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A diverse outlook

Paulo Tavares, a winner at this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture, divides his time between academia, art, and defending human rights

Diego Bresani / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo

I was part of the first architecture and urbanism class at UNICAMP [University of Campinas], where I graduated in 2005. Even back then, I had a strong interest in art, drawing, playing musical instruments, and carpentry. Architecture was a choice based on my personal interests. It was a new course at UNICAMP, still under development, and it took a very “engineering” kind of angle, but the class I graduated with, which had 30 students, was in a way very connected to art and social activism. I took advantage of the moment and studied subjects in other fields: I took many classes at the Institute of Arts, at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences, and at the Institute of Geosciences. This allowed me to develop a nontraditional view of architectural practice right at the beginning.

As an undergraduate, I joined a free radio collective called Rádio Muda. This experience, working alongside people from so many different backgrounds, had a major impact on my intellectual, artistic, and political development, as well as my career as an architect. We also created a collective called Submídia. It was a time when the internet and independent media were expanding in Brazil. We took part in the Ministry of Culture’s Cultura Viva (Living Culture) program when Gilberto Gil was minister. We went to various media and activism festivals, put on workshops, and set up radio stations all over Brazil at “Culture Points,” which were the core of the Cultura Viva program.

I was already interested in research at that time. Since there were not many jobs for architects, I decided to work in television and did a master’s degree in sociology at UNICAMP. At the same time, in 2006, I started a master’s degree at FAU-USP [the School of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo]. I started both simultaneously, but neither of them really captivated me. I found sociology to be a very theoretical course and the master’s degree at FAU-USP seemed to be very disconnected from the contemporary issues that interested me.

When I took part in a seminar at the São Paulo Art Biennial, I learned about the work of the Centre for Research in Architecture at Goldsmiths College, University of London. I felt a connection to what they were doing and believed the college would give me the opportunity to study the issues that I was interested in, mainly based on how they understood architecture as an instrument of power. In 2006, I started a master’s degree at Goldsmiths, focusing on political, cultural, and human rights issues. During my time there, I participated in the creation of the Forensic Architecture research agency, which uses architecture tools to protect and monitor human rights violations.

In 2008, I started my PhD at Goldsmiths, but I got to a certain point, while I was researching occupation of the Amazon in different countries, when I understood that I needed to go back to South America. I usually do not say “go back,” I just say “go.” I had to go to South America because in a sense, I was not “going back.” I was going to a new place, with all the experience I had gained from my studies. I went to Quito, Ecuador, where I lived for a few years. I taught at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador and completed my PhD in 2015 via distance learning. I then went to the USA, where I spent a semester in 2015 as a visiting researcher at Princeton University, before spending a semester the following year at Cornell University.

Rafa Jacinto / Fundação Bienal de São PauloTavares and architect Gabriela de Matos at the Brazilian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale of ArchitectureRafa Jacinto / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo

After that, I decided it was time to return to Brazil, so I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship at FAU-USP. At that time, in 2017, the FAPESP fellowship was very important—not only because it gave me the chance to reintegrate into the Brazilian academic environment, but also because it allowed me to carry out my “Memória da Terra” (Memory of the Earth) project, which was fundamental in my career as a researcher. The project is related to human rights and territories, developed in partnership with the Xavante Bö’u Association, and in collaboration with Brazil’s Federal Public Prosecution Service [MPF]. Based on information published by the National Truth Commission, the project investigates forced removals of the Xavante people in Mato Grosso during the military dictatorship.

Fieldwork began in 2018. After identifying various villages that were removed by the Brazilian State, we drew a map of archaeological sites and recently filed a petition with IPHAN [the National Institute for Historical and Artistic Heritage] for these sites to be recognized as Brazilian heritage. The project also resulted in a book [Memória da Terra: Arqueologias da ancestralidade e da despossessão do povo Xavante de Marãiwatsédé (Memory of the Earth: Archaeology of the ancestry and dispossession of the Xavante people in Marãiwatsédé)], published by the MPF in 2020. It is extremely important that the results of this research are returned to the communities, so we insisted that the book be distributed in Xavante schools. What this means is that our research, which began with a FAPESP grant in 2017, had several impacts that continue to be felt to this day—not just academically, but also socially and culturally.

This year, “Memory of the Earth” was part of the Venice Biennale of Architecture, an event I take part in as a researcher and an architect. I was also invited by the biennial to curate the Brazilian pavilion at the show, alongside another architect, Gabriela de Matos. We had never met before, but we very quickly realized that our approaches, although different, are completely aligned.

We chose Earth as the exhibition space’s theme and our project won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation, something never achieved before by Brazilian architecture. The pavilion highlighted the issue of memory and the restitution processes of heritage, history, and territory. A contemporary, global discussion that reflects the reconstruction process that Brazil is currently going through—a kind of reparation for colonial violence and the erasure of native and Afro-Brazilian peoples.

Although I have curated and continue to curate at times, including for the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, I do not see myself as a professional in this role. Curatorship is just one of the fields in which my activities and practice as an architect manifest themselves. I am also a writer, a visual artist, and I participate in Autonoma, an agency I founded in 2017 to defend human rights and combat state violence.

I also divide my work as a professor between the University of Brasília [UnB] and Columbia University in New York, where I am a visiting professor. After growing up in Campinas and living in places like São Paulo, London, and Quito, I have realized that moving around was very important for me, giving me a more nuanced perspective of geopolitics and world culture. In some of these places, I worked as a professor and I was able to experience what it is like to teach in different circumstances, at different institutions, for different communities. This diversity helped shape my vision of architecture and my work as a researcher and teacher.