.

When is the book due out?

2016, we hope. There’s another project in the works too, on the visual culture of cities. But I can’t say any more about that until it’s a bit further on.

If you could do anything about cities now, what would it be?

It’s not in the gift of humanities professors to be prescriptive, you know. We’re just supposed to complain about things from the sidelines…

Oh, go on.

OK. There are certainly global problems around access to housing. The ‘great inversion’ as Alan Ehrenhalt calls it has drawn a lot of people to cities again, but the trade-off has been a general decline in the quality of housing and access to it, at least in the most popular places. The cost of housing in London or the Bay Area is pretty horrifying. I’d reduce the unit cost by increasing supply. There would have to be a bonfire of planning regulations, unfortunately, but that may be overdue. I’d also promote industrialised, systematised building. In the UK, everything seems to be done on a bespoke basis much more than it needs to, a problem made worse by the planning system. And I’d tear up the green belt. Did you hear my friend Karl Sharro on the radio the other night? He says just abolish planning altogether. I kind of agree with him. I have some sympathy with the old Parker-Morris standards, though, to get the basic level of space right.

That sounds like a recipe for sameness, a sort of grey-goo urbanism….

I don’t think it is. But even if it is, it doesn’t mean it stays the same. After all, in the UK there are probably ten million units of more or less identical terraced (row) houses, but more or less infinite variation in the way they’re used and inhabited. Buildings learn, as Stewart Brand says.

OK. Finally, I have to ask you about Scotland. You have really annoyed people there from time to time.

You know I can’t talk about that (laughter). Well I have a few supporters too. Scotland is in such a febrile state at the moment, it’s impossible to say anything without getting misinterpreted. But in terms of cities, it’s certainly a fascinating case. It’s got two of Europe’s great set pieces in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and a vigorous tradition of urban housing. The tenement is a really durable form. Unfortunately, Scotland just loves to regulate, and it’s obsessed with the past. So it’s impossible to either adapt buildings for contemporary conditions, or build housing where it’s actually required. If you live in Edinburgh (points at rattling sash windows) you’re not allowed to buy off the peg solutions for windows in tenements. Unless you’re rich, you’re basically encouraged to let them deteriorate. As for installing elevators, and adding extensions – well, forget it. There’s a huge amount of de-regulating that could be done. Not much political will, though. Same goes for the land issue. Edinburgh ought to be twice the size it is given the boom in financial services, but there is so much regulation designed to inhibit growth. That makes no sense to me at all. We need scale. Scale means opportunities.

Are you an optimist when it comes to cities?

Yes. You have to be, don’t you? And the return of cities in the developed world brings huge opportunities. It’s produced some hellish problems around housing, but I don’t see why they can’t be fixed. After all, it’s been done before.

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Niemeyer: the future is LUMPY

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I’m standing in the middle of the Caminho Nimeyer in Niteroí, just outside Rio de Janeiro. The Caminho is one of the architect’s last big projects, and remains unfinished. It’s a great concrete parade ground on the waterfront overlooking Rio, punctuated with (so far) three buildings that are unmistakably Niemeyer’s: a theatre with an undulating roof and angled walls; a small dome set at ground level, and a larger one with a serpentine ramp leading to an entrance above ground. All could have been built at any point since 1945. The theatre revisits the iconic chapel at Pampulha. The domes are Brasília. The ramps nod to the celebrated Museu de Arte Contemporânea a mile down the road. There are a couple of other less spectacular elements: a pretty gatehouse that could have been done by Richard Neutra in 30s Hollywood. And there’s a little information centre in black glass, a simple drum of a kind that you bump into all over Brasilia. From the ocean it looks fantastic, especially the theatre: crisp and bright against the industrial confusion of Niteroi (the city is a tangle of breaker’s yards, half-dismantled ships and oil rigs: a wonderful, dynamic chaos that is never the same twice).

If you actually make it through Niteroí’s traffic to the Caminho, however, the problem starts. It’s a familiar one for Niemeyer followers, namely the disjunction between the idea and the execution. At Brasília you rarely feel this is an issue, such is the quality of construction and maintenance. But here, it’s the main thing you feel. The ramp leading to the larger dome is a case in point. The idea is clear enough, a drawn line translated into concrete. It’s sweeping gesture in pen turned into 3D (I saw Niemeyer draw in 2001 or 2 and he signed a book for me – he was a wonderfully fluid draftsman). But the execution in concrete is all lumps and bulges which can be seen from a distance. Close up, the ramp has a highly irregular quality, and is in parts quite angular, a representation of the building process. The same is true of all the big buildings here: a pure form on paper in turns into a botched exercise in reality. It’s the future remade as a primary school art project.

The question is, does it matter? As far as I could tell in my conversation with Niemeyer it did not. To focus on the details was to misunderstand the scale of his imagination. His architecture was a representation of an ideal world that would come to pass at some indeterminate time in the future, and in which such minor details would be taken care of.

here’s another possible view, which is that the tension between idea and execution is actually part of the aesthetic, in the same way that (say) punk cultivated a wilful amateurism. You come to enjoy it, because it gives your imagination something to do.

I’m not sure this is the case with Niemeyer, though. Having seen just about everything he did in Brazil, my impression is of the most extraordinary variation in quality. If there’s a ‘punk Niemeyer’, you never know when you’re going to get it. The Niteroí project, prominent, state supported, built in his home town: well, it ought to be good, But it’s one of the worst, quality-wise, and incomprehensible in its present state to any other than hardcore fans.I enjoyed it, though. Its contradictions give you plenty to think about, and its air of shoddy decay produces some hilarious moments. There’s a funny ramp up to the theatre, half-finished and ambiguous in purpose. Was it for wheelchair access, we wondered? But it was angled at 30 degrees, suggesting, if anything a disposal chute. For unloved relatives? A wheelchair would reach quite a speed if let go…There are plenty more instances like this. In the sun, it’s a bizarre, inhumane place, treeless and baking. But its very inhumanity makes you laugh out loud (well, it did us). You have to admit that not much architecture does that. IMG_6083

Richard J. Williams, Brazil: Modern Architectures in History  (London: Reaktion Books, 2009) is still available at around £15.00. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Brazil-Architectures-Richard-J-Williams/dp/1861894007

Review of Adrian Forty, Concrete and Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2012)

A version of the following review appeared in Sculpture Journal in 2013

forty

Everybody has a view about concrete, but few of these views are exactly the same: there is no material so contradictory and complex in its application and meaning. I myself became fully aware of concrete’s contradictions in Brazil, latterly accompanied by Forty’s edited book on the country’s modernist architecture (Brazil’s Modern Architecture, 2007). I had never seen so much concrete. But equally I have never been confronted with such a disjunction between aspiration and application. Standing outside Oscar Niemeyer’s MAC art museum in Niteroí, it was impossible to square the MAC’s futuristic form (a flying saucer) with the crudeness of its execution (all cracks and, lumps, like a primary school project). That contrast was really quite disturbing, as the official photographs of the MAC depicted a building of otherworldly sleekness whose construction was a mystery to earthly folk. I was alert to concrete’s contradictions from that point on.

Concrete and Culture deals precisely with those contradictions. It expands the thesis Forty set out earlier in Brazil’s Modern Architecture about another iconic building in that country, Vilanova Artigas’s Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU) at the University of São Paulo (1968). A giant concrete box on stilts, it is both exceptionally sophisticated as engineering, and exceptionally crude in finish (its surface these days is so decayed, you can easily mistake the building for a ruin). Forty argued that this tension was uniquely bound up with concrete itself, and was wholly intentional, a way of making public a set of anxieties about Brazil’s development at the time. It is simultaneously rich and poor, sophisticated and crude, old and new. The argument about FAU is expanded here to make a thoroughly global thesis about concrete’s contradictions. It is one of the key symbols of modernisation, but found naturally, and used by the Romans; it is an industrial material, but also a natural one; it is supposed to lead to efficiencies in the building process, but is dependent on a lot of low-grade physical labour; it connotes modernity in one place, historicity in others; it is simultaneously liquid and solid. And so on.

The book is organised around five key oppositions, represented in suggestively-titled chapters (‘Mud and Modernity’, ‘Natural or Unnatural’, ‘Heaven and Earth’, ‘Memory and Oblivion’). Other chapters explore concrete’s complex geopolitics, its equally complex relationship with industrial labour, and its representation in photography. Even concrete’s fiercest detractors would be hard pressed to deny its photogenic character, especially in monochrome at high ASA ratings. And as Forty argues, there are material similarities between the processes of building in concrete and taking a photograph. Film is a key reference point too:  there is a compelling account of the dry concrete bed of the Los Angeles river as a setting in John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967). Forty is particularly good in showing how a particular material detail might represent ideology. In the case of FAU, it’s the building’s strangely attenuated column give the impression of colossal weight supported by very little, a metaphor for Brazil’s underdevelopment. On the Economist Building in St James’s, London, familiar to British readers he alights on a tiny detail: at the base of the columns holding up the Economist tower, the Portland stone cladding is intentionally stopped a few inches from the ground, a ‘Brechtian trick’ in the words of the architects, making visible the structure. It is a ‘demure lifting of the skirt to reveal a glimpse of ankle’ writes Forty, a joke (he argues) you would never find in American concrete. On BBPR’s highly eccentric Torre Velasca (1958)in Milan, Forty writes of the subversion of the modern tower form. This one, with its rough, and now weather-stained surface and its bulging upper structure recalling the form of Renaissance palazzos, suggests a building as much of the past as of the future, in marked contrast with American skyscraper design. Here again is the contradiction of concrete in relation to history: a supposedly modern material here used to signify if not antiquity, an accommodation of the past. One chapter, on labour, departs from the general focus on the aesthetics of concrete. Here Forty makes clear the sheer amount of physical effort involved in concrete constriction. Again, I had myself reflected on this in relation to Brazil, where I recalled the communist architect Sergio Ferro’s account of the building of Brasília. Ferro detailed not just the long hours, and the brutality of the organisation (both well reported) but the peculiar horror of working with the steel reinforcing rods, their tendency to scrape and gouge limbs.

Forty sets out a range of evidence to argue that the use of concrete allowed the building process to be broken down into a much wider range of unskilled tasks, which in turn meant a greater possible reliance on cheap labour. Concrete explicitly didn’t mean automation, or prefabrication, but the strange sublimation of what were essentially craft skills. He reproduces an extraordinary diagram from 1912 by Frederick Taylor and Sanford Thompson detailed every stage in the manufacture of ‘anything’ in concrete. The table reproduced covers the mixing of cement, listing the time taken to cut the string on a bag of cement (0.11 min), ‘moving the bag about 2ft.’ (0.08 min) to lifting the bag of cement to the shoulder (0.30) and several other actions. The detail is mind-boggling. Reproducing it in the somewhat effete context of architectural history gives it the whiff of conceptual art (routine process repeated to absurdity, then documented). But it also makes clear the contradictions involved in concrete construction: a process commonly thought to save on labour compared with traditional forms of building in fact does nothing of the sort; and a process equally commonly thought to be advanced turns out to be dependent on the most rudimentary skills. Taylor and Thompson’s diagram in essence is the book’s argument: what is supposed to be modern, isn’t – and its irrationality borders on the surreal.

The last chapter of the book, ‘A Concrete Renaissance’, surveys the now-familiar revival in concrete’s fortunes in the world’s rich countries as a material for buildings whose clientele both understand and appreciate its contradictions. Peter Zumthor’s extremely refined work makes use of concrete’s rough character for aesthetic effect. The images here index what’s survived: the LCC architects’ South Bank arts complex, Bo Bardi in Brazil, Alvaro Siza in Portugal, Peter Zumthor in Switzerland. What has survived, and revived in these refined contexts is concrete as aesthetic rather than structure; it’s valued for what it looks like, much less for its structural qualities. Its capacity to stain and degrade has become a value, not a flaw (see also Herzog and de Meuron’s Rudin House, which looks permanently drenched).Forty is right to point to a renaissance of concrete’s fortunes in Europe, where a taste for concrete is now, at least in some circles, an indicator of cultural refinement. Concrete’s contradictions, explored in such depth in the book, are now, in Europe, its defining characteristic. Its flaws are cultivated; to appreciate its difficulties is a sign of taste. Of course this is a minority, essentially avant-garde taste: it can only build cultural centres and privately commissioned houses, no longer mass housing, schools or hospitals (or if it does build these things it must be hidden from view).

What Forty doesn’t discuss, nor to be fair, try to, is the cultural understanding of concrete in those places where it is most physically present. The ‘culture’ of the title is the culture of the rich world; he acknowledges that most concrete building actually exists elsewhere. In rich northern places, to build with concrete is a special sort of poverty chic. But in the global South, concrete carries quite other connotations. In Brazil, a country with a particularly acute concrete habit, concrete connotes everything. In Mendes da Rocha and Bo Bardi, it’s the avant-garde material, that looks outwards and backwards to Europe and European modernism. In Niemeyer’s work, it’s modernism again – but it’s also a way of making a curve that stands up. But it’s also the material of choice for Brazil’s ubiquitous high-rise condos and equally ubiquitous favelas, in both cases simply a way of making buildings strong and cheap. The same is true of Peru, and Pakistan to greater or lesser degrees. The anxieties about concrete that Forty describes so well are largely those of a world that has a choice about whether or not to use it. For the rest of the world, it means what ever it has to.

The Disturbances in Brazil

Image from A Folha de São Paulo, 19 June 2013. A protestor sets fire to a World Cup mural

Image from A Folha de São Paulo, 19 June 2013. A protestor sets fire to a World Cup mural

The protests that have flared in Brazil in response to a 20-centavo rise in urban bus fares have produced some spectacular – and familiar – scenes. Brazil’s cities are no strangers to disorder, of both the licensed kind (Rio’s annual carnival) or the wildly unlicensed. For the latter, you only have to think back to the extraordinary events of May 2006 when a criminal gang, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) briefly took over the entire city of São Paulo. The novelist Teixeira Coelho described an extraordinary scene to me a few months later. After the initial violence, there was a period of utter, complete, silence during which this metropolis of 11 million souls appeared to have been abandoned. It was a state Coelho had experienced once before:  on a canoe in the middle of the Amazon. May ’06 was admittedly exceptional. But the streets of São Paulo, until recently at least, could give the visitor the impression of civil war, even when it was just football at stake. That impression of ‘undeclared civil war’ was much cultivated by local journalists, much as their counterparts did in 1920s Chicago. Brazil’s violence was (for more people than should have been the case) good for business. Good for traffickers in drugs and guns certainly, but also private security firms, developers of gated communities, and (sadly) novelists, and film-makers. The movie version of Cidade de Deus, about a Jacarepaguá slum, was a huge international hit in 2002.

The fact is, however, that Brazil’s cities had been getting safer at exactly the moment  artists were celebrating their violence. By the early 2000s, São Paulo was rather safer than most American cities. By 2006, its had Glasgow licked, at least by one measure. Whatever the statistics, there is no question Brazil’s cities felt safer. When I first visited São Paulo in 2001, my Carioca friends advised me to keep a boca fechada (mouth shut) at all times, lest I reveal myself as a foreigner, and therefore, a target. I duly obliged, locking my belongings away, rarely venturing out, and having a somewhat miserable time. Ten years, and as many visits later, I strolled the Avenida Paulista with impunity, bearing a laptop, camera, I-phone, and a pocket full of cash. Just like (it seemed) everyone else.

Brazil has got a lot richer, especially during the pragmatic and assured presidency of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. Its middle class got visibly bigger, and more confident. It even started to make some progress on the intractable problem of slum housing. The favela-bairro projects showed how it was possible, with imagination and money, to create viable low-rise neighbourhoods that could easily attract middle class residents given a couple do decades of stability. I saw several of these, including the hugely impressive Paraisópolis, abutting the São Paulo suburb of Morumbi. I could see this, no exaggeration, as an incipient urban village. Lula invested heavily in education, too, and could make so decent claims about widening opportunity. There were big infrastructure projects, especially in the cities, and a rush of investment in the state-owned Petróbras to capitalise on the discovery of offshore oil. It was going fantastically well. Brazil looked as if it was – finally – starting to realise the ordem e progresso  emblazoned on the national flag.

What happened was (first) a period of economic slowdown that looks distinctly European. It has barely grown as an economy in two years. And there was much talk, inside and outside Brazil, of o custo brasileiro – ‘the Brazilian cost’ – the sheer expense of doing business in the country. Brazil has not been a cheap country for decades. Now, however, it is a distinctly expensive one – as well as bureaucratic, slow and awkward.
Therein lies the problem. It has become rich. It is, measured by GDP per capita, certainly a middle-income one, comparable with the newer states of the EU. Its uneven wealth distribution conceals the existence of a vast urban middle class who live, and spend, like the richest 10% in London or New York. There is serious money here, and lots of it.
This wealth – and more to the point, the sense that wealth is now within reach – has arguably created new tensions. Public services have undoubtedly improved, but now Brazilians expect them to be better. And for the most part, they are bloody awful. You smell Rio de Janeiro long before you see it; the untreated sewage around the aeroporto Tom Jobim produces is of the world’s great stenches. In São Paulo, hopeless drains mean summer rains invariably bring the city to a standstill in minutes. Outside the cities, highways are often dirt tracks. The trans-Amazon highway, built by the military in the mid-sixties, has become impassable. And so on.
The architects of Brazil’s recent boom, Lula and before him, another Marxist-turned-neoliberal Fernando Henrique Cardoso (‘FHC’) would argue, with justification, that economic progress is never smooth. They would point to the success of Brazil’s brewers, or its excellent low-cost airlines, or its plane-maker Embrarer. Building a stable, democratic economy takes time. The problem for Brazil’s residents, wherever they are in the country’s social constellation, is whether they have that time. The super-rich have the benefits already. The rest – in short anyone who depends on public services – will have to wait. They had got used to expecting very little from government except corruption and violence. Now government has raised its game, but in so doing it’s raised expectations. That’s why Brazil’s cities have blown up.

Richard Williams’s book, Brazil: Modern Architectures in History was published by Reaktion in 2009. For more, see: http://www.reaktionbooks.co.uk/display.asp?ISB=9781861894007