Buses and cars stream from the affluent coastal neighborhoods of Salvador, Brazil’s third largest city, to Shopping Iguatemi, one of the biggest and newest malls in town. Crawling through traffic, we pass through an area my friends call “Americatown”: a Sam’s Club, two-story Burger King, Hiper Bom Preço (a Walmart-owned megastore) and a pizza joint all situated near the junction of three major crosstown highways. Just a kilometer or so further down, I enter the mall to buy a $50 plastic smartphone at Lojas Americanas (literally, “American Stores”), which is basically Target. The customer service is quick and polite. There is no haggling over the sale. I brandish my Wells Fargo debit card with few worries.
This is not really the commonly held vision of life in northeastern Brazil—it is neither the sleepy, tropical paradise nor the chaotic and dangerous mega-city. But this economic landscape is already and increasingly the norm. The number of shopping malls in Brazil doubled between 2008 and 2013.
As Brazilian cities upgrade and modernize—mostly in preparation for upcoming mega-events such as the Olympics and FIFA World Cup—it’s worth asking what they’re aspiring toward. Development efforts are in full swing and economic growth is generally positive, driven by a newly sprouted and rapidly growing middle class, eager to consume. Yet relatively basic issues of housing, transportation, schools, etc., remain unresolved and perpetually confused.
A billboard along a clogged highway crossing northern Salvador advertises the new “Expressway” (yes, in English), which is expected to ease the traffic congestion for the rapidly suburbanizing, single-occupancy- vehicle-driving population (yes, for Americans, all of this should ring a sad bell). While American freeways are jammed and nearly obsolete as soon as they are completed, in Brazil, the new Expressway is still supposed to fix everything. It’s tempting to view this promise as a tragically naive expression of an inferior civil society. But really, Brazil is just becoming more like us. Cars and freeways, tourism, offices and stadia are all on the rise. The CEO of a major mall developer was quoted in the Financial Times: “I have been hearing about slowing growth and the middle class being stretched to its limits for the last four years now. But that is just not what we are seeing on the ground.”
In other ways, Salvador fits the more stereotypical image of the Brazilian city. Cars park on the sidewalks and pedestrians walk in the street. There are no bus maps, though it doesn’t take long to learn which buses to flag down to get to the right general area. Street parking is paid to locals who help drivers angle in and hopefully ensure the safety of their vehicles while they’re away. Citywide recycling does not exist, but littering is a common way for aluminum cans to make their way to private facilities. Terminally unemployed collectors scour the streets and parks, a practice described by Argentine novelist César Aira in his short novel Shantytown as “such a practical arrangement it might have been set up deliberately.”
A local architecture professor remarked to me that the difference between American and Brazilian cities is that the former are planned, whereas the latter simply happened; through some haphazard colonial dreaming they grew incrementally at first, then very quickly. Much of this growth was through the practice of puxedinho (roughly translated: to pull a little bit); houses expand outward and upward, the city fills itself, lot by lot, with or without regulation. This activity has never been relegated to the poor but is also evidenced in richer parts of town where regulation is often just as absent.
The tenacity of this method is perhaps best illustrated in Brasilia itself, the pre-eminent modern city, which almost immediately began to take on an informal character despite the best intentions of its designers. Though Brazilian architecture and urban design has always been strongly influenced by modernism, it is in fact, and in image, chaotic. Spaghetti-strung streets, unregulated development and commerce of every type spring up wherever the opportunity presents itself. While the scale of the formal design may not be human, that has little to do with how people actually use the city. Ultimately, Brazilian cities are not known for the monuments of Le Corbusier, CIAM or even Oscar Niemeyer. They’re known for the favelas—squatter settlements and shantytowns, swaths of informal neighborhoods that occupy every unused space, often illegally, and often as the only option for the very poor. And that image, like the reality of the Brazilian city, has its own logic.
This logic has been increasingly valued by planners and designers in the developed world. As the Brazilian urban and economic landscape begins to model itself on the North, American and European planners talk of creating places that look more like the South. Favela chic, beyond just being fashionable, is viewed by some as an innovative system for future development: self-generating communities that are lively, walkable and mixed-use. The favela is seen as an open studio for architectural and planning practices in the West that seek to both improve and learn from the informal city. Everyday urbanism, studies of informality and ecological approaches extol the virtues of the piecemeal, inherently participatory appropriations of urban spaces. These borrowed styles are possibly a necessity for ideals of sustainability to be realized in Seattle and other places. Changing urban sensibilities and definitions of “quality of life” underlie the genuinely psychological appeal of favela chic. The attraction to these “minor architectures,” as Jill Stoner of Berkeley puts it, is clearly aesthetic and perhaps also personal. In Shantytown, Aira notes: “Those dollhouse-like constructions had their charm, precisely because of their fragility and their thrown-together look. . . . They simplified things enormously. For someone wearied or overwhelmed by the complexities of middle-class life, they could seem to offer a solution.”
At the same time, favela chic is also correctly criticized for its tendency to aestheticize poverty. Image-oriented slum upgrading projects led by internationally renowned firms often mask the lack of attention to the real problems facing those communities. Showcased favela improvements build political profiles for cities and politicians eager for international attention. Favela tourism offers outsiders the opportunity to experience firsthand the streets and the stench of the informal city approached as a living museum.
The cultural commerce between the North and South is both stylistic and behavioral. Where the poorest Brazilians practice autoconstrução (self-construction) as a matter of necessity, to build, improve and expand their houses, Americans flock to Ikea, Home Depot, Lowes, etc. to spend their weekends and expendable income on similar home-improvement projects. Each practice is based on some use of non-wage-earning hours to enhance the immediate environment, though for some it is done more out of necessity and for others to address manufactured needs, for status, or simply to feel a sense of purpose. Each is a method of individualizing one’s residence, to singularize, or to quote Felix Guatarri, “to attempt to achieve an authentic existence . . . against the wall of capitalist subjectivity . . . [to] work through an aesthetic sensibility, by changing life on a more everyday level” (Molecular Revolution in Brazil). There is a perceived freedom in actively creating spaces, providing one’s own services.
Perhaps there is also an attraction to the Third World because the First has become simply too sad—homogenous landscapes, recession, the obsolescence of the public sphere and so on. American planning narratives have gradually shifted to encompass the idea of decline. While there is not yet a truly defining work on Planning for Decline (though numerous authors have begun the task), the realities of rust belt cities, the implosion of Detroit and austerity in its various national forms all indicate that decline is the de facto way of the future, or no future, in the US and Europe. The social, personal and political version of decline is exhaustion, psychological overwhelm, insolvency. Italian theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi describes exhaustion as a necessary concept “to be understood and accepted as a new paradigm for social life” in Western culture (The Uprising). What does middle-class exhaustion in America look like? It’s always on sale. 20% off. 30%, 40%, clearance, buy now. Or next week. It’s not even a limited offer.
Meanwhile, malls like Shopping Iguatemi are full every weekend. The privately owned indoor corridors replace busy streets for middle- and upper-class families wary of crime and yearning for cleaner landscapes. The shops are stocked with increasingly Chinese goods, a fact which poses no immediate concern for shoppers.
Brazilian architect Jorge Mario Jáuregui describes contemporary urban production in light of the processes of globalization as the production of the “broken city.” In "Urban and Social Articulation: Megacities, Exclusion and Urbanity" (from Rethinking the Informal City), he calls the “tension between the so-called ‘formal’ urbanisation and ‘informal’ areas of uncontrolled sprawl” a clear “urban expression of a global pattern.” In this sense, perhaps Brazil’s mixed and messy cities are actually more representative of the truly operating processes of globalization than those of its North American neighbors. And perhaps puxedinho, hybridization and appropriation are in fact intelligent logics used to navigate this not post- but very non-modernist landscape.
The globalized economy, with its bases in hybridization and cultural migration, is shaping the form and function of cities in similar ways with often similar results. But historical contingency plays a role. As our societies continue to mirror each other, learn from and repeat each other’s mistakes, what sort of Brazilian city might emerge? And what sort of American city, for that matter?