“(…) Thereby some brothers who were sent to this village, which is called Piratininga, arrived on 25th of January of the Year of the Lord 1554, and celebrated the first mass in an extremely poor and narrow lodge, on the day of Apostle Saint Paul’s conversion, thus dedicating it to him (…) The Indians built this lodge for our use. We have now demanded a bigger one to be built, and we are going to be its architects, with the sweat from our faces and the help of the Indians.”
(Padre José de Anchieta. Letters. From May to September 1555.)
São Paulo’s birth certificate is a letter.
In his epistles to the Society of Jesus in Rome, Priest José de Anchieta methodically narrates the day-to-day events of the newly founded São Paulo village. His letters are an extensive production, replete with reflections, concerns and questions that were often left unanswered. The inherent uncertainty of this type of correspondence, between two worlds so geographically distant from each other, highlights a fundamental element of this medium: composing a letter is, above all, to dialogue with oneself. To look at one’s own thoughts materialised into words, to witness the construction of something fleeting and intimate through a convention of language symbols, norms and laws, and ultimately to recognise oneself, almost narcissistically, in the reflection of what is written. A careful reading of Anchieta’s letters tells us more about the afflicted face of an Iberian, Christian man in the New World than about the Indian who perhaps never understood his world as new.
However, composing a letter is not only a narcissistic exercise. Submitting oneself to this type of writing implies an awareness and acceptance of a series of external factors, some of which are uncontrollable.
First of all, it implies the existence of a recipient to receive the letter, turning the letter into a double-sided mirror and a sort of dialectic construction locked in limbo, anticipating a conversation yet to happen.
It also implies the compliance with certain codes and norms that allow the correspondence to be delivered. And if language wasn’t a sufficient (excluding) convention there is also the need for stamps and money, and that the recipient has an officially recognised address.
Finally, to write and send a letter is to subject the message to a trajectory in the city. Similarly to a flâneur who wanders seduced by different routes, a letter is subject to other hands, voyeurs and the potential to be lost.
When reaching its final destination, the letter carries another dimension beyond the initial message. The limits of its paper sheets and envelope are now parallels and meridians of a new cartography of the city, that conveys the places, arrangements and hands that it has gone through. The moment in which the message reaches its recipient shows what it means to live together: a constant definition and negotiation between co-citizens in the urban environment under complex administrative and regulatory arrangements.
The letter does not start – or finish – at the time of its writing; it is a vector towards the future. It is not by chance that 400 years after Anchieta’s letter, the design of Brasília was also born as a letter.
By proposing the use of this language-form as a communication exercise between a group of professionals that think and act upon the city and the main representative of municipal authority, the exhibition Letters to the Mayor aims to place the city, with all its complex social-spatial networks, at the centre of the debate. The time of the exhibition, at the beginning of the electoral campaign to elect the new Mayor of São Paulo, means that it is inserted in a moment of (re)definition of strategies and expectations for the future of the metropolis. In order to maximise its impact on the realignment of objectives and to include the greatest number of voices, the show will co-occur with the seminar Open Letters, a series of discussions with agents that have been actively working on the structuring of a critical and propositional thought for the city. Fully aware of the reductive character of having to select from such a complex collection of voices, to ‘open letters’ to the public is, above all, an attempt to (re)activate desire as a transformational tool beyond the possible.
To talk to and about the city is also to reflect oneself on the desire to make and be the city.
São Paulo, 12th July 2016
Bruno de Almeida and Fernando Falcon