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Where the poor abides the same as the rich

Book analyzes the architecture of cemeteries

The title already says what the book is up to. What makes an analysis of the architecture of cemeteries be called “cities of the quick”? Only fieldwork capable of leading its researcher to theses never imagined, even countering his initial hypothesis. This is what happened to architect Renato Cymbalista, who, at the end of last year, published Cities of the Quick (Annablume, 208 pages, R$ 35), with a publication grant from FAPESP, a book version of a thesis defended in 2001 at the College of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo (FAU/USP). Interested, to start with, in identifying in the cemeteries of the interior of São Paulo popular languages of the stonemasons and foremen involved in building the tombs, Cymbalista had to revise his conceptions, when he discovered that these masons would hardly have imparted to their works any personal trait or original idea.

Instead of this, they would attend to the requests of the families, which often would take their decisions under the guidance of a walk through the cemetery capable of giving them ideas about the design for a loved one’s tomb – ideas, generally speaking, taken from tombs of the city’s well-heeled or eminent families. “I started to see the cemetery as a place where there is a constant interface, including from the architectural point of view, between the rich and the poor, the whites and the blacks, and so on. Unless I went into these questions, it wouldn’t be possible to carry on with the study”, says the researcher. The historical approach became indispensable for understanding the apparent hegemony of the shapes and the models of the elites. Incorporating the historical dimensions, it becomes understandable that the elites have such a great control over the space and the architectural styles in the cemeteries, since the very idea of a peripheral cemetery, segregated from the urban space and establishing a world of the dead independent and sealed off from the world of the quick, is a construction of the elite, striving in those days to “civilize” and Europeanize space in the cities, thus creating a bourgeois theatricality in the city, in which the cemetery was a fundamental piece.

The municipal public cemetery, at the same time that it was to modify the relationship between the quick and the dead – separating them definitively -, was to create at first a common space for the dead coming from all the social classes. And this at a moment of great ascension on the part of a given portion of society which resulted in the hierarchization of the cemeteries. In this regard, as one concludes from the thesis, the São Paulo coffee oligarchy knew very well how to take advantage of the spaces dedicated to their dead, to express their dominant role in the social body. “The coffee-growing elite also used the space of the cemeteries to transmit its message of being an educated, civilizing elite”, he says. “What one notes in the graves of the popular sectors is in part a rereading of the of the elitist codes, with the use, for example, of materials that imitate marble, besides forms similar to those used by the elite”, Cymbalista observes. Tombs in brown marble, spires and obelisks, besides the use of crosses of similar shapes and the presence of flowers are some of the elements that draw the popular architectural discourse close to that of the elite. A certain evolution as time went by is also noteworthy, with a tendency towards horizontalization, as is to be noted from the tombs between the end of the 19th century to the 70s of the 20th century.

But not everything is the hegemony of the elites in the cemeteries. The project of the São Paulo elites for separating the world of the quick from the world of the dead was only successful up to a certain point. Surprisingly, Cymbalista came across rites of an incredible subsistence in time, which reject the well-behaved separation between the two worlds, like the rites of candomblé and umbanda, of the ex-votos and other popular manifestations, in which the quick evoke the dead and vice-versa; these have survived the passage of time well, in spite of all the bourgeois efforts to reject them.In this regard, the urbanistic effort to delimit the areas of the dead seems to have been useless.

“I was very surprised to realize that the popular nature that I had at first been looking for in architecture ended up being found in these religious manifestations, which have nothing to do with architectural constructions or languages”, Cymbalista points out. The architect’s research was based on ample documentation, which had its nature diversified, according to the needs of the analysis. What began as an extensive photographic record – 2,000 images of tombs, of which 250 are reproduced in the book – was transformed into a work also based on the written documentation of public and private records, besides being grounded on an extensive bibliography. If he did not find the popular architect he was looking for in the cemeteries of São Paulo, Cymbalista certainly discovered how much men put of their lives in the spaces of their dead, leaving the cemeteries to be one more of the urban spaces to reflect the social marks of those who build them. More than awaiting the quick, in this case it is up to the dead to tolerate them.

The project
Cities of the Quick (nº 02/02879-5); Modality Publication Grant; Coordinator Ana Lucia Duarte Lanna – Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism/USP; Funding R$ 2,500.00