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Mellon Seminar Investigates Cities of the Amazon


By Rebecca Bowes

A recent field trip to cities in the Brazilian rainforest gave students a first-hand look at the complex conditions that characterize urbanization in the Amazon. The 10-day journey, which took place in March, was part of the spring semester seminar Forest Cartographies, and focused on issues including community, housing, resettlement, deforestation, political ecology, anthropology, and archaeology. Taught by Tao DuFour, architecture, and Bruno Bosteels, romance studies, Forest Cartographies is the fifth of the Mellon Seminars in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities. The seminar series aims to foster interdisciplinary exchange between the arts, humanities and social sciences, and the design disciplines. The students accepted into the seminar come from fields including city and regional planning, landscape architecture, romance studies, English, anthropology, art, and architecture. The instructors have embraced that diversity and encouraged the students to approach the class from their various disciplinary perspectives and interests. "We wanted to keep the seminar very open and dialogical," says DuFour, "and encourage cross-pollination of disciplines as students develop individual projects of their own design. From the perspective of my own research, this cross-fertilization opens up the possibility for thinking about a potential 'ontological turn' in architecture." "Given the diverse background of the seminar members," Bosteels adds, "Tao and I strove to open up a variety of debates organized around thematic clusters that included questions of human ecology, perspectivism, community, political ontologies, and the economies of extractivism that have supported new left-wing governments in the region." The trip to Brazil also included students from the architecture option studio Frontier Urbanities / Amazonia, taught by DuFour and Paulo Tavares, visiting critic in architecture. Tavares, whose work is focused on Amazonian urbanization, was integral in organizing and giving thematic structure to the field trip. Organized into three discrete segments, the trip provided insight into the very real conditions that characterize rainforest urbanities, which students had only investigated theoretically to that point. "The scholarly readings and discussions we focused on in class were more deeply explored during our 10 days in the Amazon," says Rachel Odhner, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology. "We had the opportunity to experience the concreteness of these debates and connect the texts and classroom experience to people's realities." The first few days were spent in Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas in Brazil. Students attended lectures at Museu da Amazônia and were led by local architects on site visits around the city. For Alia Fierro (M.R.P. '16), whose studies focus on the social, economic, and spatial impacts of Brazil's federal housing program, Minha Casa, Minha Vida (MCMV), seeing firsthand the subject of four years of research had a profound impact. "It was not until this trip that I was able to see a MCMV project in person," she says. "To witness the scale of such mass, urban disconnect and desolation at the city's peripheries, and see the physical ramifications of such a massive, one-size-fits-all urban housing policy was very impactful." From Manaus, the group traveled to Santarém, a city located at the confluence of the Tapajós and Amazon Rivers. An active archaeological site, excavations in Santarém have uncovered a soil type that researchers believe reflects the deep historical basis of the Amazon's biodiversity. "It's an anthropogenic forest, or what ethnobotanist William Balée, whom we had the privilege of traveling with on the field trip, calls a 'cultural forest'," says DuFour. "The work of Balée and his colleagues increasingly demonstrates that indigenous communities were able to cultivate the environment in a way that led to an increase in biodiversity." The archaeological sites visited in Santarém were a marked contrast to the site of the final leg of the trip — the planned city of Altamira, which is growing exponentially due to the construction of a major hydroelectric dam. "For my research, which examines the politics of water scarcity and concerns about climate change, tracing the effects of the Belo Monte Dam project was the most thought provoking — and also the most heartbreaking — aspect of the trip," says Odhner. "Witnessing firsthand the ways in which this dam is impacting local social-ecological systems and transforming the surrounding landscape helps me to think theoretically about similar themes in my own work, and connect these local and regional changes to questions of the global." In addition to visiting the construction site itself, the group also saw the flood-prone urban slums where displaced people were living, visited the grid-like housing project where people were relocated to, and met with residents as well as lawyers and other advocates opposing the project. Since returning from the Amazon, students have been reflecting on their experiences from the trip as they work on their final projects. "The trip not only brought us into contact with local professionals and academics, but also gave us the opportunity to interact with members of local communities who graciously and candidly described the everyday successes and struggles of their lives and work," says Hannah Bahnmiller (M.R.P. '17). "These experiences, while meaningful in themselves, were greatly enhanced by the presence of my peers, whose backgrounds in disciplines other than my own helped supplement and challenge my preconceptions and interpretations of the trip's events." Martina Broner, a Ph.D. candidate in romance studies, agrees. "What I most valued about our trip — in addition to the incredible access we had to sites and experts — was seeing how our interdisciplinary group encountered the landscape of the Amazon," she says. "As we each mediated the experience through our own background — architecture, urban planning, art, literature, anthropology — we also engaged in an ongoing conversation that brought these perspectives together. This conversation has extended beyond the trip and has had meaningful repercussions in my own work. In combination with the seminar, the trip has provided the opportunity to be exposed to the diverse, tremendously enriching perspectives of my classmates."  - See more at: