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The city of engineers

The urban fabric of São Paulo was created by "technical and erudite knowledge"

Reproductions from the book Dois séculos de projetos no estado de São Paulo (Imesp-Edusp)Anhangabaú ValleyReproductions from the book Dois séculos de projetos no estado de São Paulo (Imesp-Edusp)

“Until 1900 those interested in the “accommodation” issue met in the homes of the hygienists, when they began residing separately. The engineer maintains fruitful and cordial relations with the hygienist, they visit each other regularly, but we no longer see them walking arm in arm: the former find it more convenient to get closer to the planners,” said Victor da Silva Freire, engineer and director of Public Works at the São Paulo city administration in 1914 in his lecture “The Healthy City”, delivered at the Polytechnic Club. “Between 1890 and 1950, at the conceptual level it is impossible to separate the vocabulary of the ‘urbanist’ (engineer and architect) from that of the São Paulo public administrator,” explains historian, Maria Stella Bresciani, from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and coordinator of the project “Erudite and technical knowledge in the configuration and reconfiguration of urban space: State of São Paulo, nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” supported by FAPESP. According to the researcher, the erudite knowledge of technicians and authorities, who made suggestions and believed themselves capable of giving adequate responses to the challenges of a city that was being modernized, was responsible for the changes that occurred in São Paulo and heavily influenced the relationship between public authorities and the interests of private capital, which had a great weight in shaping the urban space in São Paulo.

According to the researcher, what distinguishes this project from other studies on the same theme are the theoretical and historical questions in the two axes that intersect each other. “In terms of history, we indicate how the assumptions of hygienism-sanitarism remain active even when the professional field of city specialists is established. We study how these assumptions are maintained when they are translated into technical precepts and incorporated into the urban discipline in the 1920’s, even though engineers and architects sought autonomy over what they called the “theoretical rigidity of hygienists” she also observes. “Theoretically, we wanted to understand how the ‘interval’ between enactment of laws, projects and plans and their actual application or execution worked, since they would be, as other studies have stated, mere copies of foreign ideas and models and, therefore, unsuitable for the local situation”, she continues.

To exemplify the first situation the historian recalls the Avenue Plan of Mayor Prestes Maia (1896-1965), conceived in the 1930’s and implemented only in the 1970’s. The second point is more complex because it involves, Stella notes, going beyond the interpretative line of ‘out of place ideas’ because “using the argument of importing ideas for the urban shaping of São Paulo prevents more attentive reflection on the process of constituting a conceptual field of urbanism as being ‘knowledge in the public domain’, comprising various pieces of knowledge and various experiences, disseminated and with changes applied because of specific situations in different countries when practical options are added to the openly pragmatic urbanism,” she says. It only has to be remembered what the engineer and mayor of São Paulo, Anhaia Mello (1896-1974) used to say in the 1920’s, who along with Prestes Maia, was one of the intellectuals who proposed a way of thinking about the urban configuration of the city. Although he advocated that “ideas today have an immense effectiveness and an almost unlimited and immediate range of action, which embraces the globe and is going to probe other planets,” Anhaia Mello warned that it was necessary to know how others solved urban problems and “apply intelligently and not slavishly, or out of a mere spirit of imitation, the methods and processes that adapt to our local conditions. Above all, we affirm the importance of monitoring the academic formation and actions of specialists and, in this process, understand the defining moments of their theoretical options.”

Thus, in addition to revealing the permanence of the sanitary assumptions in São Paulo’s urbanism and those for overcoming the theory of the import of models as a way of understanding the formation of the city, the theme made another significant contribution to existing studies: a demonstration of the power of private capital in shaping the São Paulo urban space; works by specialists in urban issues that, Stella believes, ended up giving the city its modern configuration. “Furthermore, the assumptions of this scientific and technical knowledge that was developed in the capital were also applied to the creation of new cities to the west, the result of the expansion of the coffee frontier that resulted from the introduction of the rail network that had an influence on the urbanization of the whole of this area, right up to the boundaries of the city of São Paulo. Our research reveals the power of private companies and the owners of rural properties in the establishment of railroads and the urban features of each new city that sprang up in this process.”

Reproductions from the book Dois séculos de projetos no estado de São Paulo (Imesp-Edusp)School of Medicine in 1929Reproductions from the book Dois séculos de projetos no estado de São Paulo (Imesp-Edusp)

“The activities of these groups were important for the reconfiguration of the urban areas in the State of São Paulo, the spread of eclectic architecture, the constitution of the landscape repertoire and the remodeling of old squares, plazas and gardens,” observes architect, Adalberto Retto Junior, group coordinator of the professors of the School of Architecture, Arts and Communication of Bauru (Faac), who belongs to a thematic area. According to studies by these researchers, because of initiatives that required the construction of equipment and buildings aimed at the production and building of the rail network, the cities built in the west of São Paulo State, the expansion zone of coffee production, even today present a fairly homogeneous landscape in their urban design: the continuous blocks of the urban grid stop when they come up against a natural barrier, or railroads and highways, regardless of the existing topography. For Retto Junior, the public areas of these new cities, many created as a function of the railroad passing through them, were a reproduction of the laws of the capital in their process of diffusion and the circulation of hygienic precepts and technical innovations.

According to the studies’ group, the setting up of these cities can be considered a milestone in urban planning, whose wider objective was to obtain a rapid return on investment. After their substitution by highways, the architectural structures created by the expansion of the railroad network in inner state areas were transformed into ‘modern ruins,’ which also exist in the capital. “It’s necessary to question for whom areas and properties are being preserved; why and in the name of what past. Even though this preservation has been done in the name of a – line of continuity with the past-, it should be thought of as a selective work of reconstruction of this past,” is the analysis of historian, Cristina Meneguello, from Unicamp, a member of the group. “This preservation has become a ‘favorite theme’ in the communication media and political discourse, but over and above its ‘positive’ side it needs to be questioned. The appropriation of history should not be merely a material and visual citation, but something that has within it the possibility of transformation,” she continues.

In fact, to understand this transformation in its process, it is necessary to understand how the dominance of engineers came about. After all, this development was previously run by the hygienists. “Health requirements were based on the miasma theory, which attributed the cause of epidemics to the ‘poison’ present in the environment. Hence, the emergence of a professional body that had to combat the ‘ills’ to which cities were submitted, carrying out practical interventions to reduce the ‘miasma'”, explains architect and historian, Yvonne Salgado, from PUC-Campinas, a member of the group. An epidemic of yellow fever in Campinas and Santos led the public authorities to order the inspection of the slums in the Santa Ifigenia district. “The hygienist doctors felt they had the right to enter the private areas of the poorest tenements, in an intervention into part of the city and suggested that future worker be housed in villages built 15 km from the capital. It was the beginning of a process of spatial segregation that marks the city until today. It was called the ‘peripheral pattern of urban growth’ by the specialists,” continues Ivone.

However, a scientific breakthrough, microbiology, led to the decline of the miasma theory and led to the emergence of a new professional responsible for urban sanitation: the sanitation engineer. “The new basic sanitation programs were carried out by municipal engineers who became the technical arm of the movement for sanitary reform. The engineering profession underwent rapid growth,” observes Ivone. “The engineers at the service of the city were the bosses among the technocratic elite, who built and administered the new urban infrastructure and began appearing alongside the emerging bureaucratic class of the city’s permanent employees.” In the words of Victor Freire: “They started residing separately”. “It is necessary to see the modern city as a complex organism inserted in an expansion plan. Luckily for society today we have technical solutions,” he wrote in 1918. It was the victory of “technical, scientific and economic arguments,” considering all manifestations of city life jointly; in short, “in the essence of urbanism”. “The final decades of the nineteenth century saw important changes in the ways of legitimizing municipal authority and interventions in the city. A ‘new urban policy’ emerged, based on the possibility of the State establishing ‘objective’ criteria for solving the ‘real’ problems of the community,” notes Stella. The partnership between engineer and doctor, the researcher continues, that was undisputed in the nineteenth century, gave way in the late 1920’s to the unequal partnership between the urban engineer and the specialist in urban sociology, his collaborator. In 1914, almost all cities with any economic impact already had modern urban services. There was a basis for huge development.

The creation of the Polytechnic in 1894 and the Mackenzie school of Engineering in 1886 gave birth to an institutional nucleus, a center from which policies were defined both official and private in the civil construction sector. It was the decisive step for the union between the engineer and the administrator. “Whether because mayors were looking for such professionals to run the various departments of public administration, or because they themselves were mostly engineers educated at the Polytechnic and spoke the same language,” Stella notes. São Paulo was proud of its independence and its erudite and technical knowledge in the relationship between population and spatial growth and the interventions in the city carried out by public authorities in association with the private sector.

Reproductions from the book Dois séculos de projetos no estado de São Paulo (Imesp-Edusp)Anhangabaú Valley and the Chá ViaductReproductions from the book Dois séculos de projetos no estado de São Paulo (Imesp-Edusp)

“We saw the various lands of the province covered with railway tracks under the fertile auspices of private initiative. We saw rich associations and companies being formed to explore, without the intervention of state power, the most important branches of industry, agriculture and trade. We saw the province of the State of São Paulo completely change appearance in a few years, driven by the awesome power of free associations, of the individual will,” wrote the president of São Paulo, Paulo Egydio, in an article in the newspaper, O Estado de S.Paulo in 1888. These are times of ‘improvements’: the wealthy businessmen of the province are beginning to establish themselves in the capital city, which has led public authorities to invest in works for ‘improving and beautifying’ the city.

It is a recurrent statement in historiography that the way of thinking about the city can be divided between two currents represented by engineers Anhaia Mello and Prestes Maia, both occupants of the chair of mayor of São Paulo at different times (Mello between 1930 and 1931; Maia between 1938 and 1945, during the New State). Mello proposed solving the problems of congestion in the city by containing and shrinking urban growth to create a ‘balanced transition between city and country’; Prestes Maia, adopting an opposing position, argued for the “exhaustion of the potential of the metropolis and the removal of problems with new works and plans.” Both represented different options for using technical and erudite knowledge in shaping the city,” says the researcher. In “The Poli architects,”(Edusp) Sylvia Ficher transcribes the testimony of engineer-architect, Leo Ribeiro de Moraes, a follower of Anhaia in 1954. “To deal with questions of urbanism two attitudes are possible: the practical and the scientific. The first, which was advocated by Prestes Maia, is the one that has been adopted so far by governments that have striven to do ‘something’. The other, adopted by Anhaia Mello, is the application of the precepts of modern urbanism to achieve something more than the simple unsnarling of traffic and the ornamentation of squares and avenues.”

“Prestes Maia was bewildered by the ‘Anhaia scheme’, which provided for a ban on the installation of new industries in São Paulo and limiting the growth of the city, which he said were measures for ‘dwarfing our city by means of its shape’. But Anhaia Mello argued the correct theoretical position, while Prestes Maia relied on a more pragmatic position of ‘avenue opener’,” Ribeiro continues. Stella points out that in 1929, in a collection of articles, Mello called the ‘science of urbanism”cooperation’ and criticized those who “confused such a beautiful and vast science with the simple technique of municipal engineering” when they underestimate the need for the “collaboration of the sociologist, legislator, lawyer, politician, administrator, economist and every citizen.” The victorious, erudite knowledge of the engineers, in Mello’s view, had new precepts: the “true aim of civilization – to build beautiful cities and live in them in beauty – demanded that the environment be prepared and an urban psychology and civic yearning be formed, an enlightened public opinion”. It was necessary to “limit the indefinite and disorderly expansion of São Paulo” and “create leisure spaces for the workers.” More importantly, the Anhaia scheme criticized monopolistic structures and advocated the state control of private companies that offered public services.

Prestes Maia was moving in the opposite direction and betting on the value of private capital, in choosing large perimetrical avenues to help traffic flow, in the adoption of technical solutions for the “permanent adjustment of the metropolis to the organizational demands of modern society, the need to avoid not the growth of the metropolis, but the interruption of the process because of the inefficiency of the way the city functions,” he stated. “For Prestes Maia, the presentation of plans to the population by the press should only take place after the project had already been developed and prepared by the municipality’s engineers,” says the researcher. Erudite knowledge, according to Prestes Maia, won the dispute. “It was only in the 1950’s, after the end of the Vargas regime and the mandate of Prestes Maia, that professionals from the Department of Urban Planning began to incorporate some of Anhaia Mello’s ideas.” However, the city had already created a new feature: citizens were distanced from urban policy decisions. “The discoveries reveal that the structure based on sanitation, engineering and architecture was not succeeded by a technical urban planning that was more suitable to deal with the city. The sanitary character still remains a guide for urban actions,” notes Stella. “To build cities is to build men. The urban environment is what molds human character in accordance with its own features, for beauty or ugliness”, Anhaia Mello already observed with great foresight in 1929.

The project
Erudite and technical knowledge (nº 2005/55338-0); Type Thematic project; Coordinator Maria Stella Bresciani; Investment R$ 673,955.00