When I speak to her, founder of Rio Now Ana Luiza Nobre is weary. Seven years of living so consciously in the present and attempting to extricate the truths from the falsehoods perpetuated by the multiple spectacles created by the World Cup followed by the Summer Olympics have left her wanting to escape to the annals of history. “I am looking for a refuge in history. I was so deeply involved and it was so emotional for me, so there was a lot of pressure,” she says.
Nobre’s initiative – Rio Now – has its roots in Nobre’s personal blog in 2009, which she set up when her city was selected to host South America’s first Olympic games. Initially, the blog, which she started with the encouragement of her students, acted as a register for the academic’s thoughts and ideas as well as information that she gathered on the upcoming events.
In 2013, Nobre was invited to curate the X Bienal de Arquitetura de São Paulo, where she and a group of her students from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro put on a show about Rio which included a timeline marking the development of architectural projects across the city as well as newspaper clippings from around the world about the upcoming events. The exhibition provided the basic structure of what would become Rio Now – a platform that created a timeline of events, mapped the geographic impact of the events on different neighborhoods and gathered media snippets about developments in the city.
Rio – which underwent a number of transformations between 2009 and 2016 – has hosted a series of mega-events during those years, including the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the 2016 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, as well as smaller events like the International Climate and Energy Event in 2015, and the Catholic Pope’s Apostolic Journey in 2013. The events created a boom of projects, including the construction of new museums, hotels, public spaces and infrastructure projects – as well as a mega restructuring of the port area of Zona Portuaria, all of which have been carefully documented by Nobre and her students.
“The Olympics are just the culmination of this sequence of events. We had this opportunity that we never had before to do important things in our city, to build another city…In 2008-2009, when Rio was selected to host the World Cup, there was an economic crisis, but there was a lot of foreign money coming into the city. And there was hope that we would reinvent ourselves, but unfortunately, it was a lost opportunity. Maybe we changed the image of the city, but the critical issues were not touched,” explains Nobre.
According to her, the scale and number of events provided a unique opportunity to improve the country’s nascent democracy and engage the public and society. Instead, she says, “there was no dialogue at all.”
Added to that, she describes the toll that the throngs of tourists have taken on a city already struggling under the weight of its own burdens. “You have these huge crowds…there is no city in the world that can stand that, there is no infrastructure that can take it. It’s very disruptive and destructive for any city. The Olympics themselves are disruptive and destructive for any city. They need to re-think it,” she says.
“In Brazil, we are used to having big events, because we have Carnival and there are a lot of tourists, but these events cost a lot and they last too little, so the idea of having cities as spectacles, building cities for tourists and for huge events, I think it has to end,” she adds.
Mapping the City’s Invisible Communities
As Nobre and her students continued to research and gather information in an attempt to understand the holistic transformations taking place in the city, they found ways to visualize the information. In the lead-up to the Olympics, the team gathered facts and media produced about the transformations taking place in Rio. “The timeline is the heart of the research because it gathers the data and helps visualize the issue in its complexity,” she explains. “When I plot it in the dimensions that I think are right, the timeline itself is 10 meters [almost 33 feet] long. We have lots of different perspectives, so it’s also important that it engage the body when it is printed. So if you step close to it, it looks different than if you are far away, and if you twist your head, it looks different.”
Besides the timeline, the group also developed a map of projects being developed in different parts of the city, which clearly visualizes the centralization of architectural developments in the eastern part of the city. In fact, most of the infrastructure developed for the Olympics was centered in the upscale Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, the touristic Zona Sul, the middle class neighborhood of Maracanã, and the port area of Zona Portuaria.
In addition to the concentration of infrastructure in particular neighborhoods, the Summer Olympics have brought about a series of evictions and relocations, particularly in favelas. “You have a very high number of evictions, which are not new in Rio or anywhere, but the numbers [rose very fast] in a very short period of time for reasons that were not always clear. We’ve had almost 20,000 families evicted in six years, which is almost 100,000 people, and they were all removed to clean up the city for the Games,” she explains.
Other promises that were made include the clean up 80% of the pollution Guanabara Bay, which never happened, resulting in biomedical experts advising Olympians to not put their heads underwater.
During the Olympics, the group printed their own newspaper – still a popular, if not familiar and affordable medium in Brazil – in an effort to raise awareness about the changes that were taking place in the city. According to Nobre, monitoring the media highlighted the general lack of transparency and engagement by authorities of local communities. “It was about who selected the priorities, the architects, the builders, and who is involved – all of this was very hard to find and the sources were not always reliable.”
Nobre notes that the first thing that they City of Rio did in the lead-up to the World Cup and the Summer Olympics was to increase its Police Pacification Units, known in Portuguese as the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP). These units, which are introduced to make neighborhoods safer and to free them of the grip of armed drug traffickers, are key to integrating favelas into the city proper.
“Often there are no schools or sewage or cinemas or library, but the first thing they do when they want to integrate a slum into a part of the city is they install the UPP,” says Nobre. She notes that, in the lead-up to the Olympics, the UPPs interventions became increasingly violent, citing the enforced disappearance and killing of Amarildo de Souza by the UPP as a case in point. “In 2013, it became clear that something was going on with this pacification program, and we had a lot of protests on the streets in Brazil. There was a big campaign – Cadê o Amarildo. It was clear that the role of the public authority could not only be about installing more violence in the slums.”
One of the city’s biggest – and perhaps most polarizing issues – took place in the slum of Rocinha, which is estimated to have anywhere between 70,000 and 200,000 residents. The favela’s years-long struggle with sewage results in tens of sewage waterfalls that flow toward the beach area (one of the main reasons that the Bay remains so polluted is because of the constant flow of sewage from favelas like Rocinha into the water below).
In 2013, then-president Dilma Rousseff announced that Rocinha would get its own cable car. Cable cars, which gained popularity in the Colombian city of Medellín, were introduced to Rio’s Complexo do Alemão neighborhood in 2011 and have since become a novel tourist attraction, as well as a mode of transportation for locals. Rather than welcome the project, some of the Rocinha’s residents objected to the high cost of building and maintaining the cable car, noting that what the neighborhood needed above all else was a sewage system.
“This was a very important struggle,” explains Nobre. “They didn’t get either in the end, but I think they were successful because their voice was heard.”
While the group wrapped up its activities with the end of the Olympic Games, Nobre and her students have all found different ways of applying the learnings of Rio Now to their own practices. And although she is resigned to seeking refuge from the now-ness of recent events in history, she has found the process of taking her students out of the classrooms and onto the streets instructive to her own practice. “It was a way of going out of the classrooms, because we teach in this very old fashioned way. If you’re teaching architecture, you have to go out into the city and see people. Now, I start my courses with a visit to Rocinha. I think it’s very important to build a critical perspective…and this is something that we are starting to learn because this is all very new in Brazil,” she says.
“In Brazil, we have a very strong modernist tradition in architecture, and so we have to get rid of this image of the architect as a big hero who is going to change the whole world with his beautiful designs. For architects, I think it is very important to change our perspective and open our eyes,” she adds.