Fear And Leisure In São Paulo

On: October 29, 2009
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About ellen sluis
I am currently enrolled in the MA New Media. After graduating in Communication and Information Sciences from the Utrecht University I worked during one year in Brazil (São Paulo) as a web designer and, after that, at a NGO, developing the website and PR.


A few weeks ago I watched Richard Williams’ lecture about ‘Architecture and Economies of Violence in São Paulo’ as part of the workshop ‘Globalization and Violence’. It doesn’t have to do so much with new media in particular but it does with digitalization in general.

Williams stressed how architecture responds to new forms of violence associated with globalizing cities. In the specific case of São Paulo, the seventh biggest city in the world, he demonstrated how its architecture is influenced by the favelas and the increasing city size.

As São Paulo is known as a criminal and dangerous city, Williams shows how last century’s architecture reflects this fear. Big concrete buildings, flats surrounded by huge fences or contrasting highly expensive apartments next to a enormous favela, the city’s poorest neighbourhood, of course separated by a huge stone wall. He sees the city’s fear reflected in the architecture as a consequence of the growing difference between rich and poor and the increasing city growth due to globalization.

In ‘Designing the Digital City’, William Mitchell focuses not so much on the influence of digitalization on the architecture but on the form and the spatial rearrangement of cities:

“The forms that cities take, the ways they function, and the mixes and distributions of activities within them have always been influenced very strongly by the capabilities of their underlying network infrastructures. (…) Today, a new type of network infrastructure — high speed digital telecommunications — is being overlaid on cities everywhere.”[1]

Mitchell begins by describing the earlier forms of networks, such as water supply, streets and sewer systems that enabled new activities and thus, new forms of (bigger) cities. The digital infrastructure in turn makes possible new activities and causes new spatial arrangements. He gives the example of online the (small) bookstore that nowadays is being replaced by just a few, major storage buildings since people are starting to order their books online. Distribution of stock to the bookstores is being substituted by delivery service to homes all over the world. He calls it fragmentation and recombination of existing ‘hubs’ and ‘central points’ into new forms of city structure.

Although Mitchell doesn’t look at architecture, he does mention the rearrangement of space within the city, which he sees is positively changing through ICT. People can easily work at home and this results in more free time for leisure activities. “Today, when an increasing amount of work is information work that can be electronically supported and flexibly located, it is possible to recombine the home and the workplace — in many ways, to recreate a pre-industrial land-use pattern in the post-industrial era”.

Mitchell is too optimistic. He not only forgets to take social and political factors as responsible for changes in city’s spatial organization, he also totally ignores the increasing inequality as a result of the digital infrastructure. Let’s take São Paulo as an example here. The wealth and opportunities for the middle and upper classes are sharply contrasted by the poverty taking account for a big part of this enormous city’s (increasing) population. As labour in the last century became centralized in big corporations in the city, due to industrialization, people consequently moved from the rural areas to those big cities, expecting (better) jobs and hoping for better circumstances. Disappointed by the promises of the big city, they based themselves in the large clusters of poor communities in specific parts of the city[2]. According to Mitchell, the digital infrastructure should be a solution by transforming such neighbourhoods into highly desired living places, but instead has only worsened the (digital) divide that is reflected in the spatial development of the city.

Clearly, the separation between work and leisure Mitchell sees hasn’t become reality in, for instance, São Paulo. I don’t see the digital infrastructure causing a positive rearrangement of the city structure, “creating lively streets and public spaces”, being “an urban fabric of vigorous, pedestrian-scale neighborhoods that take advantage of the affordances of remote electronic connection to produce a high density of face-to-face interactions at the local level.”

Rather, taking Williams’ observations in account I must say the opposite became reality. Roughly speaking it closes the circle he observed; globalization and ICT infrastructure caused a change in the city organization, with fear and violence as a consequence. And São Paulo’s architecture is a proof of that.


[1] William J. Mitchell. “Designing the Digital City” (2000)

[2] Bernardo Sorj. “www.vivafavela.com.br: Fighting the Urban Digital Divide” (2001)

Comments are closed.