AHRC-FAPESP MoU - Public Spaces and the Role of the Architect: a comparative study of Modernist and contemporary examples in London and Sao Paulo

Lead Research Organisation: Royal College of Art
Department Name: School of Architecture

Abstract

AIMS AND OBJECTIVES
This Anglo-Brazilian research project takes advantage of the complex and often spectacular legacy of architectural Modernism in both London and Sao Paulo (SP), and examines the public spaces in and around seminal examples of large scale Modernist architecture in both cities. In a social context of growing demand for greater democratic authorship and ownership of the built environment, in particular its public realm, the roles of the architect and of design need wider and deeper examination. The project will use the analysis of work from the 1960s and 70s in both cities as a way of reflecting historically on contemporary public space design, an important contribution to the current debates on 'place-making'.
The research teams from London and Sao Paulo will:
1) investigate the role of the architect in the production of contemporary public space in Sao Paulo and London from the perspective of the architect's very different role during the period of High Modernism (1960s/70s) in both cities;
2) examine whether there positive aspects to architectural Modernism in Sao Paulo and London that can be recovered to address the low quality of much contemporary public space in both cities, and
3) explore possible relationships between traditional top-down design in both countries, and the growing interest in the UK in participatory approaches, within the context of the contemporary design of public spaces in both cities? Does greater democracy in the delivery of the built environment increase its quality? its popularity?
4) develop and disseminate a wider and deeper understanding of the relation between the authorship and ownership of public space, post-war and now in both cities.
CONTEXT OF THE RESEARCH:
Brazil had a 'golden period' of Modernism, the result of a social pact between the architect and society. This period and this pact are long over, and it could be argued that England, apart from a brief interlude centred around the Festival of Britain, never enjoyed a 'golden period', resisting Modernism's often alienating expression in built form. Today there are marked similarities between the two countries: they both have world class financial capitals, London and Sao Paulo, and they both have multicultural populations. They both suffer from a wide divide between rich and poor, and from chronic housing shortages. Most importantly, their cities think about public space defensively, mirroring social segregation with spatial segregation. The desertion of crime-ridden public space in Sao Paulo and its over-surveillance in London are symptoms of urban failure unanticipated by the optimism and egalitarianism of Modernism.
The Brazilian and UK teams will therefore select important Modernist and contemporary public space case studies in both cities to investigate the role of the architect in their production, and to discover whether useful knowledge can be transferred between cities in the interests of more 'successful' public spaces - i.e. enjoyed and frequented by the urban population as a whole.
APPLICATIONS AND BENEFITS:
Architects, urban designers, and developers will benefit from a better understanding of the design of successful public spaces, and will gain a wider perspective on alternative forms of more participatory design that shift the centrality of the designer (and the developer) to varying degrees.
Planners and city councils will gain a greater appreciation of the role of design in the creation of public spaces, and of the ways in which the designer can subvert or contribute to their success.
Academics will benefit from a cross-cultural comparison that examines the Modernist production of public space in a new way - from the point of view of the designer and design practice. They will also benefit from a view that challenges fashionable ideas about the automatic undesirability of top-down design.

Planned Impact

The cross-cultural Public Spaces and the Architect projectis targeted at many audiences beyond the academic community (see 'Academic Beneficiaries'), in the interests of an improved understanding of the role of the architect in public space design, and consequently an improvement in public space design itself. Our built environment partners are the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the professional body of the architecture profession in the UK, which oversees architectural education, lobbies for the role of architecture in the production of the built environment, and promotes architectural culture, including its history, andthe Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), and its International Development Network (IDN), which are committed to greater synergies between planning and urban design, and greater public awareness of the development of the public realm by both planners and designers. Both these bodies have a stake in the role of the architect in the built environment, and/or in the delivery of successful public spaces. They will therefore be keenly interested in a project thatchallenges the prevailing acceptance of the diminished role of the design professional in the production of public spaces, and which makes suggestions for improving the quality of public spaces by means of lessons drawn from two cultures and two time periods. There will be an immediate impact in 2017 - when the results and conclusions of the research are presented to our partners and discussed with them in terms of their contemporary application - and a long-term impact, as those to whom the research was presented disseminate it to other decision makers, in the interests of 'Enhancing quality of life, health and creative output'.

Our first UK government project partner is the British Council, which develops cultural relations in over 100 countries, working with thousands of policymakers, academics, curators and teachers in the UK and abroad to develop policy, professional standards and civil society in partner countries. For them, the primary interest in the project is in a successful cross-cultural collaboration between two HEIs, one in London and one in Sao Paulo. The means by which we collaborated, and repeatability of those means, will, if successful, influence funding policy on future collaborations, and serve as a useful template for arts and humanities research partnerships. The second is Design Council CABE, a semi-autonomous government body charged with improving the built environment and ensuring that places and communities are resilient and adaptable. They are consulted by Local Authorities across England, and by central government on developments of any size, and will welcome evidence of the role and importance of design in the delivery of public spaces.Our Brazilian government partner is the Municipal Secretariat of Culture, Department of Historical Patrimony (DPH) in Sao Paulo, for which Prof. Lefèvre has worked as president of CONRESP (see CV). The Municipal Secretariat for Culture is responsible for many important Sao Paulo cultural institutions. The research will contribute to policy formation/revision on historic conservationin the city. Again, some impact will be immediate (2016/17), as the research is presented to, and discussed with, these partners, and some will be long term, as this example of collaboration is referred to later as evidence useful for funding decisions.

In addition, our Research Fellows and PhD student will benefit greatly from the project, first in terms of cross-cultural collaboration, and the negotiation and open-mindedness that requires, which translates easily into other employment sectors, and second, in terms of transferable generic skills: writing and presentation skills, mapping and data analysis skills, visualisation and communication skills. This skills impact will develop over the course of the three year project, as our Fellows and PhD student pursue the research and its dissemination

Publications


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Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/K007475/1 03/03/2014 31/01/2016 £404,243
AH/K007475/2 Transfer AH/K007475/1 01/02/2016 30/09/2017 £207,048
 
Description The project is now two thirds complete, and we are beginning to reach some useful conclusions:

CONTENT
1. The current debates over the privatisation of public space suggest that public ownership is the key to successful public spaces in the cities of liberal democracies. Our research suggests this is in fact much less important than management and design.

2. The design of public spaces mediates between the 'idea world' of architecture and the attitude of the state to public space. Architects found it easier to bring these together in their designs during the mid-20th century (a period of Modernism in both London and Sao Paulo) than they do now.

3. In major civic spaces, the traditional interpretation of 'public' as open to anyone and everyone still holds, for users, clients and designers. Since the great Modernist set pieces in London and Sao Paulo, however - e.g. the South Bank Centre, the Barbican/ Anhangabau, Praca da Se - the design of local public spaces has become as important in both cities, with 'public' referring primarily to the local community, and design beginning with them.

4. 'Participation' in public spaces is usefully divided into participation in production (brief/design), and participation in use. In production, local participation in brief-making makes sense in spaces for local communities. It makes less sense for spaces intended to be 'universally public'. Here there has been more reliance on the architect to understand and deliver the civic through design. Architecture's 'idea world' today seems less equipped to support this than it did during the mid-20th century.

4. Defining a 'successful' public space requires a clear idea of what constitutes success. For some, a busy public space is a successful one. The South Bank Centre and Praca da Se are therefore successful - in the case of SBC perhaps too successful. For others, a successful public space might well be empty, but offer an exceptional environment aesthetically and a restorative experience, for example the Economist Plaza or the Praca des Artes.

5. There is a difference between programming a public space (for profit), and curating a public space (non-profit). The ideologically driven withdrawal of the state from the production of the material public realm means more reliance on programming than on curation - spaces must more than pay for themselves. Maximising profit can damage the experience of the public realm. Designers need to be more vocal with clients in defending their designs as public spaces for anyone and everyone, where, for example, one doesn't have to buy something to sit in the sun.

6. There can be a wide gap between (design) intention and actual use of public spaces. The designer can't control the life of the public space after its production. The public is made up of recombinant 'publics', and often, the public for particular public spaces is self-selecting - teenagers in one, the homeless in another, office workers in another. Design has greater capacities than currently recognised in the production of the public realm, but also limits. Designers have a much more active role to play in defence of the civic (as realised in public spaces), but it is not within their conventional role as designers.
Exploitation Route We ourselves will take our findings forward in a large international exhibition and cross-disciplinary symposium. Both these will be promoted and attended by our project partners. In addition, it is clearer to us now that the range constituencies that would benefit from the research require tailored outputs. It is our intention, therefore, to produce reports for the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Royal Town Planning Institute (both project partners) that will concentrate on design; reports for the Greater London Authority and the Local Government Association that will concentrate on management of design, and one for academics that will concentrate on methodology. In addition, we now have a publisher interested in producing a book on a large part of the research, which will enable us to have a wider and longer term impact.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
URL http://psarchitect.org
 
Description A Natureza da Cidade: Noite Branca (City Nature: White Night) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public arts workshop in Belo Horizonte sponsored by the state secretary of culture in Minas Gerais. The events took place over the course of one week, with a group of international practitioners participating, and were used as a way of informing permanent artistic interventions within the city in 2015. The exchanges were based on the idea of public space and design in the city, and were hosted at the Palácio das Artes, one of the largest institutions for the arts in the state.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description American Association of Geographers 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Paper on 'Architecture and the Imagined Geographies of Post-War London'. Provided one of the project's Research Associates to disseminate the project's cross-disciplinary ideas to an international audience of social scientists.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description American Sociological Association Annual Meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A conference paper on the effect of certain visual material - designs and imaginary images - on the sociological study of the city.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Association of Architectural Educators Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Session run by one of the project's Research Associates on the production of public space. Allowed our AHRC PhD student to present her project-related ideas, as they are being developed in her thesis.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Barbican City Visions (in collaboration with Guardian Cities) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Panel discussion on the legacy of Brazilian Modernism and the practice of architects on the Latin American continent today, following a screening of a film about Oscar Niemeyer, chaired by Noemi Blager, Acting Director of the Architecture Foundation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Lina Bo Bardi: Fact or Fiction 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The event was an opportunity to launch the research project publicly, and to begin our collaboration with the British Council, one of our Project Partners. An audience that included academics from other universities was able to ask questions and discuss the project.

Academics from other institutions asked to be kept informed of the progress of the research project. The British Council asked Jane Hall to be on the panel for judging the next Lina Bo Bardi Fellow (2014).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Presentation at Escola da Cidade, Sao Paulo 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A presentation to fellow architects and academics at the Escola da Cidade, Sao Paulo. Created links with young Brazilian professionals that will be pursued for the exhibition at the Brazilian Embassy in 2017.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Presentation, Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism, USP 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A presentation of the project, with our Brazilian partners, to their post-graduate students.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Public Spaces reading Group 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Extended understanding of the discourse around 'public space' across disciplines at the Royal College of Art.

Reading group hasn't ended yet.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Society for Latin American Studies Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Conference paper challenging the idea of differences between the 'developed' and the 'developing' world re public space production in the 20th century. A paper from the point of view of the design of public spaces changed or challenged an audience made up primarily of social scientists.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Society of Architectural Historians Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A session with international speakers on public space design run by the project's PI at the preeminent conference for architectural history. Exposed the project's ideas on public space to an international audience, and connected it with ECRs from around the world working in the same subject area.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description The International Lecture, School of Architecture and Design, University of Brighton 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact A lecture on the research project to Architecture undergraduates. Lively discussion and requests for further information afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Year 1 visit of Royal College of Art research team to Sao Paulo/April 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact The Royal College of Art (RCA) and University of Sao Paulo (USP) research teams met for the first time in April 2014. A week of meetings, discussions and site visits allowed us to agree on a short list of Modernist public space case study sites in both London and Sao Paulo, and to better understand the differences between our research methodologies.

Both teams came away from the week together with a much clearer understanding of each other's strengths and knowledge bases, the differences in the ways the teams are funded, their effect on time available for research, and the necessity of evolving a modus operandi that enables us to work successfully within these constraints.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014