bjarke ingels meets jair bolsonaro – A B.I.G Opportunity?

It’s often been said that you can glean an insight into the aspirations of a society by looking at its buildings. And yet architecture can be misleading — particularly in a country as contradictory as Brazil.

Brazilian architecture first made its mark in the 1930s with the blistering debut of Oscar Niemeyer. His Brutalist buildings shot up like curvy concrete dreams —as bold in their sinuosity as they were in their hopes of bringing about a socialist utopia. While the latter was never realised, Niemeyer did establish concrete as the material du jour of Brazilian modernism. A symbol of power and permanence, it took on an almost reverent significance — the only material capable of taming Brazil’s Atlantic forests.

The years that followed were neither so glamorous nor as audacious. Concrete continued to eat its way through the jungle, connecting the prosperous south with the ancient forests of the North.  

Several major infrastructure projects began only to be forgotten. Sewn into each of the contracts — be it the Trans Amazonian railway or the Angra III Nuclear Plant — were ample opportunities for sticky fingered plundering by the Brazilian elite.

In 2019, Elaine Brum tapped into popular sentiment when she described Brazil as a “constructor of ruins” — a claim now poignantly underscored by the festering Rio Olympic park.

Rio Aquatic Centre
Photograph: Pilar Olivares/Reuters

So it might take readers by surprise to learn of a new architectural masterplan in Brazil’s North East.

In late January, Bjarke Ingels, of the all-star architecture firm, BIG, joined Jair Bolsonaro and a couple of cabinet cronies for a two-week tour of Brazil. Accompanied by investors from the Mexican group, Be-Nômade, they were here on a fact-finding mission to discuss the future of tourism in the country’s idyllic North East.

“”We have travelled Brazil’s northeast region with our collaborators from Nômade Group and met with local governors and mayors, as well as the relevant ministries of economy, culture and tourism and finally the president’s office to gauge the possibility of devising a holistic masterplan for the northeastern coastal states of Brazil to create ecologically and economically sustainable development,” Ingels affirmed .

News of the pairing initially took the media off guard, with portions of the design community immediately denouncing Ingels for fraternizing with a fascist.

Dezeen Comment Thread 17/01/2020

While the allegation may ring true, in his impassioned defence, Ingels stumbles upon two important questions.

How we do deal with despots when it comes to international development? And is it ever possible to separate the project from the regime?

How better to impact the future of the region and the country than to plant the ideas we believe in at the highest level of government? Neither the president nor the ministers are our clients, but we are happy to share our ideas and ideals with a government that is willing to listen. As much as I would enjoy working in a bubble where everybody agrees with me, the places that can really benefit from our involvement are the places that are further from the ideals that we already hold. I love Brazil as a country, and I really want to see Brazil succeed.

Bjarke Ingels

In this particular instance it helps to get a little bit of context on the area that Bozo and his cabinet cronies are looking to develop.

This is not a down-town region of San Fran, destined to morph into a slick Apple Campus, but rather an area larger than France, Spain and Greece combined.


North East – Highlighted in Orange
Via Revista Galileu – Globo

Comprising nine giant states, 8 thousand kilometres of pristine beaches and the lowest human development index in the country, it is a beautiful yet complex region.   

Critics most ardent claim is that such a grandiose plan would legitimise the government, opening the floodgates for investors to do business with the belligerent Jair Bolsonaro.

However, the essence of this project — described as a bare-foot tourism endeavour — seem to be entirely at odds with the slash and burn conservatism of the Bolsonaro government.

If it came into fruition it could be the start of a new era of architecture in Brazil — a chance to turn the page from some the Brutalist tenets that have proved so ecologically damaging.

And if Brazil is to wean itself off its dangerous dependency on commodities (and the corresponding ecocide that comes with them) it will need other service-based sectors.

Sustainable tourism – however oxymoronic that might sound – represents a viable alternative. Not only does it employ citizens of all education levels but its profits, for the most part, can be relied upon to remain local.

Another question that must be asked is if not Ingels, then who? This is a government who has committed itself to development at all costs, accused of inciting violence against whoever gets in their way.

The knee-jerk reaction to any figure as repugnant as Bolsonaro is isolation. And yet in sitting back and letting things fester, we surrender the possibility of a better future.

The proposed masterplan offers a vision that Brazil’s maligned north-east deserves, one rooted in community, renewables and a celebration of its culture.

At a time in which clowns and xenophobes occupy public office, perhaps its only right that we must rely on architects to build diplomatic bridges. But build we must. Because if public opinion is anything to go by, Bolsonaro is not going anywhere. And we let him trample over Brazil at our peril.

Joseph Goebbels Resurfaces In Brazilian Politics

Philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote that the aim of totalitarian education is not to instil convictions, but to destroy a population’s capacity to form any. As one of the most prominent intellectuals in Nazi Germany, she had reason to fear its advance. So too, it would appear, do Brazilian creatives, following the announcement of Roberto Alvim, Brazil’s Minister for Culture, on Thursday evening.

“Culture will be national and heroic,” he snarled “or else it will be nothing”.

The announcement was accompanied by the allocation of 20 million reais for cultural projects that emphasise “the motherland, the family, the courage of its people and their profound connection with God.”

It wasn’t long before the Twitter Police began to investigate Alvim’s statement. In announcing the new cultural agenda, Alvim had swapped his usual brand of Old Testament tough talk for the chilling words of Hitler’s Minister of Propoganda, Joseph Goebbels.

An outpouring of public pressure ensued, in which Alvim was removed from his post and government strategists clamoured to distance themselves from the video. 

And yet the notion that this is even slightly off-message for the Bolsonaro government requires stern examination.

The personification of white, male power, Bolsonaro has perfected the art of hiding in plain sight. A ‘political outsider’ despite his 27 years of parliamentary experience, he cannot be seen to be governing. Instead, he relies upon more-qualified minions, the Ricardo Salles’ and Roberto Alvims of the world, to deliver the reforms that will pave the way for his binary vision of Brazil.  

And so it was that just hours before the video’s release, Alvim could be found side by side with the President in his weekly address, receiving compliments and back-slaps for his “bold new vision of national art”.

For older Brazilians, this will all sound eerily familiar. From the critical underfunding of cultural institutions to the slow degradation of artistic subjects in universities, Bolsonaro is following a tried-and-tested agenda to return Brazil to the cultural winter of his 21-year dictatorship.

The slow creep of censorship comes at a the height of interest in Brazilian art, with nominations at this year’s Oscars (Democracia em Vertigem / The Edge of Democracy) and prestigious titles secured at the Cannes Film Festival (Bacarau — Juri Prize).

So unnerved were the Bolsonaro government by the new documentary that a boycott ban was issued via the pro-Bolsonaro Whatsapp groups that proliferate fake news and debate among loyal supporters — an instant form of communication of which Goebbels could only dream.

Like any fascist, Bolsonaro naturally fears arts ability to subvert the status quo, creating futures and ideas that soar above the fickle constraints of politics. And so he’ll continue to use whatever leverage he can to stamp out that which he deems degenerate — the right to imagine new realities, to empathise with others and to ask inconvenient questions.

That Brazilian artists will go on creating goes without saying. Whether they’ll be able to continue to do so without repercussions is another. This month, we invite you to indulge in one of the many Brazilian series on Netflix, from Petra Costa’s Oscar-nominated documentary (Edge of Democracy) to the dystopian world of ‘3%’. In doing so, we save ourselves from a future in which expression is only permissible insofar as it serves the instruments of power.

Ricardo Salles Vs The Amazon

At 3pm on Monday in São Paulo, night fell. And yet, for the local paulistas there was nothing restful about it. Artificial and pungent, it was the result of rampant wildfires that are eating away at eight Amazonian states. In many ways, the thick smoke was a case of the chickens coming home to roost. In a city that glistens with greed, the black blood of the Amazon is everywhere.

Photo Credit: Rafael Goldzweig (@schmuziger)

Call it irony, pathetic fallacy —the terminology doesn’t matter. Brazil is losing the war on climate, and there is no going back. Not without radical, international pressure. Any local campaign to save the planet will not be polite like the ones in Europe. The environmental activists, the Greta’s of the Global South, are dead. Shot down in the heart of the Amazon by illegal loggers. You might wonder what you have to do with this? Why you should even care at all? And yet the reason they are setting it on fire is to feed the growing global appetite for meat, soy and coffee. I do not say this to scare you or to trick you into feeling guilty. I say it to remind you that it is all connected. We are all connected. And together we must put a stop to this massacre.

To understand how we got here one has to understand Brazil — it’s size, it’s people, it’s politicians. As the fifth largest country in the world, Brazil is enormous, bigger than Europe yet still considered a developing nation. The reasons for this are multiple but many of them can be traced back to colonialism in which its latent wealth was siphoned off and sent to Portugal.

Contrary to Western opinion, Brazil is not all rainforest and beaches. It is home to a staggering array of landscapes, from the crackling cerrado (Savannahs) to the undulating wetlands of the Pantanal. Two thirds of the Amazon Rainforest sit within its borders, making it one of the most biodiverse nations on Earth.

And yet, Brazil’s natural gems occupy a curious position in the public imagination. While the great rivers and forests are generally a source of pride for Brazilians, the people who live there are not. Be those indigenous communities or members of long-suffering quilombos, for Brazilians blighted by Eurocentric conditioning, they are a reminder of Brazil’s lack of development.

It’s a notion that has been courted and encouraged by the controversial new Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles. The poster boy for the powerful Brazilian beef caucus, he is on a mission to privatize the Earth’s lungs. For anyone looking to survive beyond 2050, the timing couldn’t be worse.

Fresh from an appearance at the annual AgriShow in Brazil, Salles spent the month of June visiting impoverished communities that surround areas of particular commercial interest. One such visit was to the Chico Mendes Reserve, a 2.3 million acre area of pristine rainforest placed under protection in 1990.

The trip was documented via a Tweet on Ricardo Salles Twitter account in which he decried the living conditions of the reserve’s 25,000 residents.

Translation: “900 thousand hectares. Thousands of people on the verge of living in misery. The farce of “florestania” (sustainable forestry). They cannot, nor do they want to, survive from the rubber tree, the açaí and the Brazil nut. They want to raise cattle, plant coffee and produce fish in tanks. They (governmental environment protection agencies) will not let you.”

That the minister for Environmental Protection should be seen advocating for big agribusiness is perhaps not a surprise in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. What is impressive, however, is the rhetoric being used to accomplish it.

In just 140 characters, Salles deliberately conflates two pressing social issues: rural poverty and environmental conservation. The straw man goes something like this. In supporting the protection of endangered lands, one is not just an enemy of progress but a threat to the prosperity of rural Brazilians.

It’s a slippery move but not entirely out of character. In 2016, Salles was charged with administrative impropriety for his role in the manipulation of the Environmental Management Plan of the Tietê River Basin. The Public Prosecutors Office accused him of modifying the maps developed by the University of Sao Paulo with the specific aim of benefiting national mining companies.

The recent tragedies in Mariana and Brumadinho tells you everything you need to know about the respect this industry has for human life.

Flanked by members of the Mendes community, Salles once again draws on the festering frustrations of a nation who’s wealth has always been just out of reach. Rather than atribute blame to corrupt elites or colonial powers, he instead focuses on environmental protections, without which the target of keeping global warming under 2 degrees cannot be achieved.

That the sustainable rubber tapping and nut harvesting that takes place on this reserve is not as immediately profitable as cattle raising is without question. And yet, it’s beyond the pale to suggest that industrialised farming will produce the kind of living standards these rural communities crave.

In the last 6 months alone, Brazil’s Queimada Programme has registered 74,000 forest fires, the worst of which have been centred in Roraima and Amajari. More than 2 thousand families who live off the land lost their livelihood as plantations, pastures and fish plants went up in flames.

The increase in forest fires is both an intended and unintended consequence of monocultural farming practices. On the one hand, there are the illegal loggers and clearers, who use fires to clear rainforest so it can quickly sold as sparse grazing pastures for cattle. Then there are the farmers themselves, who’s poor management of land often sends them in search of greener pastures.

The deliberate loosening of environmental protection under Bolsonaro has served as carte-blanche for loggers to set fires with impunity. As a result, the number of forest fires in Amazonian states has sky-rocketed by an average of 85% in the last eight months alone.

These wave of ecological tragedies offer just a tiny insight into the critical condition of environmental protection in Brazil, a situation that was publicly laid bare on the front of this month’s Economist magazine. In a harrowing report, the author revealed what scientists have long feared. That unprecedented deforestation is threatening to transform the world’s largest carbon sink into a barren, inhospitable desert.

In a world on fire, we are all refugees.

Such a grim and dystopian future was met with disdain by President Jair Bolsonaro. The head of the Brazilian National Space Research Institute, Ricardo Galvao, was fired for his role in divulging the data, and plans put in place for a new system to assess environmental damage.

As luck would have it, nature made it impossible to bury the hatchet, sending rolling waves of black smoke over the city of Sao Paulo.

Salles, once more took to Twitter, paraphrasing a letter from the INPE (now edited) in which he attributed blame to a cold weather front and forest fires raging in neighbouring Bolivia.

Such negligence in the face of fire is indicative of what Salles clearly finds to be an unbearable contradiction: a mineral rich Amazon and a government perfectly poised to exploit it.

It’s an agenda that was on display once again in today’s Financial Times, in which he called for “capitalist solutions” to the environmental crisis. This demand belies not just a flagrant disregard for his office, but a fundamental misunderstanding of what is at stake. Climate change is not a Bolshevik plot, but rather the inevitable consequences of a system that posits forests as real estate for the highest buyer. Without them, there is no us, no future, no hope, a fact that has been clearly outlined in the IPCC’s latest climate report.

In dipping beneath the unctuous public veneer, a grim picture of Salles emerges. Neither the People’s Prince nor a defender of public health, he represents the ugly face of corporate interest, prepared to co-opt any narrative he can in the pursuit of short-sighted financial goals.

If we wish to save what is left of the Amazon rainforest, solutions must be immediate and bold. They certainly won’t be found in meeting with large car manufacturers, as Salles did on the 6th August, to discuss the lifting of taxes on polluting industries.

With the announcement of a new trade deal between MercoSul and the European Union, we find ourselves at an important crossroad. Any trade negotiations must be subject to strict scrutiny, favouring nations whose environmental policies are in line with the ambitious targets set by the European Union itself. Most importantly, we need men like Ricardo Salles to wake up and smell the scorched earth. History will judge him either way.