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Could carnivals become a radical tool for reimagining public space?

Philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin says: "Carnival is the world standing on its head." If this year has turned the world upside down, could Carnival become a radical tool to reimagine our public realm? Rosanna Vitiello explores her Radical Rethink

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Reveller at Bloco Prata Preta street party, Rio de Janeiro
Reveller at Bloco Prata Preta street party, Rio de Janeiro

In the heat of Rio de Janeiro this February, I was struck by the way in which Carnival transformed so-so streets into places that were collectively celebrated. A lifetime seems to have passed between then and now, but after a tragic year, these moments of joy and imagination among our everyday could be just what our city and citizens need.

 

The flipside of lockdown has seen a loosening of ideas around how we use our public spaces, and blossoming of ideals around what we can do in them. We’ve seen stoops become stages for neighbourhood concerts; pavements become a colourful canvas for kids. Yet they’re only glimpses of the future — small celebratory acts that could be elevated and explored to shift not just how we use our streets, but how we feel in them and about them.

 

So in raising the game on our public realm, Carnival-making can supercharge the imagination in helping us speculate on post-Covid cities. Yet it’s not just the act of celebration, but equally the design tools behind this cultural phenomenon that will help us reimagine and rehearse the future of our public realm.

 

Before we get practical, it’s essential to underscore the philosophy behind Carnival. From Playing Mas in Trinidad, through Notting Hill’s Sound Systems, to Germany’s Fasching, Carnival is a counter-culture movement — a construct that suspends rules and inhibitions, as all forms of social hierarchy are turned on their head. In her vivid take on Soca writer Sharine Taylor describes the origin of this celebration: ‘Pageantry and glam aside, carnival’s roots are not to be forgotten — forged by the fires of riots and resistance.’

 

“Small celebratory acts that could be elevated and explored to shift not just how we use our streets, but how we feel in them and about them”

 

In a country like Brazil, Carnival is indeed an act of defiance for the downtrodden, where a favela dweller can become a samba queen, and protests and fantasies are lived out in public.

 

Rio’s City of Samba is a case in point. A mega-campus on the scale of a Hollywood lot, it houses 14 samba schools representing most of the city’s working class neighbourhoods. Each vast warehouse hosts thousand-strong teams of local artisans, from costume-makers to prop-builders.

 

Together, some of the most disadvantaged parts of the city put on ‘the greatest show on earth’ which in the space of a few weeks pulls over £525 million (4 billion reais) into Rio’s economy. Yet most important are the stories that these shows relay on a global stage: rewriting historic national narratives to recognise black and brown heroes; revealing the hardships of everyday life in Brazil’s ‘comunidades’; disgracing far-right governments. On a tour of Grande Rio’s prop warehouse, community organiser Liana put it powerfully: ‘Carnival is an act of creative defiance’.

“The BLM protests are played out in public space because these are the spaces where lives are needlessly taken”

 

A defiant spirit has taken to the streets elsewhere this year. As Black Lives Matter spread through cities worldwide, communities of colour and those in solidarity have pushed systemic social imbalances front and centre. The world can’t look away anymore.

 

The BLM protests are played out in public space because these are the spaces where lives are needlessly taken, as well as the stages that the world watches and can participate in. The symbolism sewn through these streets is finally being noted: Following the toppling of Colston’s statue in Bristol, the Mayor’s Office in London swiftly established the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, recognising that our street names, statues and spaces rarely reflect the identity of our citizens.

 

BLM and Covid-lockdowns have become strange bedfellows in demanding change for public space: opening the conversation around who is safe and welcome to express their identity here, to whom these spaces belong, and what they represent in our lives. Suddenly our streets are flooded with emotion and meaning – words rarely seen in planning briefs.

 

“BLM and Covid-lockdowns have become strange bedfellows in demanding change for public space: opening the conversation around who is safe and welcome to express their identity here”

 

In a time when these spaces are ripe for reimagination, the question now is what next? It’s clear that we can’t rely on the same tools that took us here in the first place, nor on the same perspectives or skill sets. But we can learn from other modes of creation that transform our streets worldwide. Carnival works with emotion and meaning as standard, turning protest into positive action. Learning from its constructs we could encourage a more equitable, imaginative and collaborative design process that overturns traditional models and roles in designing and planning city streets.

 

Like good places Carnival is made in layers, drawing a wealth of voices and collective expertise to the table. This is not chaos. What lays behind Carnival is an established structure and considered approach that design and development teams can adapt and learn from. Going behind the scenes in making Carnival, we can draw inspiration to sketch the outline for a new placemaking playbook. Here’s a first rummage through this toolbox:

 

The Provocation Before they even think of design, Carnival makers start with a provocative narrative to hold the experience together. If citymaking is about change, then narrative is a great way to understand it: What is the story we want to tell about the future of this place and our community? In the way that speculative design plays out alternative scenarios, Carnival allows us to step into them. And don’t shy away from the tough stuff. The most memorable stories can come from moments of challenge and resistance — places ready for transformation often have difficult life stories to tell.

 

If anyone needs a good storyline it’s masterplanners. Masterplanning demands a huge leap of imagination — dreaming up spaces that will only be realised years into the future. Done right, this shared provocation can gather community support for real change, giving us the momentum to keep moving in sync, essential if voices in citymaking become more eclectic.

 

The Props We have the story, so how do we bring it to life? Props become Improvisational building blocks. Simple structures, street furniture, objects at person-scale — props help kickstart our imagination about how we might use a space, driving our curiosity to fill in the gaps.

 

Take it to the streets, and it’s a form of place prototyping, a way to shift behaviours – a spin on tactical urbanism, with the benefit that these things can be moved and reframed. And unlike meanwhile, props aren’t throwaway. In many Carnival cultures, they’re made from entirely recycled materials, re-used again year on year.

 

The People Always the essential ingredient, yet too often missing when it comes to urban design — the actors and the audience are key. Carnival creates characters, a wonderful tool to help development teams understand the breadth of mindsets when designing a place, and for communities to shift power dynamics. Why couldn’t a kid become Mayor for a day? Represented through costume, there’s personal empowerment in ‘masking up’, embracing the art of role-play and masquerade, and understanding the perspectives of others. A ‘method-design’ approach that steps us into others’ shoes to feel how they experience a future place.

 

The Pace The built environment is only a facet of the lived environment, so let’s get better at designing with time. Through movement, sound, performance, Carnival considers the choreography of a space, its rhythm and intensity. Music charges the atmosphere, flipping a space’s mood in moments. Dance and movement create agency, literally making space for different bodies to take over, drawing in those otherwise excluded through gender, age, income, or ethnicity. Shift peoples’ ‘being’ in a space and the dynamics alter.

 

“Represented through costume, there’s personal empowerment in ‘masking up’, embracing the art of role-play and masquerade, and understanding the perspectives of others”

 

Provocation, props, people, pace: Do we need architects and developers to use these tools? What we do need are a host of other skill sets brought to the table, many of which can be found among our communities. Natural-born storytellers and seamstresses, amateur carpenters and closet musicians, not to mention the producers and prop-builders that Covid has put out of work.

 

Ash Sakula’s Carnival Arts Centre is a beautiful realisation of this blend of talents, drawing on different skills to redress imbalances in who is making places. This widens representation — if we ran consultation sessions with a Carnival flavour, I guarantee we’d get better engagement.

Visceral, expressive, magical – Carnival helps us not just reimagine ways of being in the city, but actively feel them out too. Going beyond palid renders, it helps us experience how a space can be transformed, even momentarily.

 

While public-realm briefs remain a checklist of fundamentals we’ll respond by designing for function. Yet our Carnival Toolkit allows us to try out different flavours, rapid prototyping alternative futures for our public spaces. The spectacle becomes speculative.

 

Rosanna Vitiello is a Bureau Chief at The Place Bureau. This was her Radical Rethink, submitted to The Developer in 2020 in response to our call for ideas to transform places for the better.


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