architecture parallax : são paulo

alexander pilis  2003

São Paulo, can anyone locate it? I can't!

Crash Course - Definition

1984.  It was not my first visit, but my first flight into São Paulo.

Around 8 am I woke up from flight exhaustion, opening my eyes  -- the blinking of my eyes -- to the window -- the frame -- and seeing it filled with a mass construct -- a perceptual collapse. It was unexplainable at first, as if an overwhelming, vertical moving image devouring my body. Or, maybe I was hungry.

As we were approaching, the pilot announced loudly that we had to circle above the city for at least 30 minutes because the airport, nested within this massive construct, was too jammed for landing.  As the plane continued to circle, I began to scan this collective un-decipherable form; I began to imagine a never-ending landscape of holes, craters, gaps, ridges and cuts. Yet I knew we were not landing on the moon.  

Can you remember what has not happened?

Can you be sure if you have entered – the story ...  the city -- from the beginning or from the end?  Perhaps it is the middle?  A hundred simultaneous things colliding can highjack your consciousness … your life.

I located the airstrip through this density. The plane had finally broken through the jammed air space, but in order to land on the slicing concrete line, the pilot had to manoeuvre between facades of apartment buildings as they formed massive walls on both sides.

I could see inside the apartments -- residents at home.

I could see that their breakfasts were better than the plane food -- I could see into one apartment bedroom:  a couple was fucking!

The wheels hit the concrete strip, squeaking and burning rubber and brakes, short runway. Paradise, purgatory and hell had just collapsed into one!  

A place that once had cannibals who ate Europeans.

Indigestion, immediacy and rawness.

Past, Present and Future: The Depth of Field Collapses

São Paulo can’t be visualized as a coherent form – not from a bird's eye view or even from Google Earth™, and when you are on the ground, there is no single position from which to experience it. You are inside; it is inside your body. Or you are inside a frame where spaces and shapes are constantly moving and shifting. Positions change and architecture shifts. I realized this city had no memory of its own growth, and had fallen prey to an Alzheimer state, a loss of the present memory. It is a common saying; Paulistas have short memory.

Within the collapsed frame of São Paulo – a city with no grid, decentralized but no plan -- a hurtle of diverse architectural constructions -- a collision of ethnic immigration -- ripe with corruption and personal interests –built and rebuilt many times on private interests and greed over a short period of time.  

There are no happy right angles and no permanent spaces that people claim for the past, present or future. Trying to locate any traces of a public space under the addictive spell of carbon dioxide is impossible.  There is no collective intelligence. My senses were disorientated. My architectural, historical references had toppled. All is perishable.

I realized that my body -- or any body -- no longer existed or was grounded. It felt corrupted by a violent viral crash, taken over by an aggressive cocktail of virus -- a Toxoplasma Gondii embedded in my brain.

I forget what I just read or wrote and where I have been.

If there are no traces of the past how can anything endure? The thought of time outside of our experience is unthinkable and destabilizes our equilibrium. To “encode” my body as a step to memory, in time, in a public space, I tried to take a picture of myself.   Three times I failed to appear within the same architecture:  it disappeared each time.

Is there a time outside of cosmic time, outside of the biological clock, outside of human-invented clock time?

The visuals in the article are interwoven with the text – as if bonded at a genetic level.  It is a selection and fragment of an investigation that began in 1987, examining the notions of a megalopolis and its genius loci that have been hijacked, and the blurring of boundaries in the erasure of public spaces.

The reader can indulge -- start at the beginning, at the end, or anywhere in-between -- or watch a fast film on a motorcycle at 120 kilometres per hour within the corridor of death by flipping the pages quickly– a speed reading, and viewing. There are historical mappings, critical cultural perspectives, personal histories, geographic economies, the physicist stuck in a traffic jam, semiotic speed readings, a poetic alphabetical guide, x-ray imagery, shape shifters, moving cities, space architects, cinematic colonies. Greeks meets cyborgs, coffee turns into construct, poverty turns into wealth and proprietors serve the maids. There is crowded space, vagabonds, night eaters, and architectural sex.  

From these multitudes of perspectives, in constant motion, a paradoxical condition emerges, but we cannot visualize it from one perspective nor map it using the X & Y axis. It is an oblique and hybrid space of X & Y axis. Private and public becomes all the same. Both are privatized, the public and private spaces are cancelled out in a constant confrontation to appropriate whatever territory is needed to expand by whatever is desired in any moment.

Founded and settled by Jesuits in 1554, it was a triangle formed by two rivers and constructed by 3 words / São Paulo de Piratininga. That creation moment is long gone, overwhelmed by a multi-layering of everything without anything. In 1987 I called São Paulo the ultra-metropolis; in 1997 the megalopolis, and now 2009 without a residue of a polis, it is a nameless thing-unexplainable. It doesn’t look like any other city or any hyper-city or any mega-city.  It was post-modern before the manifesto was thought of, a place without theory or distance for any theoretical and or urban operating theatre.

It’s shit but it smells great and I’m addicted to carbon dioxide. It is sectional, vertical, horizontal, and oblique. It is extremely disorientating, and at the same time stimulating and exhilarating. It’s under your skin and fixed points are immaterial.

Toward an Architecture Parallax - Definition

Instinctively, I knew that an investigation - a definition could not be developed through the lens of modernity without vomiting a European-Western classical model of thought regarding projection, distance, movement and reflection. The modern paradox, an argument of opposition to what came before, was irrelevant to the existing conditions, how this megalopolis developed in a short time and came to be. I had to device another working praxis, an instrument.  The Parallax theorem became the instrument and methodology.

"Parallax, n. Apparent displacement, or difference in the apparent position, of an object, caused by actual change (or difference) of position of the point of observation."  From The Oxford English Dictionary.

The Parallax theorem as a definition had to circulate through a physical experience because São Paulo is a place where the individual has the possibility of moving unnoticed through the various levels – horizontally, vertically and obliquely - as if an anarchist or even as a body that has disappeared. This city defies any central, established order of the continuum, the historical map of city building.

There is no past and no future, and I forgot the present.

Bernard Tschumi wrote, “To understand architecture, you may even need to commit a murder.” Here I say you have to commit the crime since the architectonic post drawings are lost! One of my visits was to the police academy at the university grounds.  I was in a small room that you entered through a locked door with an engraved plaque, “prohibited under 18 years.”  There were wall-to-wall B&W photographs of the most heinous crimes committed in São Paulo. There is no good or bad or ugly or even B&W, it’s all grey.  There is no distancing from an event, no hope for a concept of beauty.

Depth of Field is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects that appear in sharp focus in photography-- or a zone of acceptable sharpness because the human eye cannot distinguish small degrees or differences.  We must trust our eyes -- believe what we see or want to see.

Here the questions arise: what are we seeing and what is actually there?

The São Paulo condition is a collapsed depth of field. The body as we traditionally-historically conceptualize it, perceive and represent it, its way of moving and orientation, is contingent, provisional and epiphenomenal. One is lost at the edges, the blurring of architectural boundaries and the non-existing public spaces (in European terms). There is no longer a question of what is right or what is wrong, or let’s say what is private and what is public. In São Paulo public space is privately occupied either by the extreme wealth or by extreme poverty. Those who have nothing, the uninvited guests, the walking zombies who will take anything without regard to rules and morality occupy whatever is in between. What is yours is mine and taken by any conceivable force.

People are constantly moving. People move from place to place – that is, from one secure place to another – as quickly as possible, like bullets encased in solid protected cars.  If you stop you will become a likely target for a lost bullet. And if you can’t stop then even the concept of lounging in an open place – a public space -- become unthinkable.

I’m struck by the architectonic amnesia:  is there history beyond the long-forgotten Jesuit triangle?  And if the place where you may have played as child is long-gone, why bother with history?  Why not eat, digest and vomit as in the manifesto anthropophagi written by Oswaldo de Andrade.

I became preoccupied with notions of time itself. Public clocks are out of order or non-functional – defunct and now ornamental: one can never keep up with time if movement is unpredictable, all moves.  Time itself becomes a mere ornament. The unpredictability of time in a place that constantly shifts, or never comes to a halt, invents its own logic, it becomes the social conversation. There are always fascinating stories to explain how appointments or meetings are missed: there are endless discussions of how to develop strategies to get to places (and do they still exist and if so, are they safe).

We cannot project into the future, if there indeed there is a future. Why do you need to be on time - any time?  

Expect the unexpected.

Were we all part of a mirror reflection?

Had I crashed into it?

There is a schism of another kind, between utopia and anarchy. São Paulo is driven by momentary gut survival rather than by collectively held ideals and desires. There is no heroic stance, no sense of authenticity. It is too late for the intellect to attempt a rescue or try to implement history.

Could one explain to me the moment of being mesmerized by the instant of awesome?

Can you remember what has not happened?

Can you be sure if you have entered – the word, the story...  the city -- from the beginning or from the end?  Perhaps it is the middle?  A hundred simultaneous unexplainable words - things colliding can highjack your consciousness … your life … in a place where what is yours, is mine.

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