Expanded reflections on Sete de Setembro Square in Belo Horizonte, Brazil by João Diniz, architect Msc

João Diniz, engineer/architect from School of Architecture UFMG, Federal University of Minas Gerais, in Belo Horizonte, 1980. Master of Arts in Civil Engineering specializing in Metal Construction from Ouro Preto Federal University in 2006. Assistant Professor since 1999 with the School of Architecture, FUMEC University – Minas Gerais Foundation for Education and Culture, which in 2009 signed agreements for cooperation in the areas of architecture and town planning with Gdansk University of Technology, in Poland, and other universities in Spain and Germany. President-Director of João Diniz Arquitetura Ltda, since 1989, a company for projects in the areas of architecture, town planning and design.

Text for the conference on the seminar about ‘Transformations in Urban Centers’ at the Gdansk University of Technology, Poland 2010

Genesis of new scenarios

The 13 Portuguese ships left Lisbon in 1500

in search for colonization and economic routes to West Indies.

Seaman Pedro Alvares Cabral, seeking to avoid the calms off the African coast

decides to sail westerly and on April 21

a mountain comes in sight, to which the name Pascoal was given

in that Holy Week that would change the course of history,

and lands for the first time in the American continent

in Porto Seguro, the region known now as Bahia (fig. 1).

In that place the first cross was erected and the first religious service was held and,

on behalf of Portuguese Crown, Pedro Alvares takes control over the land,

observed by perplexed indigenous, the natural landlords of that soil.

A native red tree, by the color of live coal, suggests the land’s name: Brazil,

to start, in igneous inspiration, a saga of recurring transformations.

The Letter of the Discovery is sent to the Portuguese King describing the event,

while seaman Pedro stays for ten days at the newly discovered beaches

before resuming the intended route to the Indies, to never be back again,

but leaves the Portuguese flag and the perspective of a new empire.

Coastline and countryside occupation

Portuguese and Spanish interest for American lands

led them to sign the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494,

dividing between the two crowns the lands discovered and to be discovered.

A demarcation line 370 leagues west of Cape Verde islands

crossed the new continent and divided the land possession

with Portugal holding the lands to its east, and Spain to its west.

Due to scarce resources to colonize the new land

Dom Manuel, King of Portugal, creates Hereditary Captaincies in 1504

or parallel strips of land east-west bound which were donated (fig. 2)

to distinguished Portuguese citizens, who would rule and explore the

areas, and would transfer such possession to their descendents.

This system ensures the land possession for Portugal

and worked well by 1822, with the Independence of Brazil,

when those captaincies were then called provinces,

and undergoing different subdivisions, annexations and redefined boundaries.

And by the beginning of the 18th century, the Brazilian territory was

occupied preferably in the coastal regions closer to the metropolis

and to neighboring captaincies through the Atlantic Ocean.

As from 1700 a number of expeditions started westward exploration

where they discovery the wealth of gold, generating a new economic cycle

in the newly founded captaincy of Minas Gerais, with Ouro Preto as capital city.

This new economic activity moves the focus from coastal interests

to Brazilian inland, generating extractive development (fig. 3)

visible in the capital Ouro Preto, as well as in the cities of Mariana, Sabará,

São João del Rei, Serro, Congonhas do Campo, Ouro Branco, Diamantina…

This new progress can also be seen in the area of town planning,

architecture, sculpture, literature, arts and culture at large.

It is Minas Gerais baroque making the region historical scenery

of remarkable importance in the national political and cultural scenario.

Such an intellectual effervescence made the region stage for the 1789

movement known as Minas Conspiracy, a separatist movement

which proposed Brazil as an independent country free from Portuguese domain,

censorship, tax obligations, political and economic domination.

The insurrection gave rise to great national martyr and hero: Tiradentes,

born Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, a dentist and intellectual/ political leader.

Ouro Preto was the first Brazilian city to be declared by UNESCO

a World Historical and Cultural Heritage Site, in 1980.

Republican winds

With gold becoming scarce at the end of 18th century new economies emerge

giving room to the cycles of cattle and agriculture in other regional poles.

In late 19th century the cycle of iron emerges in the mountains connecting

Ouro Preto to Curral del Rey Sierra in reserves of 15 billion tons.

The city with its mountainous geography can no longer be the capital city

with the state’s new economy, in a newly proclaimed republic,

in a new century which wanted to see the colonial times far away.

In 1893, then President of the Republic Afonso Pena decides to build,

next to Curral del Rey Sierra, the city to be called Belo Horizonte,

inaugurated in 1897, as the new capital city for Minas Gerais state.

Engineers Aarão Reis and Francisco Bicalho direct the project and the works.

The plans called for a double orthogonal web in 45° angle,

a mesh of square blocks with 100 meters in right-lined streets

is cut by a second diagonal web, more spaced with wide avenues

making up a dynamic circulation system with its lines and directions.

A heterogeneous relief melts with the strictness of the urban plan, therefore

proposing an apparent contradiction between tracing and topography,

in a possible blend of sensuality/relief and sense/project (fig. 4)

helping define abstractly the character of the city and its people.

This rational plan is limited by a Contouring Avenue, perimetrical and circular

in a diameter of about two kilometers providing space for

squares and plazas in specific points of the tracing and topography.

The project blends together the urban traditions of 19th-century metropolises:

the rational American square lines are corrected by wide oblique highways,

by empty spaces, and by the concern with monumental perspectives

of European inspiration with an explicit influence by Haussmann.

Place of convergences

The orthogonal intersection of the city’s major avenues,

Afonso Pena and Amazonas, is intercepted diagonally by streets

Rio de Janeiro and Carijós, forming an asterisk with eight directions.

This place in the geographical center of Belo Horizonte is known as

Sete de Setembro Square, so named in 1922 during the

celebration of the centennial of Brazilian Independence.

The square is recognized as the symbolic heart of the city,

a point at the radiation center of the economic and social beat of the entire city.

Along its history, the square presented different configurations.

In 1902, the city’s streetcar system is inaugurated (fig. 5)

and the square houses the main station for connection and transshipment.

The square features also important and symbolic buildings

such as Banco Hipotecário Building, dated 1911, still existing,

the central obelisk, from 1922, the ‘Lollipop’ by architect Antonio Rego,

Brasil Cine Theater, dated 1932, by Ângelo Alberto Murgel, art-deco styled,

revitalized and transformed by architect Alípio Castelo Branco into the

Vallourec & Mannesmann Cultural Center in 2010,

Banco da Lavoura Building, designed in 1946 by Álvaro Vital Brasil

and awarded at the 1st Architecture Biennale in Sao Paulo,

and Banco Mineiro da Produção Building, dated 1951, by Oscar Niemeyer.

The square was not only a space intended solely for the public.

Photos from the 20th-century first decades show pedestrians coexisting

with different vehicles such as streetcars, automobiles and even animals (fig. 6),

therefore showing always its role as a multifunctional space.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the four blocks contiguous to the space center

were closed to vehicle traffic to become a pedestrian precinct,

intended exclusively as a passageway and space for people,

therefore creating the real square, although still fragmented in four sections.

In spite of its destination for pedestrians only, these sectors

do not receive a significant purpose-specific urban design.

In reality, the creation of these four spaces occurs also due to

required corrections in the traffic system, which intended to

limit the intersection and vehicle flow to the two avenues alone (fig. 7).

In 1989, Belo Horizonte City Hall proposes BHCentro,

a National Contest of Ideas for Downtown Belo Horizonte.

Architect Mauricio Andrés, in his line of ecological thought,

envisions the central part of the city under a perspective of low consumption of energy

and of commuting efforts, where the topography would be an ally to

the urban mobility, with movements avoiding

upward slopes, thus reversing the functionalist and linear logic of traffic

and opting for a more organic system, integrated with the geography.

This system would interact with public transportation and indicate

focal points of interest which would emerge with new plazas, or oases,

in the central area occupied preferably by buildings and traffic ways.

Likewise, specific points have been defined to have differentiated solutions

and, for the purpose, Mauricio Andrés invites five architecture offices

which would address one of the specific points defined by him.

Team 3834 was then set up, consisting of studios/teams by

Éolo Maia/Jô Vasconcellos/Flávio Grillo, who would work in

the central area around Sete de Setembro Square and surroundings,

Álvaro Veveco Hardy/Mariza Machado Coelho

who would concentrate on new proposals for the bus terminal,

Gustavo Penna and associates, who designed the Caetés Street axis,

a commercial strip called by Gustavo ‘Axis of Three Ways’,

Jason Santa Rosa, who addressed the flower market, and the

team consisting of João Diniz/Graça Moura/Márcia Moreira, who created

‘Palmeiras Alameda’ a special point at Amazonas Avenue.

With the participation of almost 80 teams from all over the country,

the contest awarded three teams coordinated by Manuel Rodrigues Alves,

by Ana Maria Schimidt/Maria Elisa Baptista, and Mauricio Andrés Ribeiro.

The contest judging panel determined highlights for each team, such as

the proposals for the bus terminal, the ‘axis of three ways’ and

‘palmeiras alameda’ designed by Team 3834, and the proposal for

revitalization of the Municipal Park, proposed by the team of Schimidt/Baptista,

whose project was commissioned, developed and executed in 1992.

Based on these results, in 1991 the Municipal Administration invited

Team 3834 to design a new revitalization project, for the Square

and the old streetcar station, turned into the Flower Market.

The five offices making up Team 3834 decided to first discuss the two

projects, jointly, and then divide them into five projects:

Flower Market and the four pedestrian sections of Sete de Setembro Square.

The team coordinated by Jason Santa Rosa received the Flower Market, and

the four other offices had the square, including the central area and its sections.

Informal academies

The active cultural environment existing in Belo Horizonte in early 1990s

had the participation of architects from Team 3834.

Since the early 1980s, the city was experiencing an intellectual renaissance.

The Minas Gerais cultural avant-garde, which naturally used to migrate to the

Brazilian largest cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo,

decided, from then on, to stay in their city of origin

in a mix of appreciation of their own origins and roots, and in the belief

that a new irradiating center of thought was born in the city.

Musical accomplishments were already in progress at ‘Clube da Esquina’,

a pop music movement led by Milton Nascimento,

Corpo dance group, which started to have international reputation,

Galpão theater group, Uakti group of sound experiments,

and a number of undertakings in plastic arts, literature and sculpture.

These manifestations happened in an integrated and informal atmosphere,

public spaces in the city were natural stages for debates,

bars, art galleries, theaters, parties and houses

served as spontaneous forums of inspiration and development of ideas.

Architects also wanted to be a part of such an ebullition.

Late architects Éolo Maia and Álvaro ‘Veveco’ Hardy

decided to set up a wide group that would establish magazines ‘Vão Livre’

and ‘Pampulha’, named after the lake where

in the 1940s a remarkable group of works was built, designed by

young Oscar Niemeyer, invited by Juscelino Kubitschek,

then the mayor of the city, and later state governor and president of the country,

who built Brasilia, the new federal capital, with that same architect.

Pampulha is recognized as the ‘birthplace’ of the modern Brazilian architecture,

and buildings such as São Francisco Church, Casa do Baile, Casino – now

Museum of Modern Art – and the Yacht Club became famous and admired

all over the world, generating all kinds of influence.

New Sete de Setembro Square

Architects with Team 3834 had already worked together at the

‘Sensations Project’, an innovative proposal for a country-hotel,

led by George Hardy, where each accommodation unit

was a small house designed by an architect and a plastic artist.

This project was awarded at the 2nd Architecture Biennale in 1993,

in Sao Paulo, with ‘special mention’ for the entirety and plurality of the work,

which encouraged the group to joint develop the project for the Square.

The general concept guiding the team indicated that the square should

redeem its old circular unit through the texture of the central pavement,

through the adoption of a new vegetation, signage and lighting, and through

the restoration of the obelisk, a symbolic element of local heritage.

These qualities would also be irradiated through the four blocks/streets

previously closed by releasing visual perspectives,

by creating free spaces, flexible and open to circulation, pause and leisure,

by appreciating the buildings with historic and architectural value,

by rationally grouping the urban equipment and furniture,

by maintaining the tall trees, but removing old-fashioned plant beds,

by adopting new lighting to valorize the architecture of the buildings

and bringing back a new sense of wideness, well-being and safety.

The pedestrian precincts, which are coexistence areas in the square,

where different activities happen in four distinctive sections, are known as

sections A/C of Carijós Street, and B/D of Rio de Janeiro Street (fig. 8).

The team led by Jason Santa Rosa was responsible for the Flower Market,

revitalizing it and adding a point for cultural and tourism information.

The team with Éolo Maia, Jô Vasconcellos and Flávio Grillo designed section A

by proposing a bunch of metal beams that indicate the square center, and

serving as support for lighting, urban furniture, newsstand,

and telephone booths, while organically through the space of the street

emerge benches for people to enjoy the free empty spaces (fig. 9).

The team led by Gustavo Penna worked on the topography of section B,

where in the upper part there is a kind of ‘excavation’ serving as an

inviting place with seats under a glassy cover (fig. 10) referenced in the

framework of the neighboring building, where there is also the locutory,

a prominent volume that sets off the excavated part, and surges as

focal point, civic and political, directly related with the square center.

Section C was designed by Álvaro Veveco Hardy and Mariza M. Coelho, who

also started to form the street topography to create a longitudinal stand,

a coexistence space for pedestrians, street vendors and shoe-shiners (fig. 11),

protected by a metal cover supported by a long well-lit metal beam.

The team formed by João Diniz, Graça Moura and Márcia Moreira worked on

section D, where there is a set of seven large pieces in the upper part

which connect benches to lampposts making up a kind of urban ‘lounge’

in front of commercial buildings and a traditional hotel with intense human flow,

a central empty space intended for local traffic to the hotel’s garage,

while in the lower part there is the semi-circular cover for craftsmen (fig. 12).

Sections A, B, C and D of the square were later named after the indigenous tribes

native to and existing in the state of Minas Gerais,

respectively: Maxacali, Xacriabá, Krenak and Pataxó.

The members of Team 3834, formed by the five offices, at first discussed

the guiding concepts and jointly designed the central points of

Sete de Setembro Square, where common solutions emerged to the entire area

with common equipment and trees planted in the central ring,

redeeming the dense vegetal ring seen in old photographs,

the main lighting of the central part, protecting fences in stainless steel,

new newsstands, waste bins, telephone booths, and the

restoration and re-composition of the central obelisk body, the ‘Lollipop’.

Another point of consensus was the widespread use of robust material,

promoting not only durability, but low maintenance efforts for the pieces,

thus generating self-esteem in the population, making them understand

that public spaces do not belong to anyone specifically, but to all.

Specific projects, worked on by ‘sub-teams’, have come to a result considered

by them as ‘fraternally different’ generating a new unit

at Sete de Setembro Square, permeated by freedom and plurality.

Steel and metallic structures emerge in the four sections as the

main constructive element, reflecting an existing characteristic

in the contemporary architecture of Minas Gerais state, which has been working on this material

in original fashion, so connected to the state’s geography,

to its natural resources, and to its industrial and steelmaking facilities.

This project for Sete de Setembro Square was commissioned in 1991

when it was conceived, and initially submitted to the population and to the

public power, which received it enthusiastically.

In 1992 the project and its authors represented Brazil at the

5th SAL – Seminars on Architecture in Latin America – in Santiago, Chile,

whose theme was the ‘New urban centers in transformation’.

Ever since, elected municipal and state governments,

even having different directives and political parties,

were interested in building the project, until 2003, under the municipal

government of Fernando Pimentel and state government of Aécio Neves,

the project was finally developed, built and delivered to the population

after over 10 years since it was initially conceived.

The present city, acupunctures and irradiations

From that date and through the execution of Sete de Setembro Square project,

the city’s central part started living a wave of diverse revitalization.

The project’s good acceptance and the environmental quality imparted by it

certainly influenced the revitalization of Estação Square,

Rui Barbosa Square, Serraria Souza Pinto – now an event center –,

Cine Brasil – now V&M cultural center, Raul Soares Square –,

old Cine Guarani – now Museum Inimá de Paula –, and recently,

the transformation of Liberdade Square into a cultural circuit through the revitalization

of several buildings, formerly used by the state government.

Downtown Belo Horizonte is characterized by a large concentration of

residential buildings, differently from other Brazilian cities,

most of them built in the 1950s and 70s, giving it a more

human character, of lively nightlife in the area’s spaces and streets.

Therefore, all interventions add qualification

to this area of the city, and it is shared by the entire population.

By the 1980s, downtown Belo Horizonte, as well of other Brazilian cities,

were connected to the idea of abandonment, environmental degradation, insecurity,

chaotic traffic, and even prostitution and drug abuse, leading the population

to ‘flee’ to condominiums in uptown, the upsurge of shopping malls,

and the ‘culture of residential alarm and electrified fences’.

This social configuration isolates the elite from the rest of the population, in a

cultural apartheid leading to a progressive social confrontation.

As from the 1990s, the city enjoys an unprecedented alignment

of the municipal and state governments mentioned above, added to an

awareness-raising of the population around the appreciation of memory,

landmark buildings and venues, of eclectic and modern heritage,

of events in public spaces, of the spatial exercise of democracy,

of respect for minorities, of accessibility and universal inclusion.

In addition to all these factors, the 21st century indicates the need

to valorize the urban centers as poles for sharing

infrastructure, leading cities to lower energy consumption

in a review of previous models which denied a certain density

and advocated the idyllic and individualist isolation of the garden-city.

The revitalization of Sete de Setembro Square in Belo Horizonte, in 2003,

seemed to acclaim a new stance not only of local governments,

but also of other public and private sectors of society,

and the population at large, toward a new approach of the city, and their

collective and shared participation in decision-making and use of spaces.

There is still too much to do to lessen social unbalances in terms of

more equal distribution of income and access to housing and education,

of global access to infrastructure, sanitation and health services,

of efficient public transportation, and quality road networks.

The positive lesson that the qualification of a public space may bring to us

is the population gratitude and usage of the spaces, the shared use,

the identification and spontaneous preservation of such places.

Since it is impossible to solve all the problems at a time,

these specific actions work well, as mentioned by Jaime Lerner,

as urban acupunctures, focuses that, when properly worked out,

emanate positive energy and vitality to the entire surrounding urban body.

translation: Arlindo Verlangieri

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