Reinventing Research in Times of Pandemic

New Ways of Studying and Displaying Cities

by | Nov 15, 2021

The pandemic, a global health emergency, descended upon us in March 2020.  In this unexpected crisis with unknown disastrous implications, to write about the process of research in urban studies, social sciences or other fields of the humanities might seem irrelevant. That’s especially true for us Brazilians, living amidst the erratic management and negligence—better said, crimes—committed by the country’s political power in its handling of Covid-19. For us, it is shameful to have a far-right president who opposes science, refused to buy vaccines and yet is said to have indulged in vaccine-related corruption. The absence of a responsible, humanitarian and coherent policy for two years created all kinds of problems worsening inequalities in all fields, amplifying some of the pre-existing precarious conditions, besides bringing new ones.

In Brazil, Mexico and the United States (during the Trump administration), governments attempted to minimize the pandemic and tried to continue with their economic agendas, concerned that a major economic crisis would be more damaging to them than a heavy human death toll. Thus, more than 600.000 Brazilians have died, a toll that could have been mostly avoided as scientists affirm. In this context, the shift and strategies in research because of the pandemic hiatus may seem to be relatively unimportant, but its long-term effects on academic pursuits are significant.


The Impact on Research 

Research projects have slowed down.  Funding has been curtailed. Libraries, university laboratories and departments have closed.  Specialists have had to adapt their ways of working by instituting new protocols in response to such an isolated context that blocked so many intellectual projects in progress.

Fig 1 – Most libraries are still closed in Brazilian universities. Here, at the façade of the library of the Graduate School of Architecture and Urbanism of University of São Paulo, a banner indicates both: mourning and fight (“luto” in Portuguese has the two meanings referring to Covid-19 in Brazil: luto pela vida = fight for life). Photo Credit: Heliana Angotti-Salgueiro, June 2021.

This new reality of pandemic enforced the total closure of what is called “non-essential” activities, all public educational spaces included. Just a few cultural institutions, such as museums, had already invested in their digital and social media, amplifying virtual access to their collections. Thus, the only option for most individual researchers during lockdown restrictions was to continue to produce knowledge remotely through online resources. The possible research practices that grow out of the pandemic time, had paradoxical advantages of using innovative technologies through alternative forms of communication and virtual mobility, suppressing the obstacles of space and time.

In fact, the construction of knowledge itself gained with ongoing development of international networks of researchers, even if advancement of experiences in some fields was already happening. We have now experimented collaborative forms of working online with an unprecedented and borderless potential of contacts, dissemination, opening and socialization.

In our specific field and case study, an investigation of urban history and images about Latin American capital cities—São Paulo and Buenos Aires—distant from one another, the subject evolved extraordinarily under diverse interactive cultural practices such as periodical Zoom meetings during these almost two years of confinement. I’ll give a glimpse of how the research progressed, explaining briefly the methodology, and include some examples of themes in analyses for both cities and its correspondent representations. One thing is certain: traditional established models and methods must be modified. New forms of examining research objects had to be investigated or we would risk being completely marginalized in the digital epistemological shift we are experiencing.

The field of Urban Studies has already changed since we live in an era of cyberspace (W. J. Mitchel, City of Bits. Space, Place and the Infobahn. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995) and our students are familiar with apps and video systems. However, we did not realize teleworking or other forms of digital communication and presentation of knowledge would be no longer optional, but the only alternative to maintain “our interface to the world, to others, to our memory and our imagination—a universal language through which the world speaks, and a universal engine on which the world runs,” as data science tools’ expert Lev Manovich once declared (Software takes command, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).


Build Another Way to Tell Urban History

After years of experience studying images in research projects on urban studies and cultural humanities, but before the “computational turn” (David M. Berry, “The Computational Turn: Thinking about the Digital Humanities”, Culture Machine, vol. 12, 2011), I became interested in new curatorial modes of assembling archival documents and iconography regarding cities.

An exhibition held at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, “Urban Intermedia: city, archive, narrative” in September 2018 (we could not imagine then, what we would live in less than two years…) met my expectations of renewal. The experimental methodology of this multimedia research project demonstrated that presenting scholarship through conventional methods could no longer hold. The chosen media visualization method of showing aspects regarding four different cities in the world, Berlin, Boston, Mumbai and Istanbul, reinforced my interest in working differently with the history of cities transforming texts and images to visual data narratives.

Fig. 2 – Still from the Berlin narrative, “City-Fabric: Between Systems and Sites,” Berlin: Experimental Ground, part of the exhibition Urban Intermedia: city, archive, narrative, Druker Design Gallery, GSD, Harvard University. Assemblages generate layers of different documental representations of the city’s history. The digital image allows the composition of a multiplicity of animated scenes. Source: © Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative.

Dealing with hybridized media language or digital assembled visualizations and “software thinking” to substitute written narratives, the project curated by Eve Blau and Robert G. Pietrusko, funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, gave me the idea of developing similar collective research and exhibition about Latin American metropolises based on intermedia methodology in our country. We all know that “urbanism is a global phenomenon” (“Intersections,” Panel 1, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, 2017), in which distinctions brought by others urban case studies matter. Thus, a comparison, initially between São Paulo and Buenos Aires (hoping to welcome professors from other cities of Latin America into the network in the future) could respond as a collaboration to create a broad intellectual community beyond Harvard, working under alternative cross-disciplinary studies and media visualization.

Even if visual technology, maps, data and digital images have been used and discussed for long time, we perceived that these means became imperative in the pandemic moment of isolation and physical distance among scholars. So, emerging “ways of knowing cities” (title of a book edited by Laura Kurgan & Dare Brawley in October 2019), suddenly seemed providential to a remote work on studying urban issues with colleagues from different universities, who could come together without moving from their personal computers.

Let’s go back to the history of this project in progress connected to my research goals as a Peggy Rockefeller Visiting Scholar of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS), and how strategies to share information and knowledge online have been carried out to date. The team of professors from São Paulo and Buenos Aires I invited to work with me had first been together in an in-person panel in Mexico (International Iberoamerican Congress of Urban History, in November 2019), coordinated by Eve Blau, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and myself. Shortly afterward, the pandemic put an end to our travel plans and we had to cancel all meetings in both cities. We had to adapt our schedules and objectives by adopting collaborative internet practices that made possible exchange of documents, from sharing bibliography and crossing series of images online to the long discussion to choose themes exploring key-aspects and moments of the evolution of each city.

In this project, we have been reinventing what it means to study urban culture and its “dynamics of transition,” as Blau writes, especially as regards the periods in which São Paulo and Buenos Aires became great metropolises in the 20th century.

Some practical problems seemed evident: dealing with a large quantity of images representing both cities and defining pertinent themes by a combination of all sorts of documents, composing and recomposing layers of data in the montage of narratives, turning archives and collections into digital images. Urban historical specificities must be “readable” by themes representing each city. For instance, if in the “Urban Intermedia” project, the portal for Boston was the intersection of  “Race and Space,” looking at disparities caused by infrastructural racism in some parts of the city, for São Paulo racial problems are less complex than social and economic inequalities, although spatial segregation is also an undeniable reality linked to them and to fast-growing uncontrolled neighborhoods.

Considering the role that mapping can play in showing how urban space and social life are structured in certain moments, you build another way to tell the city’s history, moving from historical materials to contemporary ones and backwards, enabled by software programs. As Columbia University architect Laura Kurgan observes in the preface of her book, “Knowledge and technology can be thought together to understand the rich historicity of cities.”


Themes and Images of São Paulo and Buenos Aires

Let’s see some themes on study by images of São Paulo and Buenos Aires. The following figures are just examples demonstrating axes by which similarities and differences between these two cities will be developed, with a special focus on the representations of their rapidly-growing condition—from maps of the sites (chronology and general aspects of development) to mobility (demographic explosion by immigration), building forms (verticalization and its always-changing spots), but also actors and their ideas.

Maps superimposed chronologically in layers can expose different aspects of the sites and stages of historical and spatial settlement. They are present in most of the narratives as a basic representation within sequences of images. The concept of “mapping” belongs to media analyses and can also have the meaning of a survey to interpret all sorts of spatial temporal conditions—maps led to a visualization of different urban issues, from structural interventions to social aspects.

Fig. 3 – The figure shows the procedure of superimposing topographic charts and different plans of Buenos Aires region on the digital layers (of manzanero, roads in different hierarchies and towns) in adaptation for the 1910 cut. Source: “Surveys and procedures in the elaboration of maps and images of Buenos Aires” – Paper (Mexico, 2019), by Lucas Dombroski(CONICET/Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento/Instituto de Arte Americano, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina, and member of the research team São Paulo and Buenos Aires Intermedia).

Beatriz Piccolotto Siqueira Bueno, another member of our team, looking for layers of historicity by regressive cartographies processed thanks to the application of methods as GISs, uses maps combined with projects and photos of certain streets of the historic center of São Paulo from 1809 to 1942, in order to visualize the dynamic of the development of the city by registering the changing typologies of buildings.

Fig. 4 – Typology of buildings in São Paulo’s downtown, 1809. The red mark refers to two stores buildings, the green to ground floor houses. Source: Quantum GIS on Plan of the City of São Paulo, 1844-1847 (Carlos Bresser). Fundação Biblioteca Nacional (RJ). Paper (Mexico, 2019), “Give to see what is not otherwise seen: regressive cartographies, new urban narratives – the case of the Historic Center of São Paulo (1809-1942)”, by Beatriz P. S. Bueno (Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo, Universidade de SãoPaulo, and member of the research team São Paulo and Buenos Aires Intermedia).

Mobility of people is another key theme for the history of Buenos Aires and São Paulo, two cities that grown up thanks to the great flux of foreign immigration starting with the late 19th century. Historians like us, having studied abroad, know the challenge of traversing the Atlantic to reestablish these flows, the effort to understand experiences of displacement from Europe to South America, but also within South America itself—as team member Paulo César Garcez Marins observes—or the circulation of professionals and of illustrated publications. We have not yet totally written the micro-history of actors and their texts in regards to their importance to Brazilian urban ideas and architectural production.

Fig.   5  – The boat S. Gottardo arriving with immigrants from Italy in Santos, a port near São Paulo, at the beginning of the 20th century. The European populations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries suffered from unemployment and poverty, hence the search for new living conditions in the New World of the North and South. Photo Credit:  Gaesnly & Lindermann (date unknown). Acervo Fundação Energia e Saneamento (SP).

The importance of the European immigration in these fields does not mean we forgot to mention the erasure in historiography of indigenous populations and Black people in Argentina, as noted by Ricardo Hernán Medrano, an Argentine-Brazilian researcher on our team, who is helping us to establish intersections between the two cities, including hidden structural racism. It should be noted that in Brazil these populations suffered the most from the effects of the Covid-19 virus, given their precarious living conditions.

Concerning the transnational path of professionals and dissemination of references that circulated in bibliographies and in the visual universe shared by a whole generation is also to connect the cultural history of Latin American’s cities to the one of the United States. In this sense, intellectual biography of planners in both cities is an essential theme. In the case of São Paulo, I am studying the personal library and writings of engineer Luiz de Anhaia Mello (1891-1974), his quotations from North-American literature on city planning and images representing city problems in the 1920s to 1950s, diffused worldwide by scholarly journals. This is one of the reasons why I am doing research in Harvard’s collections—now that the circulation of the virus has decreased—since mostly of these documents were not digitalized, or no record of them is left in Brazilian archives.

In regards to urbanism but also architecture, as Blau has observed, “Change is a condition of modernity”—building forms that progressively shaped space and the dynamic of transition of architectural styles and scales at different times, from low houses to skyscrapers, led us to the study of “verticalization” throughout the last century. This is one of the main ways to compare these two growing capitals, São Paulo and Buenos Aires, their similarities and differences (dispersion for the first, and congestion for the second). Following the example of the United States, especially since the 1940s, these cities competed for the construction of iconic buildings that would become landmarks in the urban space. The verticalization happened in stages and displacement of its concentration centers. In the 1950s and 60s important buildings were still in downtown São Paulo—for instance, Oscar Niemeyer’s famous Copan. Later, high-rise towers had spread everywhere, especially close to the Pinheiros river shore—and in Buenos Aires, they were authorized by the 1978 building code, occupying Puerto Madero and other sites.

As historians of previous generations, we must learn to relate the logics of traditional investigation to the logics of actual design thinking, especially through new displays in exhibitions in this digital age. Alicia Novick and Graciela Favelukes, professors in Buenos Aires, observed that the challenge it is not so much an issue of “what images show, but how we work with them”, computing the massive amount available from diverse archives and collections, as maps, drawings, paintings, cartoons, photographs, videos, and others.

Fig. 9 – Collage of paintings and photographs of Buenos Aires: images to be assembled under software to create visual narratives. Source: “Images, plans, projects and maps in the construction of Buenos Aires”. Paper (Mexico, 2019), by Alicia Novick & Graciela Favelukes(CONICET/Instituto del Conurbano, Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento/Instituto de Arte Americano, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina, and members of the research team São Paulo and Buenos Aires Intermedia.)

The experimental research findings and methods proposed by Blau, and based on digital theorists as Manovich, teach us to construct arguments and stories organizing series and manipulating them under a recombination of existing data and software frames. Images will be layered and remixed, imagining new questions, research itineraries, and opened innovative narratives, as “digital work naturally encourages collaboration across disciplines” (Caroline Bruzelius, “Digital Technologies and New Evidence in Architectural History,” JSHA 76, no.4, Dec. 2017).

In Covid-19 times, when all daily actions are impossible without internet, we had to reinvent ways to conduct research, creating and sharing knowledge online—in our case study, the work accomplished will become a groundwork for the exhibition, “São Paulo and Buenos Intermedia: history in images,” that will take place … not virtually, we hope… in a real museum building. The fact that we are learning to transform archival material in animated series of visual language stories is not only a response to accomplish new strategies of research for a borderless world sudden isolated but increasingly immersed in screen culture, but also a way to make urban history accessible to a much broader audience. The experience we shared with digital language and the ongoing development of methodological innovations adopted in the context of the pandemic will certainly remain an issue to stimulate universities, humanities labs and museums to engage new technologies in a transnational network of researchers.

Heliana Angotti-Salgueiro, the Fall 2021 Peggy Rockefeller Visiting Scholar at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, is associated with research groups at IEA-University of São Paulo, FAU-University Mackenzie (SP), and has connections to the research group Mapping International Criticism (University of Rennes 2, France). She currently directs a research team on Urban Intermedia about São Paulo and Buenos Aires.

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