How a 29-Year-Old Designer Is Reinventing the Urban Monument – Next City

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How a 29-Year-Old Designer Is Reinventing the Urban Monument

Sara Zewde has the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro paying attention — and for good reason.

Story by Gregory Scruggs

Published on Nov 16, 2015

In March 2011, Sara Zewde received a curious email from a friend working on her doctorate in African-American history. It pointed her to an article in a Brazilian newspaper about the discovery of an old slave port called the Valongo Wharf in Rio de Janeiro. A U.S.-born urban planner then working in the Rio office of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, Zewde had just heard about the wharf from a colleague because of its location in the city’s port area, where she was studying transportation plans.

“The historical significance of it was undoubtable,” Zewde says of the buried wharf, where approximately one million enslaved Africans had entered the Americas. An African-American whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia, Zewde’s interest was personal and professional.

Estimates vary, but at least four million enslaved Africans — 40 percent of the total transatlantic slave trade — were brought to Brazil before the country abolished the practice in 1888, becoming the last nation in the Americas to do so. Valongo Wharf was the largest entry point for enslaved Africans in Brazil, making it the most trafficked point of entry in the Americas and an “entirely unique historical marker,” says Elisa Larkin Nascimento, director of the Institute of Afro-Brazilian Studies and Research.

Despite the wharf’s inarguable historic value, city officials had not been looking for it. Workers prepping the area for an ambitious public-private makeover of Rio’s port area uncovered it. The accident would quickly reshape the future of the port — and Zewde’s career.

Black activists had long sought to uncover the missing piece of history, but the reveal was thanks to workers digging to lay new sewer lines for the public-private partnership Porto Maravilha, or Marvelous Port, a play on Rio’s nickname as the “Marvelous City.” As the largest such partnership in Brazilian history, Porto Maravilha is poised to transform a working-class, former industrial area with a historic Afro-Brazilian population into a stylish district of luxury condo and office towers, boutique hotels, and starchitect-designed cultural destinations. Quickly, the activists pulled together to demand that Mayor Eduardo Paes memorialize the site as part of the redevelopment.

Zewde’s urban planning master’s thesis at MIT explored the idea of “black urbanism” in the context of New Orleans. She had grown up in the South and had long been fascinated by how cultural dynamics came to be reflected in urban landscapes.

“When the Mayor said in response to the outcry of activists that he wanted the design for the wharf to represent the black experience, I jumped out of my seat,” she says.

Today, Valongo Wharf is open to visitors. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In Fall 2011, Zewde left Rio to begin a landscape architecture program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), but she couldn’t forget the wharf. Once in Cambridge, she realized that school could wait — while the opportunity to work on the Valongo Wharf would not. She knocked out one semester of studies at the GSD before returning to Rio with a research grant to investigate further.

As Zewde got deeper into the city’s plans to memorialize the Valongo Wharf, she found herself in an unexpected role: architect. In short order, she had to turn theory into practice as she went from inquisitive student to lead designer for a memorial with huge implications for Rio, Brazil and the broader global design community.

“We Don’t Know. Do You?”

Today, the remnants of the Valongo Wharf are modestly preserved in a placeholder arrangement. Large flat stones are stacked, sometimes neatly, sometimes precariously, as tufts of grass grow in between. Steps lead down to where water once was. Many of the surrounding 19th-century streets and buildings follow the contours of the old water line. Meanwhile, a more modern set of warehouses, some already converted into chic event spaces, now front Guanabara Bay.

A street bounds the exposed wharf on one side and a simple concrete paving job rings the other three, creating a hardscape plaza. The perfectly symmetrical cement squares contrast with the jagged edges of the Valongo’s ruins. A few plaques offer a basic historical interpretation of the site as a major slave receiving port. The plaques, Zewde says, are the only public acknowledgment of slavery in Rio outside museum exhibits. At one corner, an obelisk commemorates the arrival of a bride for Emperor Dom Pedro II, the last monarch to rule Brazil under whose rule slavery was abolished.

The remains of Valongo were found six feet under the street surface, below four layers of paving dating back to 1843, when the wharf was first paved over in preparation for the welcoming of Brazil’s future empress.

“Each layer of paving in the cross-section has its own story,” Zewde says.

Those stories will gain another chapter with Porto Maravilha. Today, it is one of the crowded city’s least dense neighborhoods, with fewer than 32,000 residents. Over the next decade, city officials hope to triple the population to 100,000. With air rights already sold, their ambitions have begun to be realized, although Brazil’s current economic downturn has slowed real estate development from the delirious pace of just a few years ago.

On paper, at least 32 commercial projects, including a portside Trump Towers, are in the works. In 2013, CDURP, the agency managing the port’s redevelopment, demolished a three-mile-long elevated highway running through the area, clearing the land for a boulevard with waterfront access. Not far from the former highway, international real estate giant Tishman Speyer built the district’s first new commercial building, designed by British starchitect Norman Foster. In 2017, the company intends to open the neighborhood’s first new residential building, a 1,400-unit tower. The duo will join a sleek art museum that opened in 2013, a planned boutique hotel housed in a retrofitted grain silo and a Santiago Calatrava-designed, science-themed Museum of Tomorrow that is slated to open by the end of the year.

The Museu do Amanha, or Museum of Tomorrow, is one of 32 new developments built or in the works in Rio’s port district. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

With its glassy designer towers and big-name cultural amenities, the new development will be a massive change for the area, long a refuge for black Brazilian history and culture. Home to Rio’s oldest favela and a historic Afro-Brazilian community, as well as an artists’ colony, an edgy nightclub district, and two working-class neighborhoods, the port area had managed to thrive under the recent era of benign neglect. Crowds — locals and gringos alike — flock to Monday night samba sessions at the Pedra do Sal (Salt Rock), a portside landmark where longshoremen unloaded salt and played music in their off hours. The black community that still lives there is descended from runaway slaves and is recognized for this lineage under Brazilian law.

But while some protections have been offered to the black community of Pedra do Sal, the very fact that the Valongo Wharf was paved over is an apt metaphor for the historical treatment of Afro-Brazilian heritage sites. One only has to visit the downtown Little Africa neighborhood where samba was born to see how black communities have fared as the city has developed. There, an entire community was forced out in the 1940s to make way for Avenida Presidente Vargas, a 16-lane monstrosity that the architect who designed Brasilia’s master plan referred to as the “ugliest road in the world.” Meanwhile, the favelas that are home to a disproportionate number of dark-skinned Cariocas (Rio natives) have been variously neglected and threatened by public policy. Most recently, government agencies opted to forcibly evict people from these communities in an effort to sanitize the city for the 2014 World Cup and upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics.

“Brazilian society is proud of African derived food, music, and culture, but we don’t talk about racism in Brazil. In the cultural heritage field, this has consequences…” says Washington Fajardo, a special adviser to the Mayor on urban planning issues and the president of the Rio World Heritage Institute, which would be one of the key entities charged with preserving the wharf.

As Rio is remade for a global stage, the potential for a major African heritage site in the heart of a downtown redevelopment project carries a lot of symbolic weight for the movimento negro, or “black movement,” as activists for Afro-Brazilian rights are known.

By the time Zewde returned to Rio under the auspices of her research grant, movement activists had already successfully pressured Paes to designate the Valongo Wharf and other nearby sites of Afro-Brazilian memory as a formal historic district: the African Heritage Celebration Historical and Archaeological Circuit. A working group of black leaders was convened to provide input on the circuit’s development. Both developments signified progress for the movement. “This was our first time being consulted on an urban redevelopment project,” say Dulce Vasconcello, president of the Municipal Council in Defense of Black Rights and a member of the Mayor’s working group.

Zewde and Fajardo soon met to discuss Valongo. She asked him if Rio’s leaders in city hall had any clear idea how designs for a memorial could reflect the Afro-Brazilian experience. As she recalls, “Washington told me, ‘we don’t know.’” He then turned the tables and asked, “Do you?”

Soon after the conversation, Zewde again returned to the U.S., but this time, she knew for certain she would return to Rio.

As jackhammers battered the weathered streets of the port district, the ghosts of Valongo continued to haunt the 29-year-old designer. In 2013, she worked for Hood Design Studio in Oakland and tried to steer a contract to work on Valongo to the landscape architecture firm whose principal, Walter Hood, is one of the few African-Americans in the field. But the site was not yet primed for an international design competition and taking work away from Brazilian firms was a political non-starter.

That following winter, Zewde was nominated for the Olmsted Scholars Program, the premier national award program for landscape architecture students named for the founding dean of the profession, Frederick Law Olmsted. Zewde won the scholarship, which came with a $25,000 prize and the imprimatur of the Landscape Architecture Foundation. She immediately contacted Fajardo, who up until that point had not found a way to hire her, as a non-Brazilian, to work on the designs for the site. With the scholarship in hand, she boarded a plane for Rio during the hectic summer of 2014, as Brazil hosted the World Cup.

While football madness took over the city and slowed Brazilian office productivity to a crawl, Zewde found a team ready to go. “Washington’s office works really hard,” she says. “There was a rush of energy and we worked plenty of weekends.”

Already accustomed to pulling long hours at the GSD, Zewde worked day and night during the feverish months of June and July. At the Rio World Heritage Institute, she brought in the fruits of her Harvard research, from the African continent’s history of urbanism, when cities like Timbuktu were bigger than London, to her ethnobotany investigations into what kinds of plants would have been familiar to enslaved Africans.

Soon enough, Zewde became known around the office as the de facto expert on all things Afro-Brazilian. While flattering, it was an uncomfortable position to be in, she recalls. “It was weird to talk about Afro-Brazilian culture because I’m not Brazilian,” she explains. “I hated the authority I had because I was American, or from Harvard, or black. It was hard to separate them.”

At the same time, she couldn’t avoid a feeling of tokenism. At the City Palace during a formal dinner to honor the TED Global conference that was in town, she was introduced to Paes. “I was a young black woman — every level of being an outsider,” Zewde recalls of the event. At some point during the meal, she realized, “I was the only black person in the room who was not a server.” But she also shrugged it off with a sad-but-true dig at her chosen profession. “I’m used to it in the world I’m in, design.”

Despite these hurdles, by July 2014, she was presenting a design proposal at a meeting in Rio’s city hall convened by the Mayor’s office. His representatives and those from the public-private partnership redeveloping the port were there, as well as private developers with a stake in Porto Maravilha, staffers from the federal agencies that safeguard black rights like the Office of Racial Equality Policies, and various community activists. Zewde’s audience also included Milton Guran, a Brazilian who serves on UNESCO’s International Scientific Committee and will help decide in the next year whether Valongo Wharf receives designation as a World Heritage Site. (Key ports of slave embarkation in West Africa have long been recognized by UNESCO and have been boons to the tourism industry of Senegal and Ghana.)

Zewde’s proposals for the site revolve around her question of how to shape a city in relationship to its history of slavery. In her hands, the archaeological site itself would be enhanced with shade trees, site-specific illumination and street furniture. Meanwhile, the streets that lead to the site would represent the routes of the slave trade. To ease that painful memory, plants, including African vegetation, would create a cooler microclimate and white benches would invoke Afro-Brazilian rituals along a specially designed pedestrian pathway. The design was roundly approved by the Mayor’s representatives and the black activists he had brought to the table, Fajardo says.

Inspiration for Zewde’s design, shown in this rendering, came from Afro-Brazilian rituals and cultural practice. (Credit: Sara Zewde)

When Zewde describes her design, she returns to an academic argument made in her GSD thesis, which wove her work on Valongo into an exploration of the uses of the monument. She argues that while the traditional monument commemorates a singular event or individual by placing an object in a space that is a break from its surroundings, the 400-year practice of African enslavement demands a different approach. “For Afro-descended people, you wake up every day with the legacy of slavery,” she says. “How do you deal with that spatially?”

One approach is to translate cultural practices into spatial ones. Samba or capoeira, two hallmarks of Brazilian culture with strong African influences, both traditionally operate in circular gatherings known as rodas. In her design, Zewde incorporates patterns and shapes modeled after these gatherings. For her audience in Rio, the concept clicked immediately, Zewde says. Plants were another way to grapple with slavery’s living legacy. When the Earth’s landmasses were all part of the supercontinent Pangaea, what is now Brazil and Africa were joined at the hip. Zewde’s proposal to plant vegetation that would have been familiar to enslaved Africans arriving on Rio’s shores is a gesture toward that human moment, as well as the site’s geologic history.

“Her ideas about seeds and vegetation here in Rio as a form of connecting with our African roots is really cool,” says Lelette Couto, who sits on the African Heritage Circuit working group and is a member of Rio’s racial equality commission. “It’s part of Sara’s innovation to have a more futuristic look at our roots.”

But as Zewde’s research also taught her, cultural exchange is never simple. Brazilian authorities consider African plants to be invasive and don’t allow them to be planted as part of public projects. Fajardo has gone to bat for Zewde’s design, arguing for a cultural exception to the rule, but no decision has been made. “The idea of native plants is defined as when Europeans arrived,” Zewde says. “It’s arbitrary in the evolution of plants.”

Zewde’s design for the African Heritage Celebration Historical and Archaeological Circuit includes native African plants, as shown in this rendering. (Credit: Sara Zewde)

Hurry Up and Wait

It took three years from the Valongo Wharf’s rediscovery until a design could be produced. How long it will take to realize some version of Zewde’s vision is anyone’s guess. The Mayor has asked the Rio World Heritage Institute and CDURP to prepare a viability study of the project, but no firm timeline or budget has been set.

Meanwhile, the black movement activists who were consulted in the euphoria of the design process are now registering their frustration about a lack of progress. “My biggest criticism is in relation to City Hall,” says Vasconcello. “It hasn’t taken ownership of the project.”

“Our position is that we’re going to hold the city accountable [to its commitment],” Vasconcello continues. “We will fight for it to get off the ground. There’s no way we can give up. For us the most important thing is to have the history of our ancestors told at the physical point of arrival for enslaved Africans.”

A spokesman for the Mayor declined to specify which agency would be directly responsible for the creation of the Circuit and outside of City Hall, no one else seems to know either. Fajardo maintains that it is CDURP’s responsibility and CDURP says that its only mandate is to redevelop the port area and use Zewde’s proposal “insofar as it is possible to reconcile” it with the other development on the site.

Still, CDURP claims that the viability study is underway and that the agency will eventually pay for the memorial’s implementation with money generated from the sale of air rights in the area. CDURP’s president, Alberto Silva, wrote in an email that the agency has already used some money raised from the sale of air rights to pay for activities related to the Circuit, including preparation of the UNESCO dossier, an annual ceremony for the black community to “wash” the wharf’s stones, cataloguing of archaeological material from the site, guided visits and general signage. CDURP has also provided financial support for the Pedra do Sal community and a museum that houses a slave cemetery, both stops on the Circuit.

Yet as CDURP studies the project, it continues to upgrade infrastructure in the Porto Maravilha footprint, including in areas earmarked for Zewde’s Afrocentric design interventions. “There was a lost opportunity at the Praça dos Estivadores, which could have incorporated this design,” Fajardo says. The Praça dos Estivadores (Longshoremen’s Square) is one of the sites formally listed as part of the Circuit in the city’s municipal decree. Like many public spaces in this palimpsest neighborhood, it has an older name — Largo do Depósito, or Deposit Square — to mark the fattening houses for slaves recently arrived at the Valongo Wharf. The goal was to make them strong enough for fieldwork after surviving the transatlantic crossing.

Fajardo remains optimistic despite this setback. “The proposal is rather flexible, it’s not a rigid urban design,” he says, already looking ahead to the as-yet-unimproved Avenida Barão de Tefé, where the Valongo Wharf itself is located and for which Zewde prepared the most elaborate designs of the project. He calls the street “contextually very important” for the integrity of the Circuit design proposal.

For its part, CDURP says that the Avenida Barão de Tefé’s design is already complete and doesn’t take into account Zewde’s design. “It will be reviewed in order to analyze the possibility of incorporating the proposed elements in accordance with the viability and general timeline of the construction,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.

The next step for the Rio World Heritage Institute is a competition for Afro-Brazilian designers to come up with a wayfinding symbol that will designate the circuit. The agency is also strategizing on how it can help make the Circuit benefit existing residents, rather than simply fuel gentrification. At the insistence of local residents, Paes recently released a plan to build 10,000 affordable units in the area within the next 10 years. “We’re concerned about the need to create economic empowerment along the circuit, which will make it sustainable in the long run,” Fajardo says.

Zewde’s sense that continuity with the past empowers the future is no doubt influencing the process. “The most important thing is to look back at the past, but project toward the future, a different future, because we still have a lot of work to do,” says Couto, who continues to advocate for the project at City Hall.

One of Brazil’s recurring mottos is “country of the future,” a phrase that mostly generates eye rolling these days, especially among young Brazilians jaded in the current economic and political climate. Rio has been somewhat insulated from the ongoing economic downturn, but as the last few years have shown, there are many stumbling blocks on the road to Olympic glory. In a way, uncovering the Valongo Wharf was one of them — a major archaeological find that surely slowed down the port’s transformation into a new commercial district.

In 1991, something similar happened in Lower Manhattan, when a groundbreaking for a federal office building uncovered a historic African cemetery. Now a monument maintained by the National Park Service, it took considerable activism on the part of black leaders to preserve the site, a sliver of a larger 6.6-acre burial ground. The attention ultimately galvanized a revisionist history of New York City’s direct participation in the slave trade, from scholarly research to a landmark exhibit at the New York Historical Society.

Nevertheless, the black slab monument wedged in the shadow of Manhattan skyscrapers is easily overlooked in downtown’s concrete jungle. Zewde’s proposal for Rio — to make African heritage a centerpiece of the revitalized downtown district — is infinitely bolder. Having pioneered a new design approach to monuments, Zewde has drawn comparisons with Maya Lin from Anita Berrizbeitia, the chair of the GSD’s landscape architecture program and Zewde’s adviser.

“Sara is a negotiator, an advocate for communities,” says Berrizbeitia, who nominated Zewde for the Olmsted scholarship.

Zewde in the Seattle office of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, where she currently works as a designer

Zewde is already thinking about the long game. Paes leaves office after the Olympics next year, but the port redevelopment will continue for another decade-plus. “The history of this site has evolved over a few hundred years, what makes me think five years is going to change it,” she says. “Eventually, I think pieces of the design will be implemented. The project requires a lot of coordination between various political actors and entities. I don’t expect that to happen overnight.”

Zewde is now following developments in Rio while working full-time for Gustafson Guthrie Nichol in Seattle. Even if her day job keeps her from dedicating her time exclusively to Valongo, the project’s teachings are by now inscribed in her DNA as a designer. “This approach is my life’s work,” she says.

In October, Zewde spoke about her Rio project at the GSD’s inaugural Black in Design Conference, a sold-out affair that made public a conversation Zewde and her community had been having on their own for years. When an audience member asked her about the very outsider status that made her an unexpected authority in Rio, she explained, “My design process is about re-establishing trust with black communities, because the system has failed them so many times before.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Gregory Scruggs writes about cities and culture, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.