Tobogã do “Contorno”

Monday, August 11, 2014
10:30 am – 2 pm
Warm and sunny

This morning, Tamara and I took a bus to the shopping mall we had visited during our last trip, “Patio Savassi.” While walking towards the intersection and approaching the shopping center, we had enough time to contemplate the building in all its plenitude. “What an ugly building,” Tamara said.  The pinkish and white stuccos with green signage, a glass pyramid on top; its scale and combination of materials and forms do not make it an appealing sight for the pedestrian – at least for us, for sure.  What was the architect thinking! In front of the shopping mall, there is a large building under construction; the steel structure signals the outline of the new building, which emerges from behind a wood fence protected with barbwire.  In the back, a dense landscape of modern buildings emerge, displaying mirror glass-covered facades, orthogonal lines, bulky volumes, and light earthy colors.

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Walking down the block, each building tries to shine over the others, without paying much attention to neighbor constructions. Some old houses are left, in-between much larger new buildings that seem to belong to a different time and landscape. It’s paradoxical that these new reflective and machine-like buildings, when directly experienced while walking the “Contorno,” feel so much decadent than the appealing forms seen in photographs. When I look at decontextualized pieces of the landscape within a frame, it becomes something else, an experiment with form, content and space. But these decontextualized images are able to reveal significant aspects of Belo Horizonte and its broader social context.  Found elements are the material traces left behind social processes; these have the ability to disclose different aspects of reality.

Once again, I documented many electrified fences, warning signs, gates, barbwire, and security cameras. How does this architecture of fear emerge in Belo Horizonte? How do these elements reproduce fear and exclusion in the city? A society that excludes large sectors of the population needs to protect itself from the “other,” that who has been excluded. As a visitor, I can’t but be surprised and captivated by the amount of resources invested in protecting/ separating the private sphere from the street and from others. In other places, people isolate themselves in walled cities, isolated enclaves of privilege and safety. Here instead, buildings and houses are still part of the street and the city, but establish safety from the public realm through the construction of electrified fences and security technologies. There are diverse security mechanisms, from homemade systems, such as broken glass on masonry walls to laser-protected glass panels. The most commonly used seem to be electrified fences running in all directions over walls, metal fences, windows, canopies, balconies, roofs, etc. I also notice a widespread use of mirror walls; one can usually seen images reflected on walls while walking, which can be a fun experience but also brings a certain atmosphere of fakeness to the built landscape.

But overall, the experience of the neighborhood is very diverse; it is possible to find many contrasted elements, uses, materials, and scales while moving along “Contorno.” Old houses are enclosed in between newer constructions. Mirror windows are combined with stone, brick, or concrete. Machine-looking or slick buildings sit side by side and the colorful flowers of the “Apí” reflect on the mirrored surfaces of buildings. Small used-clothing boutiques and a local hardware store share the street with corporate buildings and large-scale residential buildings. Despite the mostly posh character of the area, you can still find a “shitty corner bar” that sells cheap bottled cold beer and “salgados” – snacks.

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Soon after the shopping center, the “tobogã do Contorno” begins, a steep slope covering several blocks until the intersection with Av. Getúlio Vargas, where green park with big trees extends looking down the street. The use of stairs, ramps, and terraces gives more movement to the street; pedestrians sit over stairs, building entrances in front of construction sites, on the stoops of buildings, etc. One can read the close relation with architectural objects and spaces, in a more informal way. Along the way, we found several groups of people – mostly workers – momentarily taking over a public space, using sidewalks and stairs to hang out and create a temporary social spaces.

Several themes seem to emerge among my field notes and the photographs I take; a taxonomy of urban elements characteristic of this place, this time, through the eyes of a foreigner. These elements denote a certain mode of life, thinking, or undergoing social processes, but also the way Tamara and I navigate Belo Horizonte and the fortuitous things we find and observe along the way. Security fences, warning signs, decontextualized pieces of architectural objects, garbage, new and old, local/ global, informal economies, built-in wall mailboxes – and the diversity among each theme, which seem to vary across neighborhoods and time periods.

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