The fluid ‘nature’ of modernity: Just like a river
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The late but acclaimed Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (in “The Book of Embraces”) described the trip of a father with his son, to get to know the sea. When confronted with its immensity, the little one asked: “Father, help me take a look”. If this son had a realistic idea of what this meant, he might not accept to go through this painful journey. But as soon as he saw it, he was surprised.
To be surprised. It should not be the objective of anyone leaving his/her own country to confirm the points of view about the world, but being open to new ideas. Realize that much of what we find “natural” is actually absolutely cultural values, even in a globalized, one-click-away world.
I would not accept leaving my life in Brazil behind and come to live in Germany for one year and a half – a painful journey, if we consider that I had an established profession in a tropical country – if I had no idea what I would find in Germany. I come from a city founded by Germans, which, although it no longer corresponds to the values of German society, still has a lot of contact with the country. I’ve also been here on other occasions, so I already had an expectation of what to find. But during this year, I was able to get to know Germany from within, not as a mere tourist.
My first big surprise was the relationship with the foreigner, and the relation of this approach with the new values of the society. But before that, I would like to draw a parallel between the values of industrial society and the values of present-day society.
Generally speaking, the industry is characterized by its assembly line. The pattern is linear, repetitive, segmented, and predictable. One step follows the other linearly and so are professional careers. The repetition leads to the optimization of processes and workers, more and more specialized. Everything is segmented and grouped by functions, both in the manufacturing stages, as well as in the departments of the companies. Everything is predictable, you know each one of the stages and their results. Aesthetics becomes the aesthetics of the machine. Speed is the speed of the machine. The scale is the scale of the machine. Functional, standardized, massified. This is also the behavior pattern of industrial society. The standard of living is repetitive and predictable. The choice of the profession, for a lifetime. The family had a definite format, lasting marriage, children, home, retirement. All of them very logical, standardized that lead to massification. Being different or deviating from ‘normality’ was not favored similar to the stigmas and sense of discrimination faced by homosexuals, a divorced woman or a couple without children. People nullified their differences to belong to a group.
Contemporary society no longer thinks inside this box. An analysis requires historical detachment, but we are more and more connected, customized, multidisciplinary, nonlinear and unpredictable. Consolidated standards have opened up to new approaches (eg, new family configurations). We are more and more self-curators of information, of products, and this has paved the way for customization. Individuality is preferred. In our times, it is not enough to accept the differences, we celebrate the differences. These concepts are already well rooted in Germany, at least in personal relationships.
Coming back to the topic of ‘being a foreigner.’ When Germans went to Brazil, mine was a city apart from the country, where school classes were in German, the negotiations were in German, and the mores were similar as those of the immigrant settlers. The nationalization campaign took place within the industrial logic. The central idea was to eliminate the differences, and soon the Germans and descendants integrated into the country, in this case, their culture was swallowed up (and mixed) by the dominant Brazilian culture at the time. Always on the idea of becoming standardized and massified.
In contemporary Germany, immigration and the integration of foreigners – myself included, even as a temporary immigrant – no longer occurs within industrial values. The values of present-day society cherish singularities. Everyone wants to be unique. The difference is understood as something positive. Today, the challenge is no longer to disappear with the differences, but the opposite: to learn to live with them. The idea is much more to live in a community, each respecting the other individualities. I have to point the importance of public spaces: places that belong to everybody, where people with different ages, cultures and backgrounds can come together. I’m talking about diversity, but also about democracy.
Brazil is known for being a multicultural country, in which several cultures shaped the Brazilian one (of course there is a romanticism in this, since differences exist and are far from just a few of them). Multiculturalism in Germany is different: you go to the market and listen to several languages, many of which you cannot even identify. You walk down the street and see a Greek restaurant, next to an Italian, right across a Japanese joint. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the foreigner is not integrated in Germany. I didn’t see ghettos in Germany, not the way I see them in a so-called mixed Brazil. I’m not judging which model is a better approach. They are just different approaches.
Yet within this industrial and contemporary comparison, institutions in Germany operate within the industrial logic. The procedures are all standardized, repetitive, linear, predictable. With repetition, the procedures were very good, agile, optimized, efficient, but not fail-proof. And reality today is full of exceptions. Any situation that is outside the procedure, generates impotence on one side, and a huge discontent on the other side. In the social groups I attended, with natives and with foreigners, everyone had stories to complain about. I began to receive different texts, questioning the famous German efficiency, and I went myself through an exceptional situation that months later has still no solution. It is not that Germany is not efficient, the procedures take care of almost all the situations. It is that the world is changing all the time, and the speed of change is not accompanied by the institutions.
In this direction, the foreigner is a positive force in Germany, bringing a dose of unpredictability and dynamism. If the foreigners’ self-esteem is well worked out – that means, if foreigners were not afraid to act according to their culture – Germany has an enormous potential. In the past times, working on groups meant everyone thinking in a similar way, generating more agility within a standard. In the past, failure was a tabu, people didn’t try to avoid failure. Today, we believe the best results come from thinking in the most diverse way possible and failure is a part of the process, generating innovative solutions.
But why do I talk so much about the comparison between industrial society and the present? Of course, there are several factors that make the Zeitgeist up. As an architect and urban planner, industrial society is a very important point. It is necessary to understand modernism as an expression of the values of that society and their materialization in the cities. Modernist cities were conceived in a monofunctional way, each function physically separated: dwelling, work, transport, and recreation. The speed of the city became the speed of the machine, of the automobile. Soon the human scale was forgotten. For example, when walking along a street, the short and detailed facades are very attractive (such as an old town), while if you drive, the facades can be longer and without details (such as a modernist city). Another key point was to demonstrate the technical ability to control the nature. This industrial logic created lifeless habitats without social interaction. The city became nothing else road interconnections of isolated functions.
Germany has already replaced those values in the cities, at an advanced level. I came to Germany searching for better parameters to replace the outdated ones currently employed in several Brazilian cities: traffic density, width of avenues or height of buildings. These parameters are still equated with modernity for Brazilian society at large.
And here it comes my second big surprise: how German cities are connected with nature! I had already experienced the warmth of the old centers of the cities and also had cycled through Germany and made some wandering paths. I also knew the concept of renaturation of rivers. So I already had an idea of what I’d find here. But what I saw was much beyond that. First, in terms of scale. There are many options of walking paths, exclusive for pedestrians and cyclists use. Bonn and Munich (the two cities I lived in) are strongly connected through these roads, even within urban centers. You can go far away from the city, in quiet pathways. And also the amount of woods to walk. Second, I could notice how this is an especially German feature. The German citizens mobilize for a model of a city that is more pleasant for people, with a better quality of life, with more respect for other forms of life. I passed through the Netherlands and Denmark during the Europe Stay – I lived in cities worldwide known for the quality of life and urban planning. Those were beautiful experiences in this regard, but the junction of city and nature is a German feature.
It is quite clear how Germany is leaving behind an outdated model based on artificial control, and shifting towards adaptation and partnership with nature as an approach to a better life in the city. In today’s modern society, life is dynamic. Our contemporary habitat, work and relationships are more fluid than ever, flexible and unpredictable. Just like nature. Just like the rivers, my research. The rivers were channeled to serve immediate functional needs. Today, instead of confining rivers, the contemporary solution is to give back space for the river, providing protection against floods, biodiversity and public spaces for citizens. Also, small streams have been recovered. The world is not fixed anymore, so why should the river banks be?
The third great surprise comes from the population, in terms of understanding about the public, the nature and community engagement. I put the three aspects together because they all refer to the relationship between society and urban planning. Everything that is public is quite controlled by people. Everything about nature has a huge influence on decisions. And how the population unites to defend the collective!
Brazil has more advanced laws and regulations in terms of participatory planning, but the population is not empowered to fight for collective interests. In Germany, I attended several participatory planning meetings, and one aspect was common to all: the massive participation of people who were in the meeting to defend the interests of the preservation of nature and quality of life (not their companies or their businesses).
This is one of the great lessons I’m taking home: everything that involves conservation of nature and quality of life is very strong here. Preservation is a basic, urgent concern, rather than public spaces. At meetings on rivers, the environmental issue is above their use by people, even in urban areas. And secondly comes the quality of life.
Cities are constantly becoming more bike-friendly, more nature-friendly, with more leisure areas, more parks, with more preservation areas. The communities, and especially the new generations, recognize the value of this effort by taking advantage of this new way of enjoying the public space, noble spaces for coexistence, leisure and reflection. This is especially important in our times, since work is much more than repetition, and we need affordable spaces to reflect.
Even with the car and motor industry being economically vital for the country, and maintaining a powerful lobby (according to the population), the German population values the preservation. Since the 1970s, issues in favor of protecting the environment are on the agenda. The ecological concern is already consolidated in Germany. And already it is in front of many other things. Including material comforts, or the human use of the river. The German people understood that the well-being and quality of life of the future will not only be linked to consumerism, technology and innovation, but also to the ability to live in harmony with the natural world around us.
Public equipaments, such as parks and squares, public transport, public infrastructure (ex: cycle lanes and sidewalks) or urban furniture, are controlled by people. There is a greater understanding of the importance that these equipments have, in the sense of belonging everybody. Both in the physical sense and also in the understanding of the advantages of good public equipaments. Everybody is rich, because the public structure provides you good quality of life. Nobody needs to buy a car, to pay a private country club, or to live inside expansive condominiums. The city provides you parks, cycle lanes, good transport and pathways.
In the same way, people are very aware of the rules for the occupation of space in the city. Both in public space or private constructions (because they shape the public space as well). Before coming in Germany, I thought the rules were very restrictive. I thought the real estate companies could not, legally, influence over decisions and legislation. However, there are the same pressures we have in Brazil. And the rules are not better than the Brazilian ones – in many cases, they are even worse. Brazil has a very powerful set of instruments, which cannot be found in Germany. But the population here is much more concerned with the collective.
For example, a city like Munich. There is a huge demand for housing. Thinking on Brazilian context, how can it be: there is no high buildings, there are so many parks under construction in abandoned regions (instead of dwellings), the city is not stifled by buildings! Well, I knew that towers of housing have a bad label, because they refer to social housing. But that is not all. The legislation even allowed high towers, but the population decided in a plebiscite that the maximum height could not exceed the height of the church towers. It is the concern with the landscape! I have never seen this understanding of landscape in the population in Brazil. Even among professionals in the field, this is rare.
I have never seen in Brazil the population defending more green areas to improve urban drainage, protection of riparian forests, protection of springs. Among specialists and activists, yes, but not among the population. In Germany, I started to explain how things works in Brazil. No one can understand how Brazilians prefer a straighten and walled in river model – I say prefer because I am referring to aesthetic terms – to a natural river. The Germans also do not understand how the population continues to advocate a model of urban mobility based on individual motorized transport, when most of the population do not even have adequate financial conditions to buy and maintain a car, while sidewalks, bicycle paths and public transport have bad conditions. They do not understand how the population does not demand guidelines that reverse spatial inequality and advocate guidelines that benefit certain groups, of which most are not part of. And they do not understand how the population maintains this political power structure that advocates causes that are not for the majority.
I understand the historical process that led to this situation. I wish more and more Brazilians could come to Germany. Not to confirm what they think about the country, but to surprise and question themselves. And I wish more and more Germans could know other realities (not only in touristic trips, which they already do), in more qualified experiences. So that both Brazilians and Germans do not accept things without further reflection. To abandon submission to pre-established ideas.
Every city is a product of its society. The empowerment of society is reflected in the city. The new values of a more dynamic life are reflected in the city. In a time when diversity, culture and sustainability are hot topics, how can our cities reflect those values? What is the shape of the city that matches the aspirations of our times?
I firmly believe we can shift the model, towards the coexistence with natural ecosystems. Urbanism is a mix of nature, technology, traditions and feelings. Along with humanizing and revitalizing central areas with their own singularities and cultural heritage, rivers are an important piece in the equation: they are the connection between nature and urban centers.
I hope I have contributed to Germany during my stay in the country, with an outsider-look. Just like everyone who passes by and brings their cultural baggage, I trust to have helped in modifying an established in the interest of a new development. As one of my interviewees said, “Life is like a river. There is no return. Life is a one-way trip.”