The Eco-City That Didn’t Exist

Japhy Wilson

Film still from Brazil, 1985.

Film still from Brazil, 1985.

In a memorable scene in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) the hero visits a high-end restaurant. When his food is brought to him, he discovers to his horror that the material and phantasmatic dimensions of reality have drifted apart from each other, and the image of the delightful meal that he had selected from the menu now floats freely above the excremental mass upon his plate. Looking up, he can see that the same is the case for everyone else. But they seem oblivious to the fact and dig into their meals with gusto.

Something similar can be observed in the design studios of certain Ivy League universities and in the extravagant biennials of Europe’s finest cities, where fabulous urban imaginaries are ravenously consumed with scant regard for their relation to brute materiality. The following tale is told from the perspective of the protagonist in Brazil, looking across not a dining table but a drafting table to a distant jungle in which a gap has suddenly opened between an urban fantasy and the Real of Capital.

Enchanted Forest

The world of architectural design is far from having a monopoly on utopian illusions. The history of global capitalism is replete with entrepreneurial dreams and obsessive visions that have spectacularly collided with the realities that they deny. Natural resource frontiers have provided particularly fertile ground for such flights of fancy, filled with promises of unimaginable wealth and symbolically framed as exotic spaces that transcend the limitations of quotidian reality.

Of all such frontiers, the Amazon rainforest has proved exceptionally productive in this regard. Think of Fordlandia, Henry Ford’s abandoned jungle city in Brazil; or the Madeira-Mamoré Railway, which failed to open the Bolivian interior to inter-national trade despite multiple attempts and the sacrifice of thousands of workers to malaria and yellow fever; or Carlos Fitzcarrald’s idiosyncratic attempt to access an isolated Peruvian rubber reserve by transporting a steamship over a mountain, as immortalized in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982).

The most iconic of all Amazonian utopias, however, is surely El Dorado. In 1541, a gang of conquistadors set out from what is now the Ecuadorian capital of Quito in search of the fabled city of gold. Their fruitless quest led them down the Napo River to its confluence with the Amazon and ended with the accidental discovery of a transcontinental trade route to the Atlantic Ocean.

The promise of this route was never realized. In 2007, however, the newly elected president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, announced the construction of the Manta-Manaus multimodal transport corridor. Beginning in the Pacific port of Manta, the project traced the path of the conquistadors, crossing the Andes by road before transitioning to the Napo River at an intermodal port in the Ecuadorian Amazon and running downstream from there to the Brazilian industrial city of Manaus. The route would bypass the Panama Canal, cutting 20 days off the time it took Chinese components to reach assembly plants in Manaus and breaking Ecuador’s dependency on Amazonian oil reserves by integrating the country into a brave new world of so-called knowledge economies and global production networks.

Ironically, it was the booming oil price of the time that provided Correa with the resources to fund this fabulous scheme. By the end of 2014, most of the infrastructure for the Ecuadorian section of Manta-Manaus was in place, at a cost of over $1 billion. A new highway had been cut through the rainforest to
the previously isolated indigenous community of Providencia on the banks of the Napo River, where the intermodal port was under construction. Yet unbeknownst to this community, Providencia had also become the site of a spectacular urban experiment, drawn up at the desks of some of the most illustrious design schools in the world.

Full screen 45 wilson 8 pages from divining providencia 3

Economic strategy from Divining Providencia, 2013.

Full screen 45 wilson 2 pages from divining providencia 2

Manta-Manaus multimodal transport corridor.

Full screen 45 wilson pages from divining providencia

Providencia in the Manta-Manaus supply chain.

Full screen 45 wilson 9 pages from divining providencia 4

Providencia in the Manta-Manaus supply chain.

Full screen 45 wilson image 1

The opening of a new Pacific trade route.

The Subtraction Protocol

In 2008, an Ecuadorian architecture student named Santiago del Hierro began a design project at Yale University that sought to offset the environmental risks associated with Manta-Manaus by imagining possibilities for the sustainable urban planning of the port in Providencia. His project caught the attention of one of his professors, the critical urbanist Keller Easterling, who regarded the hubristic ambition and catastrophic ecological implications of Manta-Manaus as “beyond surpassing irony.”1

At the time, Easterling was developing an approach to architectural activism that she called “the subtraction protocol,” which sought to subvert the tendency for large-scale development projects to be captured by big money and corrupt politics, and to unleash an avalanche of unintended consequences.2 In contrast to architecture’s focus on construction as “the customary answer to most problems,” the subtraction protocol operates through the creation of “active forms that gradually ratchet or leverage both clearings and concentrations of development.”3 Activists are encouraged to deploy the same tools used by “political bullies who play dirty,” including “duplicity” and “hoax,” based on the premise that “it is sneakier when David never bothers to actually kill Goliath, if he can instead use the giant’s large size and many multipliers to … generate leverage against an intractable politics.”4

Easterling saw the urban planning of Providencia as an opportunity to put the subtraction protocol into practice, based on the design of an “active form” that could operate within and against the spatial dynamics of Manta-Manaus, in order to protect instead of deplete the rainforest surrounding the port.5 Her vision resonated with the South America Project (SAP), a group of architects and planners based at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design who feared that mega-projects like Manta-Manaus would accelerate the destruction of “fragile ecologies like the Amazon River basin.”6

One of the members of SAP at the time was Roger Sherman, then codirector of the cityLAB think tank at University of California, Los Angeles. Sherman was working on a book titled Fast-Forward Urbanism: Rethinking Architecture’s Engagement with the City (2011), which included a chapter by Easterling, and SAP was assembling “design teams throughout the [Amazon to] investigate low impact alternatives capable of integrating infrastructure with ecology, city and architecture.”7 Easterling’s project of subtraction was a perfect fit. Providencia was incorporated into SAP as one of its points of intervention, and del Hierro joined Sherman and his team on the speculative design for the new port city. Before long, del Hierro had secured funding from the local municipal and provincial governments, which were awash with the petrodollars of the oil boom. However, while Easterling’s unorthodox approach to urban activism was woven into Manta-Manaus, the subversive potential of the subtraction protocol was diluted by its synthesis with Sherman’s fast-forward urbanism, which endorses orthodox market mechanisms based on the conviction that “it is possible for architecture to be both critical and commercial, economically driven and political.”8

This conviction led Sherman to invite Greg Lindsay, coauthor of a brash manifesto of neoliberal urbanism titled Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next (2011), to design the economic strategy for Providencia. According to Lindsay, in an era of “frictionless competition”9 in which “humans aren’t bound by distance, but by time,”10 the proliferation of integrated transport systems means that “it’s possible to imagine a world capital in a place that was once an absolute backwater.”11 The radical urban transformation of “an absolute backwater” was precisely what the design team had in mind in their plan for Providencia, drafted in 2013 and titled Divining Providencia: Building a Bio-Cultural Capital for the Amazon. Following the principles of the subtraction protocol, the plan is designed to work with and against Manta-Manaus by hijacking its infrastructure for environmentally sustainable enterprise and reversing its dynamic of outward-oriented commodity flows into a concentration of commodity production in Providencia itself, transforming it from a mere container port into the “material, scientific, and commercial repository for the biodiversity of the entire basin.”12

According to Sherman, the greatest threat to this plan was posed by peasant farmers clearing jungle and claiming farmland along the new highway to Providencia. In his words, “the point is to get all those people off that land,” and “the town [itself] is a kind of hoax,” functioning to lure the landless peasants
into the city based on the promise of employment and the creation of a regional market at which “what they sell could be loaded onto trucks and sent to Asia.”13

Displacement and deforestation in Providencia, Ecuador, 2015.

Displacement and deforestation in Providencia, Ecuador, 2015.

Freshly cut roads of Sumak Ñambi, Ecuador, 2015.

Freshly cut roads of Sumak Ñambi, Ecuador, 2015.

Quixote in the Amazon

The plan set out in Divining Providencia thus deployed Easterling’s strategies of subtraction and active form, not in the subversion of the urban status quo, but in the reproduction of the fantasy space of the neoliberal eco-city. Furthermore, the strategy of hoax was mobilized, not as a means of beating power at its own game, as Easterling had intended, but as a mechanism for displacing peasant farmers from their land.

Fatefully, this plan was premised on the veracity of President Correa’s bombastic proclamations of the success of Manta-Manaus. In a speech at the launch of the interoceanic corridor on the banks of the Napo in 2011, for example, Correa had described it as “a great part of the country’s future,” “a powerful hub of national development,” and “the fulfilment of a dream.”14

In fact, by the time Divining Providencia was being drawn up, Manta-Manaus was already an abject failure. The company developing the Manta port had abandoned the project, and the new highway over the Andes was deserted and disintegrating.15 Worst of all, the Ecuadorian section of the Napo had turned out to be unnavigable for international commercial vessels. This stretch of the river is shallow and meandering, and its course is continually altered by silt washed down from the Andes. In 2010,
a study by the Inter-American Development Bank found that Manta-Manaus would require constant dredging, involving the annual movement of “over 15 million metric tonnes” of sediment, which would be technically complex, environmentally destructive, and “economically unsustainable.”16

Locals who knew the Napo had, from the beginning, mocked the idea that it could be navigated by large cargo vessels. One peasant farmer stated, “Fighting nature is impossible. I don’t know what studies and science can hope to achieve. They can clean it up and cut a channel if they like, but this river is a total rebel!”17 The intrinsic geographical unviability of the interoceanic corridor had been confirmed by the maiden voyage to Manaus in 2011, which Correa boarded with the defiant announcement that “if nature opposes our designs, we will fight against her and we will win.”18 After the publicity stunt had concluded, and Correa had disembarked, the barge turned the next bend in the river and became stranded on a sand bank, where it remained for five days.19 It never reached its destination.

To this day, not a single container has completed the journey from Manta to Manaus. The plan set out in Divining Providencia was therefore premised on the “sneaky” appropriation of the dynamics of a project that had no effective existence. The biggest hoax of all, in other words, had been played on the hoaxers themselves.

This, however, was the least of their problems. While Manta-Manaus had failed as an interoceanic corridor, its infrastructure was functioning to advance the expansion of the Ecuadorian oil frontier. In 2013, as Divining Providencia was being finalized, Correa announced the exploitation of Block 43, a rich and controversial oil field that is partly located within the highly biodiverse Yasuni National Park. With the completion of the new highway, Providencia became the closest point to Yasuni accessible by road and was rapidly transformed into the oil port for Block 43.

Oil-services companies bought up the riverbank to build a series of private ports, and a wave of speculation pushed the indigenous population off the land and accelerated the deforestation of the area. Meanwhile, Providencia remained with-out water or sanitation, despite the fact that the traffic in and out of its private ports had rendered the river water undrinkable. The privatization of the riverbank had also excluded the community from access to much of the river. Their dugout canoes now picked their way between immense diesel-spilling barges, beneath the towering steel ramparts of the oil ports, buffeted by the waves cast by speedboats carrying oil executives to and from the nearest airport in a city far upriver.

Things were not going according to plan for the design team of Divining Providencia. The real material dynamics of global capitalism had surged into this remote corner of the Amazon and obliterated their fantasy of a rational and harmonious commercial eco-city. Speaking from his plush office in Los Angeles, Sherman shook his head in horror at the news of the proliferating oil ports. “Oh God,” he said, “that’s not good. I get this looming sense that I’m going to be, you know, I’m going to realize that I was like Don Quixote, just kind of swinging at, tilting toward windmills.”20

Gensler, cityLAB/UCLA, Pontifica Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Uncovering Providencia exhibition, Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016.

Gensler, cityLAB/UCLA, Pontifica Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Uncovering Providencia exhibition, Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016.

The Gorgeous Road

In 2010, members of the Kichwa indigenous community of Providencia formed an association in preparation for the arrival of the highway. They called themselves Sumak Ñambi, the “Gorgeous Road,” a name that reflected the hopes of freedom and prosperity awakened by Manta-Manaus.

With the arrival of the road, however, the thatched wooden houses of Sumak Ñambi were quickly engulfed in a churning, roaring vortex of frenzied agglomeration. Confronted with its imminent dispossession, Sumak Ñambi decided that the best way to defend its claim to the land would be to create its own urban project, comprising 60 lots, a plaza, a cemetery, sports fields, and a meetinghouse—on 10 hectares of rainforest along the riverbank to the east of the container port. For this impoverished community, the realization of such an ambitious plan was seemingly impossible. In 2015, however, a shipping company offered to buy Sumak Ñambi’s riverside land to open another private port. The community made a counterproposal: in exchange for the lease of a space for the port, the company would cut and surface the roads for the town. Within two months the roads had been sliced through the jungle, with the felled trees providing the wood for the construction of the houses. Every weekend members of Sumak Ñambi gathered in minga (collective community labor), and the town began to take form. In the words of the president of the community, “We were happy to be realizing our project.”21

The response of the state was swift and uncompromising. As soon as it had been informed of the situation, the municipal government imposed a legal order that halted construction and prevented any further development of the site. The municipality was still financing the project outlined in Divining Providencia, and Sumak Ñambi’s town was being constructed on land that had been designated as a sustainable industrial park for the eco-products of the Amazon. The absurdity of the situation, of course, was that the Napo was not commercially navigable, Providencia had become a de facto oil port, and the twin fantasies of Manta-Manaus and Divining Providencia already lay in ruins. The humble utopia of Sumak Ñambi was therefore being canceled by a dream that would never be realized. The irony ran deeper still. By hijacking the accumulative logic of capital for the financing of an autonomous urban project that subverted the schemes of the state, Sumak Ñambi had come to embody the very principles on which Divining Providencia had been based, demonstrating how, in Easterling’s own words, “the spectacular failures and powers of infrastructure space [can] inspire nothing less than a different organ of design.”22 Indeed, Sumak Ñambi represented a far more successful actualization of this project than Divining Providencia itself, which had been reduced to a parody of precisely the kind of “self-congratulatory or redemptive master-plan” that the subtraction protocol had been designed to undermine.23

By this time, Easterling had moved on to other things. Sherman, however, was now employed by Gensler, the biggest architecture company in the world, and the team behind Divining Providencia had been selected to exhibit at the Venice and Rotterdam architecture biennials of 2016 under the title Uncovering Providencia. In a blog on the company website celebrating the installations, Sherman describes Providencia as “a new port town … that is an innovative model of sustainable development. Its design is not just environmentally progressive, but socially and economically as well… . [It] draw[s] upon indigenous skills and knowledge—raising the standard of living for those peoples in the process.”24 Sherman then goes on to explain the layout of the installations at the two biennials. Like the restaurant scene in Brazil, in which the fantasy image of the meal floats free from the repulsive mass upon the plate, the urban fantasy of Divining Providencia is detached from the brutal materiality of Providencia itself and projected onto the alternative reality of a table in a luxury restaurant:

At Rotterdam … a dining table calls attention to the worldwide consumption of resources, telling through its place settings, plates, glasses and serving dishes how the design [of Providencia] harnesses the shipping trade to instigate local means of production and improve living conditions. Chairs at the table invite spectators … to linger and “digest” the project through text, pictures and maps. A tablecloth delineates global trade routes … as they pass through the Amazon and Providencia in particular.

At Venice, the dining table becomes interactive, comprised of five distinct, but repeating layers of information about the project… . Each layer is sub-divided into a tiled grid of “placemats” available for gallery goers to tear off and take with them as souvenirs of their “visit” to Providencia.25

Meanwhile, amid an avalanche of oil infrastructures on the other side of the world, an impoverished indigenous community struggled against its dispossession in the name of this fictitious scheme. As Gilles Deleuze once observed: “If you are caught in another’s dream, you’re fucked.”26

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1