Objects of the Forest

The Designer in the Splendor of Nature in the Age of Anthropocene

Vanessa Grossman is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft). She is an architect, a historian of modern and contemporary architecture, and a curator whose research focuses on architecture’s intersections with ideology, power and governance, with a special focus on global practices in Cold War era Europe and Latin America.

Lost paradise, reservoir for the future of civilization, world’s lung, land of the few, no man’s land, underworld, stage of carnage, barbarism, green hell. The myriad of representations that the Amazon evokes in the global collective imagination corresponds perhaps to its incommensurability as a forest. However, in Brazil’s national fiction and reality, the Amazon’s presence at the forefront of Western culture is an extremely recent phenomenon. Other than being unavoidably associated to the profitable area of “sustainability,” this new prominence of the Amazon is also intrinsically related to the recognition that human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment in what came to be known as the current geological age—the Anthropocene. Along with the centuries-old image of a repository of endless resource extraction possibilities, many still see the Amazon as a sort of Brazilian Wild West, in which the various voices that have tried to denounce the numerous crimes and destruction were silenced. The rest of the country has socially, racially and culturally neglected it over the past century, since, for colonial reasons, Brazil’s centrality was entrenched in the Southeast. This is where, in Brazil, the Amazon’s fate is hitherto discussed.

Nevertheless, if the 19th century saw the heyday of naturalist expeditions to the region, which can be proved by the creation and “collection” of the Paraense Emilio Goeldi Museum in Belém[1], the resonances of the Amazon, even if episodic, have indeed punctuated every one of the most important Brazilian moments related to Western culture of the following century. Without going into the artistic production of the colonial years, the Amazon was tied to the construction of the country’s national identity since the dawn of modernism in Brazil. The latter’s uniqueness lay precisely in the fact that it implied, in a Janus-faced effort, of building a past and a future for art, and for the country itself, including the embrace of Brazil’s “primitive” roots.

“In these travel notes [...] Sometimes I stop and hesitate to tell certain things, I fear people will not believe.” As an “apprentice tourist” Mário de Andrade was willing to hear the multiple voices of the Amazon—by indigenous peoples, rubber tappers, riverine—in his 1927 expedition. A year later, he wrote “Macunaíma,” the founding text of Brazil’s modernism, which emulates the alchemy of “Brazilian culture”, heroic and with no character. In its pages, the Amazonian rivers have turned into “liquid streets,” whose “usual transportation is the manatee, and the Amazon river dolphin for women.” To deal with the exuberance he witnessed, the author, one of the father figures of Brazilian modernism, resorted to the fantastic, and “projected” the city into the forest, and vice versa.

In the same way as this unusual landform and the lifestyle of indigenous peoples inspired Mário de Andrade, they also penetrated the imagination of some of the best-known Brazilian architects, urban planners, landscape architects, and designers. The Amazon also remained for these protagonists, however, in the domain of an almost fantastic, mediated, representation, inasmuch as they often failed to entail a tangible engagement with the reality of humans and non-humans coexisting in the territories where they intervened. In fact, the first “architectural landmark” of modernism was erected when the then-Minister Gustavo Capanema turned down the erection of a neocolonial project in “Marajoara style” designed by the Cearense Art Deco Cearense architect Archimedes Memória,[2]  the laureate of the national contest for the Palace of Ministry of National Education and Public Health.[3] Instead, Capanema canceled the competition and invited Lucio Costa to develop a modern project, with the advice of the Swiss-born Paris-based architect Le Corbusier.

In contrast with the ideals behind the mimetic neocolonial architecture that was exhibited at the 1922 “Modern Art Week” [Semana de 22], the idea that modern architects and designers should act as “interpreters” has prevailed in Brazil. “... in a sort of return to the origins, I made a draft that in Barreirinha, in the heart of the Amazon, the native poet constructs with zeal and love.” By decoding the local “savoir faire,” Costa designed a residence for his friend, the poet Thiago de Mello in the Amazon. The latter was the land of the grandparents and mother of Costa, who is considered to be another father figure, that of Brazilian architectural modernism. Costa famously devised the master plan of Brasilia, Brazil’s new capital, built from scratch, which was followed by an equally intensive process of “territorial organization” in the Amazon, to the detriment of local indigenous groups and the ecosystem.[4] Another renowned modernist, Roberto Burle Marx, has showed that beauty lies in the exuberance of nature’s untamed flora that he “discovered,” amongst others, in the Amazon, and which he introduced into the international vocabulary of landscape architecture. The Amazon also served as material resource and source of inspiration for the work of renowned designers who favored raw material, such as Sergio Rodrigues’s “Oca,” his trademark. “Oca” was named after the Tupí-Guaraní term for “home,” in the language spoken by one principal, dispersed, indigenous people of Brazil, whose origins link back to the Amazon[5].

“When I imagined creating a store that represented Brazilian furniture design, I envisioned a name that was, in a way, enough to determine what I was imagining. I used a name to be able to value the work of other designers and other materials. That’s what Oca was about. And in this case, the initial material that was used was immediately the jacarandá.”[6] To Costa’s appreciation, Rodrigues managed to rescue the spirit of traditional furniture and aspects of indigenous Brazil.[7] In Costa’s own words, “He [Rodrigues] made Brazilian-Brazil coexist with Ipanema’s Brazil,” Ipanema being another reference to Tupí-Guaraní culture.[8] Yet “Brazilian-Brazil” did coexist, and still coexists, with “Ipanema’s Brazil”!

Some foreign artists who have settled in the country, like the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, amongst others, have expressed their social critique by amplifying less interpreted, or even obliterated, voices. After her experience in the Northeast of Brazil (1958-64), the Italian-born architect and designer Lina Bo Bardi wrote a little book entitled “The Impasse of Design: Experience in the Northeast of Brazil” [“Tempos de grossura: o design no impasse” (1980)], whose considerations could be extended to the Amazon. They point to the appreciation of the creative design solutions conceived by socially excluded people, an appreciation that is stripped of any vestiges of what Bo Bardi designated as “patronizing mythology,” which was certainly one of the aspects of Brazilian modernism. Since the 1970s, when the environmental movement was still embryonic, the Polish artist Frans Krajcberg has, in turn, denounced the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest by transforming charred trunks and branches into sculptures. These operations have granted him the title of “poet of vestiges.” His objects made from “still lifes” tell the story of a death of no return. “No Brazilian remembers that human beings are living in the forest, and that they are burned along with the trees.”

 Still in the field of the post-Tropicalista[9] culture of the 1970s, the movie “Iracema, uma Transa Amazônica” (1976) addressed the same silenced voices as Bo Bardi and Krajcberg, by way of a manifestation against the Brazilian “miracle,” the spurt of economic growth and rapid urbanization under the rule of the military government (1964–1985). By associating the Transamazônica Highway crossing the Amazon forest—a construction project of pharaonic proportions—with the failure of the nation, the film is scarily up-to-date. After almost 45 years, very little seems to have changed with the controversial Belo Monte dam complex, implying in the construction of the “world’s third largest dam” on the Xingu River in the Amazon (now overthrown by China’s Three Gorges dam) the displacement of thousands of indigenous peoples and of a multitude of animal and plant species from their lands. Worse yet, a flagrant increase in illegal mining and logging activities, with devastating outbreaks of fires and other environmental crimes in indigenous territories, are taking place. “Amazon tragedy repeats itself as Brazil rainforest goes up in smoke” makes headline news as of September 2020[10].

Even though these and other aspects, like the discussion of Brazil’s new forest code, seem to have persisted in the country, they no longer go without major repercussions, both within and outside of Brazil, which are favored by new technologies such as the satellite imagery of space agencies. The environmental crisis and ecology have gained weight on the post-industrial global agenda, particularly in view of the devastating consequences of global warming across the planet, and the overall rethinking of nature in the Anthropocene.

However, despite the still systematic and unpunished destruction, today Brazil may not only be the territory where the last natural resources have persisted on the globe, but also the nation that has something to teach about the appropriation and creative use of them, starting from the very lessons of what Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro refers to as “the relative native.”[11] In the digital era, and vis-à-vis the environmental crisis, this is also provocatively suggested in Objects of the Forest, a project originally conceived in 2012 by the designer and architect Andrea Bandoni. Eight years after its first launch, Objects of the Forest is brought to an even greater actuality these days.

Unlike the neocolonial mimicry, and the often-patronizing modernist “interpretation,” or the whistleblower muteness of Krajcberg’s objects, the project calls attention not to the death but to the narratives and processes involved in the life cycle (the so-called “cradle-to-cradle”) of the most representative objects of the Amazon human and non-human sophisticated material culture, either created or as found.

Objects of the Forest is in this sense closer to Bo Bardi’s reading of the popular culture of Brazil’s dry Northeast, less interested in its forms than in its methods. And yet it breaks with the idea that shortage, or “deadlock,” has generated the objects analyzed, and prevented the development of more complex forms and processes, as a kind of subjection to the social reality, or to nature. Rather than for their functional and aesthetic value, the objects were chosen from their splendid cradle through the prism of contemporary problems and needs, and according to the ethics of a critical sustainability—that is, their minimum degree of interference in the Amazon ecosystem.

Furthermore, the project questions the identity and practices of both user and designer. Firstly, it emphasizes not only design of traditional or ritualistic objects made by man (Tipiti), but also the objects that animals design (Caba’s house), as well as those that are found in nature as such (Pirarucu’s tongue). Secondly, the project encourages its local and external participants, the authors of such a selection, to diversify their conventional role as designer. Ultimately, the project enhances the sense of belonging to a particular ecosystem and community. Each analyzed object presents a sort of DNA of the complex Amazonian context, including its networks of subjects and objects.

Neither the pure text of semiotics, nor the sheer materiality of objects: the project reminds us that objects “talk”—and may reveal their nature and social dimension, both saturated with cultural significance—when the different layers of matter and meanings mesh. Without wishing to cover the racial, sociocultural and biological diversity of the Amazon, or point to closed-form solutions, Objects of the Forest proposes an excerpt that reveals a heretofore unmeasured potential. The project challenges the logic of both capitalist production, commodification, and consumption, while taking for granted the racial, social, economic and cultural reality of craftsman. In this sense, it proposes a contemporary rather than nostalgic return to Lévi-Strauss’s lesson in Tristes Tropiques (1955), reminding us that the modus operandi of our civilization is one option amongst many others that could be offered to humanity[12].

This is a revised edition of my original text conceived for Objects of the Forest in 2012. For the first version, see this link.

[1]A native or inhabitant of the Brazilian state of Pará.

[2] A native or inhabitant of the Brazilian state of Ceará

[3] The Marajoara or Marajó culture was a pre-Columbian era society in Marajó, an island at the mouth of the Amazon on the north coast of Brazil. The excavations undertaken there in the 1870s testified to an ancient civilization, whose iconography inspired Brazilian Art Deco and early Modernist artists. See Marcio Alves Roiter, “The Marajoara influence in Brazilian Art Déco,” in Revista UFG, year XII, nº 8 (July 2010), “Art Déco no Brasil,” 33-41, https://www.revistas.ufg.br/revistaufg/article/download/48346/23686/

[4] See Paulo Tavares, “Modern Frontiers. Beyond Brasília, the Amazon,” in Latin American Modern Architectures: Ambiguous Territories, ed. Patricio Del Real and Helen Gyger (New York: Routledge, 2013), 205-226. See also Wellington Cançado, “Planting cities, building forests,” in Infinite Span, ed. Guilherme Wisnik and Fernando Serapião (Zurich: Lars Müller, 2019) 380-386. Cançado’s essay is a small portion of his PhD dissertation, “Sob o Pavimento, a Floresta: Cidade e Cosmopolítica” (PhD. diss., Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, 2019).

[5] Fernando Ozorio de Almeida, Eduardo Góes Neves, “Evidências arqueológicas para a origem dos Tupi-Guarani no Leste da Amazônia. Mana, vol. 21, nº 3 (2015), 499-525. https://doi.org/10.1590/0104-93132015v21n3p499

[6] Sergio Rodrigues, cited in Regina Zappa, “Sergio Rodrigues. O Brasil na ponta do lápis” (undated), 35, in http://www.institutosergiorodrigues.com.br/Biografia.pdf

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lucio Costa, cited in Zappa, op. cit.., 35. Ipanema ironically means in Tupí-Guaraní “river without fish, bad water.”

[9] The adjective “Tropicalista” refers back to Tropicalismo, also known as Tropicália, which arose from the title of a work by Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980), shown at the New Brazilian Objectivity exhibition [Nova Objetividade Brasileira] at the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Modern Art [Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro - MAM/RJ], in April 1967. In this work, consisting in the conception of an “environment,” the use of signs and images that are conventionally associated with tropical Brazil was not intended to represent a given national reality, but “to objectify a Brazilian image by “devouring” the symbols of Brazilian culture,” in the artist’s own words. This idea of “devouring” refers directly to the revival of the Cannibalism emulated at the already mentioned 1922 Modern Art Week. Oiticica’s Tropicalia found echoes in other artistic manifestations of the period, equally experimental and socially critic, such as in the cinema, theater and music.

[10] Lucas Landau and Tom Phillips, “Amazon tragedy repeats itself as Brazil rainforest goes up in smoke,” The Guardian, September 2, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/02/amazon-fires-brazil-rainforest-bolsonaro-destruction

[11] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “O nativo relativo,” Mana, vol. 8, nº 1 (2002), 113 148. https://doi.org/10.1590/S0104-93132002000100005 For an English translation, see Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds (Chicago: HAU Books, 2016).

[12] See Ian Angus, “Does Anthropocene Science Blame All Humanity?”, Climate & Capitalism, May 31, 2015, https://climateandcapitalism.com/2015/05/31/does-anthropocene-science-blame-all-humanity/

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Amazon through local...