Interview: Jaime Lerner

Jaime Lerner is the celebrated thrice Mayor of the Brazilian city of Curitiba and twice governor of the state of Parana. Trained as an architect and then planner, he is famous for his acts of urban acupuncture, swift, decisive moves to fundamentally address transport, housing and planning issues. Now feted the world over for the success of his projects, I spoke to him about the origins of his ideas. 

You are an advocate of recycling came but it seemed to come from a desire to improve the standards of life in slums by keeping them clean. How did you first come to understand sustainability?
I’m obsessed with how to teach children about sustainability from the experience I had in my city with many many issues – we started always with the children. We’d teach the children how to separate garbage and they’d teach their parents. That’s why Curitiba has the highest rate of separation in the world. 70% of people do that. The idea is giving the children some way to help through a few commitments.New materials are important but its not enough, you can have a green building but you can’t imagine going from one green building to another one through a city that is not green.  On the concept of the city that we could be more effective. But you are most effective when you are relating to all the city.

You are now a darling of the environmental movement but how do you understand the word ‘sustainable’?
If a city has a good quality of life, it is sustainable. In other words if you want creativity cut one 0 from your budget. If you want sustainability, you have to cut two 0s from the budget.

[It wasn’t climate change] it was logic. First my house when I was a student of architecture, at the age of 23 years, I made a project and I made this house. I didn’t know it was sustainable but the roof had grass on it.  The fire place I use during the day and at night when I go to bed the wall is still warm.It came by logic. The idea of not wasting because one thing I like the most is silent architecture. Good architecture doesn’t have to cry ‘look at me’. That’s the difference between eco architecture and ego architecture.

Do you still consider yourself an architect?
I never stopped being an architect. I started to be a politician when I got involved in the city’s issue when I was a student. We had at that time a mayor who wanted widen the streets for cars and destroy the whole history of the city. With the students we made a whole movement for a plan. They made a preliminary plan, they contracted people from Europe and Sao Paolo and in the meantime, I’d finished my graduation and they needed someone and I was contracted by the city to be one of the architects. That’s why I became involved as the city. A few years after I was director of planning of the city, a few years after [in 1971] I became the mayor, but because of the political situation I was an appointed mayor at the time.

Did that give you political strength?
No, I was a weak mayor because I could be fired at any time. I could be fired the next day. The problem was that during the military regime they were trying always to fire me because they said I had a lot of communists in my team. It was true, so I was sure that the next week I would be fired. So I decided that whatever we did we had to work fast. I can see that people supported me. They started to believe in what is going on in the city. Every time the state politicians tried to move me, I had the support of people. During this four years of my first term I had the incredible luck to have great professionals in my team, idealistic people. They were a very young staff and I was 33 years old. I knew that we had to be fast. From the weakness of my position, I made a strength. And my motivation was to improve the life of the city. I had no idea to be a politician.

As Mayor of Curitiba, Lerner initiated a transport system to deal with the growing urban population. Lerner’s dedicated bus lanes and access platforms were a huge success

What was it like governing under the military junta?
The Governors appointed the mayors so mayors at that time had some technical background. I was chairman of the Institute of architects, I was president of the urban planning commission. So I had some technical background. Afterwards when I finished my first term I went back to my office. I never thought of being a politician again. I worked in many cities in the world and when I was teaching at Berkeley, California, I got again an invitation to be a mayor again [in 1979] four years after my first four year term-ended.

The New York Times said of Curitiba, ‘the city that has been called the most forward-looking in the Western hemisphere is an outgrowth of an era that many Brazilians prefer not to look back on.’ How did you feel to be invited back to Brazil at that time?
It was a surprise because in Berkeley I had a lot of friends who had run from the political problems. I told them I had this invitation and said, ‘what should I do?’ they said, ‘Go, Go, Go’. Because at that time the country showed an opening of the regime. So I went back and I remember my last class at Berkeley. I gave a tour with the students. One of the lecturers a great friend of mine Alan Jacobs , he said, now you don’t know you were toured around the city by the future mayor of Curitiba. I had a contract. I wanted to finish my time in Berkeley. The second term was also great motivation.

During the 1970s the population of Curitiba doubled, from 550,000 to more than one million people – the highest growth rate of all Brazilian capitals. Did this knowledge influence you to do anything differently in your second term?
I came back with the idea of establishing a grass roots movement. I went every night for 6 months to neighbourhoods and asked them what are your problems and what are your needs. After 6 months, I realised I’m not changing anything. I called my staff and said, it’s a shame we’re not doing anything. It’s time to understand that. We have to understand that strategy is a balance between needs and potentials. If I’m going every night I’ll be submerged by needs and needs and needs, and I won’t have time to think on futures, on the potentials of the situation. So I decided to work differently, every morning I went to another office and we worked on the potentials and in the afternoon I put on my mayors uniform and looked after needs. And there were a lot of needs.

The Botanical Garden in Curitiba. The south Brazilian city is on a floodplain: instead of building levees, Lerner chose to protect the city’s periphery with gardens and parks

Amid all this, you were implementing plans generated by the IPPUC, the Institute of Urban Research and Planning of Curitiba.You opted to purchase the floodplain in Curitiba and made parks on it and introduce sheep to the parks to keep the grass short. How did you find time to come up with these proposals?
There were riots and there were all kinds of problems. I went to listen to the needs but with another mood because I knew we were starting to change. That was a method I used. Not a methodology. I’m a very chaotic man but I know that in the mornings I have to work on the future and then in the afternoon on daily needs. But we have to keep this balance. If I’m just concentrating on needs I won’t change, if I work only from potentials I will be far from the people. That helped me a lot.

You stood for the Partido Democrático Trabalhista for the third term. The circumstances must have been quite different I imagine…
What did I finished my second term in 1983 and I went back to work. I went to many cities. Havana in Cuba, I went to Caracas. I went to many other cities to work and at that time we had elections in 1988. [A new constitution was established in 1988]. At that time the candidate from my party, he decided to quit because he was doing badly at the polls so they asked me to substitute for him 12 days before the election. 15 days before the election but on the last 3 days you can’t canvas. I decided to run and I won the elections in 12 days.

Your parents were Polish Jews born in L’viv who left for Brazil in the 1930s. What did they think of your political career?
I remember my father he didn’t like to have me in politics. So he asked me, ‘Are you going to run?’ And I said, I’ve just written a statement saying I’m not going to run but the anchorman of the TV was a friend of mine and he refused to read it. So he said, you will have to run. We made a meeting and my friend asked many friends there to help me to say ‘no’. So there was a lot of people in my office. All my friends helping say ‘no’ and a good friend of mine a psychiatrist he doesn’t know anything about politics he said to me, ‘I don’t know what party you belong to even but my feeling is that you have to think what is going to hurt you more. Running and losing? Or having the chance to win and not running?’ and I said ‘OK I’ll call my wife and said I’m going to run. Lets do it.’ And I won the elections. I won the election and there was a big difference between being elected and being appointed. You were stronger. You have a mandate.

You devised a system of a large central avenue dedicated to two-way rapid-bus traffic (flanked by slow lanes for cars making short local trips) and, a block over on each side, one-way avenues for fast car traffic. When you started the service, it transported 54,000 passengers daily and it now transports 2.5m people a day.
I was involved more and more with a city but we were able achieve these things because we were a team. My successor was a guy from my team and I was elected governor and re-elected. Together we won 6 elections in a row. After 2002 ok its time to leave.

Bigger cities like Bogota in Colombia have borrowed your idea for buses. The Chinese are looking at it for their inland provincial cities. It’s come to the attention of Europeans as well, through networks like the United Nations Environment Programme’s Climate Neutral Network. You still are clearly involved with city planning in a consultancy capacity…
I feel free to go to other cities and not have political meetings. But I have one party – the city. I think that the city is the last refuge of solidarity. So many countries they have a very pessimistic approach about cities. Many political decision makers they don’t take the city as being important. They see cities as part of the economic problem. The city is economic activities and human settlements, economy and people. Every time you separate economy from people you have a disaster. A city is a structure for living and working together.

A bust stop on Avenida Parana. Extended bus-stops allow passengers to enter the buses quickly

Many cities separate people into rich and poor. If you want a city that is human mix urban functions, mix incomes, mix religions, mix ages. London is a great city because of this. Many cities have rich ghettos or poor ghettos. You have people who are living outside the cities who work in the cities – what’s the big dfeal in living outside a city? I really believe the future is the city. It is said by many may important people and I agree that this is going to be the century of city. The more a country has a generous view of cities, the more generous view it has of its citizens.

What is the core of your working philosophy?
I’m obsessed about the idea of starting. You cannot have all the answers. If you are trying to wait for the answers you would never start so you have to have the courage to start. That’s all innovation is – starting. It’s like a trajectory. You start you have to give some space to people and they will correct you if you are not on the right track. So you don’t need to have all the answers. You can write a whole treatise on how to swim, move your arms and legs simultaneously, but at the moment you dive in the water, oh its so simple. When I was a teenager I used to read treatises about sex. A few years after I realised its not so difficult all you have to do is dive in.

How do you communicate that philosophy today?
There is one thing that I think is important. When I’m going to a city I ask the political decision makers, or politicians or just the inhabitants about their city.  They start with ‘the problem is education, health care, safety or whatever. After I’d say ‘yes, but what’s your dream?’ And some of the people that you talk to they don’t have a dream. The dream is solving the problem but this is not a dream. I’ve got so many answers though. From the governor of a city called Perm in Russia. Close to the Urals and Siberia beyond. This governor a wise man, and after when I asked him what his dream was he said, my dream is that the young people will want to stay in this city and not go to Moscow. Now that’s a dream.

Because a city that has a dream, and can transform that dream into a scenario that the majority can understand, they will help you to make it happen. What is the problem is the lacking of communication between decision makers and planners, planners and people, most of the planners think they have their whole life. First they want to to do  their Phd and then they have their whole life. But politicians have a mandate. He has to do something. I think many cities are making efforts but still they are taking too much time. That’s why I call what I’m working in ‘urban acupuncture’.

The Bossa Nova Park in Rio, which will feature a museum by Lerner.

What is urban acupuncture?
Sometime you can see a focal point and you work very fast and from this point you can create a new energy and you can help the whole process of planning. It’s not instead. It’s too help. It’s the same process as acupuncture. I realised after being the Mayor of Curitiba that this is what we did.  And with acupuncture, if you take too much time it will hurt you.

I’ve left politics and I’m working now with this idea. I have a small team and we’re going to some places and we stay there for 1-2 weeks and we do a charette with local planners or city planners or students or everyone. We listen to people and leave one or two ideas. If they like it, they can use it. If they don’t, there’s been no loss of time and no loss of money. We just charge for the trip and our fee. I don’t want to waste my time talking about big contracts. But I’m still working like crazy as an architect.

But you are also working on some more conventional projects too, aren’t you?
I’m doing a project for a park dedicated to Bossa Nova containing a museum. I was friendly with the people who made the history of Bossa Nova. All the poets and musicians. I was a great friend of theirs so I know the whole story. So now I’m going to do a project that tells the whole story. Bossa nova is the sound track of Rio.

The 1.3m-long Dockdock has been designed by Lerner as a publicly owned feeder vehicle for public transport.

I’m working also on the transport projects for the Olympics in Rio. I’m working on city projects on acupuncture but always acupuncture that is transmitted to architecture. It couldn’t be a better city for the Olympic Games because the landscape is fantastic so all they have to do is – they don’t need special effects. Nature is the special effect. They don’t need someone shooting an arrow.

Do you have a preference for particular modes of transport?
I don’t say which system of transport is best. It depends on the city but what I would say is that if you have a subway it should be a smart subway, if you have a bus you have to have a smart bus. Smart taxi. You have that. Smart bike, Velib in Paris that is beginning to happen. Smart car should be a car where you are not owning the car. I have designed a car and we have made the third prototpye. Next week I’m going to run my car in Rio. It’s the smallest car in the world. 60cm by 1m30cm. ¼ the size of the smart car.

Now I’m going to run the car in the city and see if there are people who are interested. Because I realise one thing, that I’m fascinated about the idea of quick changes. I don’t want to break records but I think you have to be fast. For many reasons: 1. To avoid your own bureaucracy. 2. Once the political decision is made, you have to do it fast or it becomes a family lunch on Sunday with everyone discussing everything. 3. To avoid your own insecurities. Because you have great ideas and then you start to worry. Or think. This is such a great idea – it can’t be mine. If your idea is not perfect, someone will do it better. It is more important to start down the road and meet that person. I am not a car designer or designer of street furniture. But I like the idea of low cost things.

Yet you worked as a Governor of the state from 1995 to 2002. Where you not able to work on a much bigger scale with a much bigger budget?
When I was Governor we organised the world games of nature in 1997. It was the only year that we don’t have world cups or olympics game. I realised that we had natural resources in my state, like the big waterfall. And a big hydroelectric plant, the biggest in the world. Where you can have the strongest example of the streght of man and nature. We organised in six months the world Games of Nature. We had 60 countries, and 120 TV channels. And I didn’t spend a cent in stadiums and arenas. It was nature. Ballooning, rafting, climbing everything in nature. It was an incredible success.

Curitiba's growing traffic problems. Evening rush hour along Av, Visconde de Guarapuava

And have you applied some of your ideas to other areas, other cities?
If you have a city, or a part of a city which is run down, it will take a lot of time to restore buildings. That’s why I designed a portable street. We had a place in Sao Paulo where no-one wants to live. It’s called Crackland in the city – it’s really sad seeing the kids there who are taking crack. During the day though there isn’t too much of a problem, because there’s a lot of people but at the night time the place is a mess. Despite being a vibrant place during the day no one wants to live there because it is abandoned to crack users in the evening. If you could bring street-life maybe the owners of the buildings will start to restore by themselves. So the idea was putting a portable street in the area on Friday night and moving it on Monday. We worked with this idea for 2 years. So now we are working on the portable street. It’s been really successful and now we are going to use it in Rio.

And abroad?
In New York I proposed colouring the steam that escapes from the subway on special days. It’s very easy to do. The city is not just traffic and buildings. It’s light, sound everything. I had a friend who was a great tuner of conversations. He was a great guy. If you start a bad story he moved it on. He was a good tuner. I like the idea of being a tuner of the city. In Brasilia you have a great formal example of modern architecture but the way people commute in and out of the city is chaos. It needs tuning.

There was a Japanese guy who came from Osaka to Curitiba. I didn’t know him because he didn’t speak portoguese and he didn’t have his professional certificate. But I hear that there was this Japanese gardener who knew everything. This guy he knew everything about gardens after I heard his story a few years after I invited him to be director of gardens at the city, then the secretary of environment in the city and then at the state level so he can make a park in two months. When I was relected so I called my team, and said would you want to take this position or that position again. Everyone would say ‘Thank you Mr. Mayor for your confidence. I’m very honoured that you have put your faith in me.’ So I called him up. His name was Hitoshi Nakamura and I said to him, I want you to be my Secretary of Environment, and he said, ‘Uh-huh’ and put the phone down. He’s a crazy man.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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One Response to Interview: Jaime Lerner

  1. gabriel says:

    lerner is a right-wing fellow who travels the world trying to sell his overestimated knowledge to city mayors unaware that he is just a fraud.

    He is aware that people like “third-world” pseudo-solutions for big-scaled social problems and use this as an advantage. His projects embody a vision in which the social conflict is nowhere to be found as he ignores the fact that we live in a highly segregated capitalist city. The result is that his projects end up forcing poor people moving to the distant city outskirts, strengthening gentrification processes.

    Curitiba is just a city with a very well-planned (and expensive) downtown and a lot of “satellite-cities”, in which live the very poor working class and where there is no planning or design.

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