The Monument in Relation to City and Memory Ana Paula Cohen

Considering that the notion of “monument” can vary according to the political, social, or architectural context from which it is analyzed, I propose some thoughts here on some present-day cities characterized by a continuous state of transformation. In these contexts, the idea of “monument” as a physical and enduring construction—linked to a static memory which emphasizes a few historical moments and public figures—does not go together with the physical and symbolic reality of the given place. If “monument” has an etymological origin in the word “memorial,” a notion of nonlinear history constituted in a similar way to a subjective memory—recombining its elements continuously to create new relations can lead us to a more flexible idea of monument that takes on different aspects in relation to temporality, visibility, scale, and the possibilities of relating to individuals on an equal level.

São Paulo is a megalopolis in a constant state of transformation. From within the complex structure of relations making up the city’s fabric, it appears to be composed of accumulated layers that are transposed from one to another, creating a chaos which is evident at first sight. A historical perspective of the city that theoretically supports this perception, written by São Paulo’s town planner Benedito Lima de Toledo, is that in the course of 100 years São Paulo has been demolished and reconstructed twice, resulting in three different cities. It went from a colonial city “made of mud” in the late 19th century, with 20,000 inhabitants, to a modern metropolis with European outlines in the 1910s and 1920s with 580,000 inhabitants. The city’s administrative emphasis was switched from an urbanist town-planning approach to a technocratic one in the 1930s (1,060,000 inhabitants), with priority given to the automobile over the pedestrian, a characteristic that still prevails in the city’s structure today (21 million inhabitants). During that time, gardens and public spaces were sacrificed for vehicular traffic and parking.

In this sense, São Paulo’s structure is different from that taken as a parameter in current theoretical discussions on public art or architecture/urbanism. Most capitals in South America were founded on the European model of urbanization, always assuming the existence of the plaza mayor (“major public square”) at its center, where the alcadía (“city hall”) can be found along with the Spanish flag and other fixed architectural elements. The Portuguese did not have the same programmatic ambitions in Brazil. In the course of the 20th century the center of São Paulo, for example, was gradually displaced from the triangle formed by the three streets on which the city was founded in 1554 toward the city’s main hubs of finance and commerce. The notion of public space is therefore very different from that of other large European or North American capitals, or of Spanish-speaking Latin America. Insofar as an architectonic monument is concerned, there is no central and fixed founding public space from which the city grows and takes its orientation.


Monumento para todas as situações (“Monument for Every Situation”), 1964, by Lygia Clark (Belo Horizonte, 1920—Rio de Janeiro, 1988). Clark proposes a mobile, foldable, small-scale (40 x 40 cm) monument—which can be set up anywhere—leading us to consider that any situation can be activated as a relevant one, depending on how it is seen. This artwork deals with a failure of the notion of a monument that would reaffirm the comprehension of a history formed by a few people, or by a number of important, precisely demarcated events which should be continuously remembered. This piece has the same structure as Lygia Clark’s bichos (“critters”), metal surfaces that can be manipulated and configured in different positions.

… A whole number of unplanned demolitions and reconstructions, driven by private interest and never subjected to an urban plan, have given rise to a city without public spaces for shared living such as public squares and parks, and with a way of life that takes place mainly within private spaces.

Yet, although on the one hand São Paulo is an internal city—its residents live inside their houses, apartments, clubs, cars, bars, movie theaters, galleries—thousands of people can be seen on the streets at all times, day and night, always in transit. They are going from one place to another, concentrated on their route, moving toward their destination. In this way, the city functions mostly as a passage; infinite paths are traced in it daily, connecting different points that form the São Paulo of each inhabitant.


Paulista, 1997, by Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles (Rio de Janeiro, 1948), is a work in which 100 screws made of gold were embedded into sidewalks along the avenue that today represents the financial axis of São Paulo. Besides activating the whole extension of Avenida Paulista (25 blocks) with these tiny and valuable “sculptures,” the work dealt directly with the pedestrians’ perception. The installation offered to those who could no longer perceive the details in the oversaturated urban landscape the possibility of a valuable discovery: a golden screw in the sidewalk. Many of the 100 screws were found by pedestrians.

… The topography of the valley also hinders the existence of fixed points in the city visible from all other parts, such as a large monument, a church, or a tower by which people in transit might orient themselves. The key landmarks are at ground level: two large rivers, which formerly demarcated the city, together with broad avenues, many of them built over the rivers, which serve as orientation points for drivers traveling from long distances.

The lack of fixed architectural landmarks might suggest a more flexible city, recognizable by the small elements—bars, bakeries, signs—present in the daily life of each individual.


Buenos Aires Tour, 2004, by Jorge Macchi (Buenos Aires, 1963) in collaboration with Maria Negroni and Edgardo Rudnitzky. A tourist guide with eight itineraries based on lines made by a broken piece of glass on the map of Buenos Aires. The work consists of a box containing a book, a map, a CD-ROM, and facsimiles of printed matter found in the city of Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires Tour presents a reflection on the nature of monuments and landmarks to be considered in a truly lively city. The artists made a collection of sounds, writings and objects found near each subway station in an area defined on the map by a broken piece of glass. Macchi kept the personal objects he found, such as a prayer book with notations, a notebook with translations from Spanish into English, a letter from someone who had committed suicide—as well as the popular printed matter often seen in the streets: comics from Bazooka gum wrappers, posters of Eva Peron, or even phrases written on the walls of the city—all collected and duly valorized in a box. The city’s new landmarks according to this guide are ephemeral objects related to the individuals who pass by every day, constituting the different layers of memories of the city’s daily life.


Cruzamento (Praia do Flamengo x dois de dezembro), 2003 (“Intersection (Praia do Flamengo x Dois de Dezembro”). In general this work by Renata Lucas (São Paulo, 1971) directs our awareness toward the space in which it is presented—considering space as the dynamics between architecture and the activities that take place within it. Cruzamento was realized in Rio de Janeiro in 2003, and in São Paulo in 2004 (P de João Manoel x Oscar Freire). This project consists of the paving of an intersection of two streets with wooden boards attached to the asphalt. Also present here is the idea of architectural structure related to the activities conducted at the place, in this case taking on the proportions of the city and incorporating many layers of activities: automobile traffic, pedestrian traffic, urban planning, the hierarchies and bureaucracies of the traffic department, etc. The curios character of this work seems to lie precisely in the relation between all the invisible structures that cross and lie on top of one another at that place—not only physical structures, but political and social ones as well—and in how such structures temporarily become a part of that piece.

Cruzamento can be seen as an updated “Monument for Every Situation,” which in addition to being flexible and mobile determines a temporary territory in the city, able to vary in size and place, but always incorporating all the levels of happenings taking place in this defined “ground.”

… Up until now a significant element of the city has been the short life of its architectural constructions. Like people who suddenly die in accidents, fragments of São Paulo’s architecture suddenly disappear; its population of buildings, houses, and districts undergoes a quicker transformation than the lifetime of any particular construction, and often faster than the change of one generation.

Unlike those who have experienced war—witnessing the complete destruction of a city, of a physical and supposedly enduring memory, giving way to an immense void—in São Paulo we experience the demolition and construction each and every day, as part of our everyday life. The city’s architecture blends the recent past with an unstable present—buildings from the 1920s to the 2000s are everywhere side by side, and new ones arise every week.

… The city can therefore be seen as a selective, particular, and subjective memory, a landscape with parts erased/forgotten, and others that are sustained by arbitrary reasons amid buildings of other eras and architectural styles.


Delta Font, 2003. Generative typography created by Angela Detanico and Rafael Lain (Caxias do Sul, Brazil, 1973, 1974). “Delta is a typeface that changes from person to person and from time to time. The original font design is transformed by several generative patterns applied randomly from user to user, creating a different typeface every time it is utilized. As in a delta, the fonts come from the same river, but follow different paths to different places [ … ] Like language, which flows from mind to mind, carrying images, feelings, and thoughts. Through its flow, it draws mental landscapes that change the way we relate to each other and to the world. It shows how our perspectives and horizons are changed by its incessant flow, how we do and do not step into the same river twice.”1

The inhabitants of São Paulo pass through its different times and spaces daily; the memory of the city lies in each person who lives in it and circulates through it, rather than in ruins or buildings. In this sense, a monument could be any small insertion into the day-to-day life of its inhabitants with the potential of enlarging their ways of perceiving reality and the city, and of representing history and memory. In ways as simple as imagining that some of the people who found golden screws embedded in the stones of Paulista Avenue will never again see the city in the same way.


1 / Angela Detanico, Rafael Lain, text on Delta Font, 2001.


“Săo Paulo: City Report,” Frieze, London (Summer 2007).


Paper presented at “Occasional Cities—Post-It Cities and Other Forms of Temporality,” Centre d’Art Santa Mònica, Barcelona, 2005 (unpublished).