Gia Wolff and the Floating City

The night started with caipirinhas and gentle samba playing in the background. The mood set, we gathered to see Gia Wolff, winner of the first Wheelwright Prize in 2013, and learn about her research on Floating City: The Community-Based Architecture of Parade Floats. Wolff (MArch ’08) began by thanking her research team and family, who supported her while she tackled new territory: the social and physical mechanisms of parade float design. Although her ambitions were to compare parade floats globally, her research in Brazil alone has required the whole year. And next year, Wolff will look more comprehensively at the community relationships that make Carnaval Brazil possible.

Prior to traveling, Wolff contacted over one hundred strangers, twenty of whom she met on her first trip and five of whom “have become family.” This team has been instrumental for the project: Wolff relies on their knowledge to solicit information about the workings of parade floats, a ritual rooted in the cultural fabric of Brazil as well as a commercial enterprise. The Carnaval can be said to begin with the samba schools – nuclei where music, dancers, and floats take form. Samba schools are divided into first tier, second tier and third tier. First tier schools receive private and public funding to develop as many as 8 floats, while third tier floats have limited funding and generally do not parade in the Sambódromo, the main avenue. Although it is difficult, third tiers schools do have the potential to go up a tier. At Vila Olímpica, a community center housing Mangueira, one of the oldest top tier samba schools, as many as 6000 people, including 2000 foreigners, can participate. As we learned, both funding and pride are at stake in this competitive venture.

When Wolff learned that floats needed a stamp of approval by an architect or engineer, she looked for architectural drawings. Unfortunately, and understandably, locals are hesitant to reveal their secrets and approach to float design. Moreover, there is no precedent for publicly talking about the mechanics of parade floats or their development; rather, people want to see the parades as finished objects along the Sambódromo. In searching for the treasured drawings, Wolff explored float graveyards, interviewed craftsmen, and chased down floats throughout the city. Her hunt has taken her to surreal scenes – large voluptuous sculptures of women crashing into the streets, people using the streets as dressing rooms or Carnaval performers being lightly hoisted up by crane beasts. And try as she might to sneak a peek of these floats, they are hidden under tarps until the hour of performance.

The best place for Wolff to observe the spectacle directly was the Sambódromo Marquês de Sapucaí in Rio de Janeiro, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, where she could see the floats, or carros alegóricos (allegoric cars) tell their thematic stories. Punctuating her talk, videos of the performers in their saturated colors and billowing fabrics filled Piper auditorium with a rhythmic drum beat. Video may be the ideal medium for documenting the parade floats, which do not have fixed trajectories and centers. The map is always changing; “there is no way the map can ever be current when there are 96 floats moving through the city,” she said. The floats’ ephemeral architecture transforms the scale of cities and establishes hyperreality as the standard. As if they were figments of the imagination, floats transmogrify spaces from the absurd to the fantastic in a matter of seconds.

Rendering of Up Hill Down Hall
In the midst of conducting her research, Wolff has also been busy with her own interpretation of how architecture can perform and transform spaces as well as invite spectator to become performer. For Up Hill Down Hall in London’s Tate Modern, she created Canopy, which transformed Turbine Hall into a carnival space reminiscent of the Sambódromo.

Wolff also designed the exhibition EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean for the New Orleans’ Contemporary Arts Center. The exhibition, curated by Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson, invites the visitor along a path that is non-linear, non-directional and non-prescriptive. The spaces are dark and moody and force the visitor to navigate using the exhibition text lit in the background. These installations, building on her work in Brazil, have led Wolff to consider the staging of the city not only as academic research, but as her life’s work.

Read Gia Wolff’s blog posts about the Wheelwright project.

All photos courtesy of Gia Wolff unless otherwise indicated.
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One Response to Gia Wolff and the Floating City

  1. Arguably the carnival traditions started in (Catholic) Europe, but were mainly “limited” to people walking by foot, or, at the “highest” stilts. There were probably a few horse-drawn carts involved, but mainly to transports the city notabilities, rather than acting as “theme” cars. Since most streets in old world cities do not sport wide enough streets, floats like in Brazil are just not manageable. Also, unlike in Brazil, to my knowledge, there is only very limited funding, most money comes out of the private pockets of the carnival associations which generally do not compete on artistic grounds but rather bring out politically satirical themes plus throw a lot of sweets out onto the streets for the children to catch. So I wonder if the Brazilian floats actually have any “old world” predecessors in the true sense at all?

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