Building Gravity: On Gravity in Architecture, Urban Development and Utopia

PROTOCOL Magazine’s recent issue (No. 8) showcases a variety of original works brought together under the theme of “the ground”. In their contribution “Building Gravity” Fernando Luiz Lara* (Austin University of Texas) and Tom Bieling** discuss the concept of “gravity” not exclusively related to the fields of architecture and urban planning, but open the discussion towards social and political issues, as well as other related fields, such as arts, technology or Utopia …


[Tom Bieling:] Ground – not least through its gravity – is one central point of reference for us. When Felix Baumgartner jumped from Stratosphere 135,890 feet above ground, he landed on the ground straightaway. Gravity can also be regarded a fundamental component of architecture. Things tend to fall down, if not prevented by certain (e.g. constructional) forces. What other roles does gravity play, not only in an architectural context?

[Fernando Luiz Lara:] In Portuguese and Spanish we use gravidade/gravidad to imply both the relationship between the masses (Newton’s first law) and the idea of urgency, importance. In English it would be as if the words grave and gravity were spelled the same. In fact, they are the same in their latin root gravitas. Departing from this play with words we recently discussed – with a focus on Latin America – the provocation that architecture in that part of the world is both urgent as an act against grave inequalities and a reaction against gravitational forces[1]. For the sake of clarification let’s call them social gravity and material gravity.

This perspective becomes especially interesting if we keep in mind that “ground”, as well as its artificial, constructional interventions, often defines a certain notion of “border”, “limit” or “boundary”. Nevertheless or even because of that, it serves as an initial point for cultural spheres of activity. Would you say that gravity is also a substantial metaphor regarding the role of the artefact related to the social structure?

I love to think that architecture was born when the first humans started to modify their environment. Or in a more profound way, we became humans when we started to modify our natural surroundings. In our contemporary culture, saturated with visual impulses and excessive representation, we tend to relate this moment to the cave paintings. But the act of lining up stones, placing bolders upright or, most importantly, modifying the ground, is equally important, if not more. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a poetic line that synthesizes that. When visiting the Pyramids of Egypt, Borges, who was already blind by then, moved a scoop of sand a few steps and declared: I am modifying the desert. To do architecture is to modify the desert, and it is, above all, to change the ground plan?. It is not opposite to the social structure. On the contrary, it both allows the social structure to flourish and follow its course. Two sides of the same coin: the social structure and its material manifestation.

[“Modifying the desert”. Riot in Santiago de Chile, June 2012. © Eduardo Pavez Goye]

I remember one day in New York in 2004 when we had a black-out. Suddenly the ground, 20 floors and 320 steps below, was far from us. Home was seven kilometers and two hours away, not 30 minutes by subway. Once you remove the gadgets that mediate our relationship with the world, the ground becomes much more relevant. Perhaps we should do this every once in a while. Shut down our machines and experience the city, and its ground, directly.

What does that mean for spatial, regional planning and urban development?

It means that space matters. The design of the ground – sidewalks, parks, public space, ground floor lobbies and entrances – are the most important programs of architecture and urbanism. Like gravity and its double meaning, the word matter allows us to play with the tension between materiality and importance. Right now I am working on a book that will stitch together one century of urban plans and one century of urban protests in Brazil. It is provisionally entitled Street Matters.

[“Street Matters”. Student Protests in Brasil © Tom Bieling]

Which brings us to the political dimension of design and architecture: It becomes tricky when public design acts in an overly prescriptive way by not allowing people to act freely in their environment and on the ground, thus suppressing them in their role as active and creative members of society. So, in terms of architecture, design and urbanism, the interdependence with gravity is plausible. The Arts however have often been dealing with gravity in a transcendent, sometimes utopian way. How could the idea of gravity be transferred into other fields?

I wish I had the experimental freedom of the arts. In architecture we don’t have a choice: things cannot fail the tests of gravity. That said, the arts are crucial to the development of architecture precisely because they have this experimental freedom, they can test concepts and push the boundaries of what is possible or acceptable in a way that architecture cannot. Let’s think of the challenge of housing one billion people in times of climate change. We can design the most sustainable buildings and cities, but if societies continue consuming irresponsibly we will have failed. The arts have a major role on showing the way towards a better future. In this regard I would say that social gravity can also be tackled by the arts. Should be tackled by the arts.

The urgency of climate change adds an important dimension to this challenge. I was talking earlier about the challenge of housing one billion people in times of climate change. One billion people: It means, 30% of our planetary urban population lives with deficient housing, be it lack of infrastructure, lack of property rights or overcrowding, meaning a lack of privacy. Business as usual is not a solution, we need to think way outside the box and imagine a better city for the near future. The elements are taking revenge on our fossil fuel splurge. In the long future the 21st century will be remembered by how well (or how poorly) we responded to this challenge.

The reference to gravity is also important in terms of the different approaches to material and technology used over time. Where do you see the most striking differences between the twentieth and the twenty-first century approach to technology?

Exactly! There is a shift in how to deal with the double challenge of social gravity and material gravity. In the mid 20th century architects like Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil and Raul Villanueva in Venezuela were trying to make their buildings look lighter, designing large complexes in response to the challenges of urbanization. I love to show how in my hometown of Belo Horizonte, Niemeyer was hiding heavy concrete beams above a thin shell in the roof of the dancing hall of the Pampulha casino.

Today, architects are still struggling with the same challenges but design modest structures that express their heaviness – I am thinking here of Angelo Bucci in Brazil, Rafael Iglesia in Argentina and Cecilia Puga in Chile. Bucci has a house in which he added a heavy water tank above the entrance to solve a structural problem. Iglesia was a master of stacking large components (wood over masonry for instance) and allowing them to express their weight, how they pressure one another. And Puga goes as far as placing an upside-down house on top of another one to achieve the maximum effect of heaviness.

So, the twentieth century was more about defying gravity with lightness, whereas the twenty first century expresses the weight—tectonically and materially—and the effort it makes to hold up structures. Now, if you had to abstract the concept of gravity, what would be your future perspective in terms of our changing society?

It is hard to be optimistic in 2016. We had a coup in Brazil, Donald Trump in the USA, Brexit, ISIS activity spreading into Europe as in Nice or Munich. The pessimist in me thinks we are entering a long dark winter of intolerance, xenophobia, and conflict escalation. The optimist in me thinks we are reaching a paradigm change and something better will erupt. In either case, the present is the gravest moment of our generation. How we respond to those challenges will, again, define our place in history.

[Blockupy Frankfurt © Colin Derks Fotografie]

Maybe a more democratic kind of architecture could be a part of the solution. Let’s talk about the user’s role! You have been investigating on different participatory models for urban interventions in Brazil[2], especially concerning the favela upgrade[3]. What’s your interim conclusion so far?  

I believe we have a dilemma that positions planning and participation in opposing camps. Brazil experienced two decades of growing participatory models (1985-2005) with little money to support it, followed by almost a decade (2006-2014) with plenty of money and decreasing participation. There was a moment around 2005-2008 in which the plans discussed extensively in the previously decade were implemented. But shortly after, the “urgency” of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics took over. It is now clear that both mega-events created several opportunities for speculative capital to insert itself into the fabric of the city, steamrolling or dismissing decades of efforts to foster inclusive practices and participatory processes. Recent relocations (or plain expulsions) in Rio de Janeiro have reverted decades of more progressive policies.

Undoubtedly, the framework of participatory governance installed in Brazilian re-democratization (after 1985) was a major breakthrough for public policies, but other issues need to be addressed to ensure the continual process of improving public management so as to be able to face increasingly greater challenges and threats. As I write these lines, the country is going through the largest institutional crisis since its re-democratization, with institutions and procedures related to public infrastructure construction at the centre of the problem. The dilemma we identified between planning and participation is unfolding at various levels, from the lack of participation/citizenship to a culture that, by inertia and all kinds of voices in the decision-making and execution process, perpetuates the old practices instead of embracing daring and innovation.

Overcoming the compartmentalization of urban planning management and organizing a “participatory structure” within the government at the local, municipal, state and national scales seems to be part of the solution to the current difficulties facing urban policy in Brazil.

Matters of ultimate gravity.

[Informal architecture. Favela in Brasil. View of Beco São Vicente, design by Maculan & Ianni; Photo by F.Lara]


[1] The discussion took place in the conclusion of the book “Modern Architecture in Latin America. Art, Technology, and Utopia“ by Luis E. Carranza and Fernando Luiz Lara (University of Texas Press, 2015)

[2] Lara, Fernando Luiz (2010): “Beyond Curitiba: The Rise of a Participatory Model for Urban Intervention in Brazil,” Urban Design International, Vol 2/15, Summer 2010, pp. 119-128.

[3] Lara, Fernando Luiz (2013): “Favela upgrade in Brazil: a reverse of participatory processes”, Journal of Urban Design, 18/4, September 2013, pp. 553-564.



* Fernando Luiz Lara
, PhD, ist Architekt und Associate Professor an der University of Texas in Austin und Vorsitzender des Brazil Center am Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies. Er arbeitet zu den Themen Raumplanung und Stadtentwicklung. Publikationen (Auswahl): Lara/Carranza (2015): Modern Architecture in Latin America: Art, Technology and Utopia; Lara/Marques (Hg.) (2015): Quid Novi, architectural education dillemas in the 21st century; Lara (2010): Favela Studio: Investigations on Informality; Lara (2008): The Rise of Popular Modernist Architecture in Brazil.  

** Tom Bieling ist Designforscher, Interaction Designer und Autor. Er promoviert am Design Research Lab der Berliner Universität der Künste, ist seit 2011 Gastprofessor an der German University in Cairo (GUC) und ist aktives Gründungsmitglied des Design Research Networks sowie Leiter des Instituts für angewandte Fantasie und Initiator von

This text has previously been published in: PROTOCOL Magazine, No 8 (118), 2016.


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