Body and Spectacle: Architecture Moves to Brazilian Beats at SF Carnaval 2012

Watching their Carnaval float moving down Mission Street as part of San Francisco's massive annual parade, laden with dancers from the Brazilian troupe Sambaxé, accompanied by the vibrant beats of the Brazilian musical group Blocura and the powerful moves of the Brazilian ABADA Capoeira troupe, TV cameras rolling, people cheering from the sidewalks and the rooftops high above. . . It was a triumphant moment for CCA faculty member Sandra Vivanco and the 15 students in her Body and Spectacle course.

The Carnaval parade was the culmination of a semester of hard work and intensive collaboration -- not only among the CCA students, but also in coordination with a group of high school students enrolled in the Out of Site Youth Arts Center, the city of San Francisco, experts in construction and transportation, and beyond. The CCA course was offered under the auspices of Diversity Studies and attracted a correspondingly wide-ranging bunch, from Architecture and Interior Design to Graphic Design, Illustration, Fashion Design, and Painting/Drawing.

The students designed not only the Carnaval float structure, but also the costumes and props that made its appearance in the parade a real performance rather than just a potential site for one. They had done as much work as they could in the CCA shops, and then transported the pieces to Pier 40, where the city graciously donated space for final assembly.

Valences of Diversity

The sunny May 27 day of the parade was almost full month after the end of the semester, but that extra time was indispensable for wrapping up the project. "We started out in January with a general investigation of the origins of Carnaval as a cultural ritual," Vivanco recounts, "from its medieval beginnings in Europe to its diaspora around the world and its contemporary incarnations in Cuba, Brazil, and the United States. It is truly one of the world's most diverse events in terms of religion, culture, and geography.

"And the students were themselves diverse, not only ethnically but also in terms of their majors. So, everyone contributed according to their skill set. The Architecture and Interior Design students took the lead on the float building aspect. The Graphic Design students worked on the performing groups' identity and branding. Others worked on what we ended up calling 'performative objects' such as flags, banners, and costumes."

Multiple Scales of Production

The multiple scales of production made the project very real but also presented a major challenge. Vivanco explains: "There was the scale of the identity, for instance a logo or a costume worn by a single individual. The performative objects operated on a scale of two or three people. And the float itself was big -- bigger than anything any of the students had ever constructed before. It needed to look amazing from street level and also from above, where a large portion of the audience and TV cameras would be."

The kinetic aspect added complexity at every level. The float would need to move -- specifically, down a city street on a flatbed truck. And the students knew from the outset that it would eventually have a second, very different life as part of an installation at San Francisco's Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, where its function would transition to that of a central sculptural object organizing an exhibition on Latin American women architects.

(The exhibition opens on August 29, 2012, and is sponsored by the Mexican Consulate and the SF AIA as part of the month-long Architecture and the City Festival. CCA will host a panel discussion with the involved architects on September 24, 2012.)

"Architects definitely think of what they design as spaces that host bodies in movement. But the spaces themselves are not usually moving," explains Vivanco, regarding why this project was a completely new animal for the CCA students. "Creating sites for performances is a particular, specialized arena within architecture. And then there's the fact that this isn't just any performance, but a loud, colorful, brash performance. It's everything that iconic modern architecture is not! So they really needed to stretch their design vocabulary in all kinds of ways.

"But these very things, of course, are part of what it means to be an architect in a city. You simply can't control everything about how your space will be used. Maybe it will be used in a way that you never dreamed of. But a successfully designed space will be nimble enough to gain new meaning with each different use."

Materials, Design & Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Architecture student Chris Baas agrees: "This project had so much more complexity than the design itself. We had to quickly learn how to operate in the real world and not just on our computers. At times things got pretty hectic. We actually changed the materiality of the project from cardboard to plywood days before fabricating the pieces."

Interior Design student Kat VanCleave says, "I personally appreciated the opportunity to collaborate with the Architecture students, as these two careers are so closely linked. I learned so much about the strengths that other fields and their bodies of knowledge can bring to a design. We learned to work quickly and prioritize, while relying on others for the successful execution of our design. As students this type of collaboration can be extremely difficult, but it's ultimately one of the most important skills a designer can possess. Design is about collaboration and learning to communicate. It's about knowing when to compromise and knowing when to stick to your guns!"

Working with SF's Out of Site Youth Arts Center

The class had the benefit of many outside collaborators, most crucially a group of high school students enrolled in Out of Site Youth Arts Center, a nonprofit after-school arts program. Out of Site takes place on the campus of Lick-Wilmerding, a private high school in the Balboa Park neighborhood of San Francisco, but it only enrolls students from public high schools around the city. (The teachers are professional artists, and the students receive high school credit.) Participants in the program -- like CCA students -- enjoy access to state-of-the-art shop facilities at an institution with a strong Arts and Crafts tradition, whose student body is itself representative of many diverse populations.

Out of Site's program director is CCA alumna Raffaella Falchi (MArch 2007). Vivanco was her mentor and thesis advisor in graduate school, and then later her supporter in a grant she received through the Center for Art and Public Life to do work in Brazil. So they had been working together already for years, and this was their first formal collaboration as professional peers. They both hope it will be the first of many, as the combination felt like a natural fit for all involved.

"Part of the project brief for the CCA students was to act as mentors for the high-school students," says Falchi, "and it was such a valuable experience for everyone. They met every two weeks and presented their latest work to each other, formally and informally. I definitely noticed that my students stepped it up when they knew they'd be presenting to the CCA students. It was clear from how they were preparing and speaking that they realized they were operating in a new league."

Falchi recalls that even though the CCA students had their own ideas about design and concept -- and were in fact competing against one another to have their concepts accepted by the group as a whole -- they still struggled whenever possible to preserve the ideas of the high school students in the final design. "For instance the insertions of fabric into the waffle-cut plywood were an Out of Site contribution. They represent water, and the more abstract idea of flow."

Falchi also says that the experience of being on CCA's campus, and especially visiting the shop facilities, was amazing for the Out of Site students. "The Nave feels very grandiose, especially when you're standing in it for the first time! And when they got to use the spray booth, or the laser cutter, wow. If you've been mocking everything up by hand with X-acto knives, nothing is quite so awesome as the laser cutter."

CCA is grateful to all the individuals and organizations who contributed time, funds, and labor to make the Body and Spectacle Carnaval float a reality. The project was primarily funded by Out of Site Youth Arts Center, and partially by CCA as well as the Mexican Consulate. The final assembly took place at Pier 40 in a space donated by the City of San Francisco. Construction services were donated by the local contractor Barker O'Donoghue. Transportation was furnished by Mike O'Brien Trucking on Pier 96.