An interview with Matthias Böttger “In a city, architecture exhibits itself”

The São Paulo Architecture Biennale in 2013 bears the title “Cities – Ways of Making, Ways of Using”. Matthias Böttger is the curator of the German contribution in the form of a series of workshops under the motto: “Nos Brasil! We Brazil!”.

The architect Matthias Böttger The architect Matthias Böttger | © Thomas Schweigert The development of the 2013 Biennale from architecture as a constructed symbol to participatory urban planning could be seen as symptomatic of a surfeit with “star architects”. The focus is on the city and its communal design. Is this attempt to change the benchmark and perspective of the Biennale an opportunity provided by the economic crisis?

Matthias Böttger: The title of the São Paulo Biennale, Cidades – Modos de Fazer, Modos de Usar, curated by Guilherme Wisnik, coincides perfectly with the current discussion and fits exactly with our contribution, Nos Brasil! We Brazil!. The project World City, initiated by the Goethe-Institut and the Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development, is also concerned with the actors engaged in city-making. On the one hand, cities all over the world are facing similar problems and challenges; on the other, each of these cities is of course singular and has huge differences from the others. This coexistence of global and local is the result of supra-national economic crises – and of the globalization of commerce and culture.

Both make it necessary and exciting that we all learn from each other and allow the transfer of ideas in all directions. I’m not sure, however, whether this constitutes a fundamental change of perspective. Both aspects have always existed, the global and the local, stars and everyday life, formalism and participation, a more sociological approach and the perspective of architectural history. Perhaps we’ve already arrived at the height of the mentioned surfeit and the next stars are queuing up. Models are still in demand and are exhibited at biennales.

Starting-points for public discussion

Workshop in Curitiba Workshop in Curitiba | © Amàlia Machado Gonçalves When an architecture exhibition in the twenty-first century is used as a workshop, what hopes are based on such a shift from representation of architects as artists to collaborative knowledge creation?

The direct representation of architecture in exhibitions often doesn’t work because you generally can’t present buildings in galleries. You can generate spatial situations with installations or show abstractions and representations through models, photographs, drawings, concepts and treatises. But you can also make the challenges and questions that precede the constructed architecture the subject of an exhibition and so contribute to “knowledge production”.

What does that mean for the role of the visitor? What role does the public play in the architectural debate today?

Many of the projects developed for the São Paulo Biennale engage the visitor directly: architecture exhibits itself – for example, in the city. The visitors are part of the city and they can become part of its future production of space. As curator, you try to provide starting-points for public discussion. In a concluding workshop in our series with the architect and city planner Renato Cymbalista, we’ll try to develop possible targets for this intervention.

A new middle-class

What can Germany learn from Brazil when it comes to issues of urban planning and urban development?

Germany can certainly learn from Brazil about the reintegration of informal building structures in formal urban development. At present the treatment of the “new middle-class” in Brazil is particularly exciting for Germany. Is this new middle-class really so consumer-oriented? What sort of demands does it have regarding security, education, health and public space? We’re focussing on these questions, especially in our workshop in Curitiba with Sergio Pires. He’s the new head of the IPPUC, a local planning agency in Brazil for the city of Curitiba, which is considered a model of sustainable urban development.

What experiences drawn from Brazilian models such as the IPPUC can be interesting for German architectural policy?

In 1988, after the dictatorship, Brazil got a new democratic constitution and in 2001 the Estatuto da Cidade, which was builds on it. This statute for cities states that the social use of land must take precedence over its commercial value. It also decrees that citizens can take part democratically in urban planning. Despite abuse of this law by elites to the detriment of socially vulnerable groups, the Estatuto da Cidade provides a binding legal foundation for intervention. Orçamento participativo, or participatory budgeting, which the local curator Marcio D’Avila is treating in our workshop in Porto Alegre, is a precursor of this movement and has regulated local budget allocation since the late 1980s, based on proposals by community meetings. So participation in Brazil is nothing new, any more than it is in Germany. We can therefore learn all the more about new methods and coordination processes in the exchange about these experiences. For example, as part of our project Nos Brazil! in Salvador de Bahia, we’ve discussed the opportunities for “urban activism” with the local curator and Brazilian architect Ícaro Vilaça and asked how the current political protests in Brazil can play a productive part in urban design.

Local infrastructure meets global economy

What do the exchanges that took place at the Biennale mean for Brazil? Is there a danger of European architectural imports that ignore local urban conditions – for example, such as those that were discussed in connection with the Football World Cup in 2014 when stadiums designed by European architects led to the demolition of favelas?

As Brazil is a sovereign country, it would be paternalistic of us to assume that European countries could simply export architecture to it without further ado. More important seems to me to observe Brazil as a land with great developmental potential – and risks – and to study the global interdependencies. One of the basic theses of Nos Brasil! We Brazil! was that “local infrastructure meets global economy”. It is exactly this relationship that continues to be challenging, also in Germany.

Matthias Böttger, born in 1974, studied architecture in Karlsruhe and London. He heads the Berlin architectural office raumtaktik – räumliche Aufklärung und Intervention. In 2007/2008 he was Visiting Professor of Art and Public Space at the Academy of Fine Arts in Nuremberg. In 2008 he was Commissioner-General of the German contribution to the architecture biennale in Venice entitled “Updating Germany— Projects for a Better Future”. Böttger has been curator of the German Architecture Centre (DAZ) in Berlin since 2011.