Built in 1811, the Valongo Wharf in Rio de Janeiro has been buried many times throughout its history. One of the largest slave ports in the Americas, the area served as the entryway for more than half a million Africans held in bondage. It was literally covered up in 1843, when the bride of Brazil’s Portuguese emperor was set to arrive for a grand wedding, and then slowly covered with dirt and pavement over the following decades.
But when the infamous piers were unearthed by construction workers a few years ago, the rediscovery set off a fresh debate about how to memorialize Afro-Brazilian history. Designer Sara Zewde, who now works for Gustafson Guthrie Nichol in Seattle, found herself in the middle of a huge conversation about cultural preservation.
"They had no idea they’d find this pier so well preserved," says Dr. Elisa Larkin Nascimento, Director of the Afro-Brazilian Studies and Research Institute. "It’s important because it’s the only site in the Americas that has preserved the material remains of the structures where slaves arrived. We have the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York, but no other place has the physical remains of where the slaves arrived."
Zewde arrived in Rio in 2010, beginning a job as a planner for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy as Rio was beginning to figure out how to accommodate the World Cup and Summer Olympics. Projects were moving at a pace that would have been unbelievable in the United States, making the city an exciting place to learn about urban planning. She also thought, as an Ethiopian who grew up in Louisiana, she’d feel connected to African culture in Brazil. Little did she realize career and culture would come together in such a unique way.
One day at work, a coworker came across an article about the discovery of the Valongo Wharf. Construction workers building a new high-end waterfront development in a traditionally lower-class, Afro-Brazilian neighborhood—coyly titled Porto Maravilha (Marvelous Port) as a play of Rio’s nickname as the "Marvelous City"—unearthed the remains of the slave port while digging a sewage line. The discovery led activists, especially those in the Movimento Negro, the country’s Afro-Brazilian civil rights movement, to demand the area be memorialized. The Mayor, Eduardo Paes, agreed, and asked for proposals.
Zewde leapt at the chance, even returning to Rio after a short return to the United States to study landscape architecture at Harvard. The site’s varied history made an impression on her, and in a way, reminded her of her home. Growing up in Louisiana, with its own history of enslavement, offers a powerful place to think about those issues. In addition, the rush of development before the Olympics reminded her of the way New Orleans grew rapidly after Katrina; rampant construction and expansion, occasionally obscuring or overwriting sites with historical importance to the African diaspora.
She felt it was important to preserve the legacy of Valongo Wharf. But the impact of slavery demanded a different way of thinking about memorializing. Memorials in the context of architecture usually denote a singular event, something outside the norm. But for hundreds of years, slavery was the norm, and in many ways, the effects are still with us today. A wall with a list of names felt incomplete.
"The way we learn about architecture is rooted in particular culture of emotion, and breaking out of that is hard," she says. "There’s such a strong typology of a memorial. How do we reformat that? The way we’re trained doesn’t make it easier to design."
Zewde’s design for a public memorial and new landscape, which would redesign space along a public walkway about half a mile long, highlights cultural practices of the enslaved, such as capoeira, using circular patterns and creating spaces for gathering. Benches and shade trees, as well as a symbolic set of native plants (West Africa and Brazil have similar soil profiles and support similar species) become parts of a larger site that celebrates life and tradition.
"Memorial are often somber, quiet, and slow," she says. "This is the opposite. You’re supposed to sing and dance. That’s how you memorialize."
Zewde believes the proposal could be expanded to cover the entire neighborhood, since there’s so much history nearby, including a burial ground, and the site of a hospital used to rehabilitate slaves weakened by the overseas passage. But currently, only parts of her plan are being acted upon by the Rio government. While the mayor supports the plan, there’s been a holdup with the government’s cultural preservation department, even though, unlike American preservation organizations, they have the capital budget to begin construction. Zewde and her supporters have also submitted their plans to the for-profit group developing the area, but they’re said they don’t have time to implement them into the final design for Porto Maravilha.
According to Washington Fajardo, an architect and planner in Rio who works in the city’s heritage department and functions as a special advisor to the mayor, the design is excellent, but they’ll only be able to move forward on small interventions in the public space due to "problems of time and money," creating a circuit of spaces by the end of the year. Fajardo likes the design—as a curator of Brazil’s pavilion at the current Venice Biennale, he’s included it in his country’s display—and the way it has spurred a constructive dialogue on preserving Afro-Brazilian heritage. He sees this as part of a uniquely American challenge in preserving history and public space; with progressive changes in civil rights, how do you properly preserve the wider cultural heritage?
Despite setbacks, Zewde continues to push for a larger, more significant monument.
"When we started five years ago, August of this year was the big goal," says Zewde. "Since then, everyone’s expectations have changed. With the Mayor’s term ending, we’re slightly nervous about what happens after he leaves, so we’re trying to formalize a long-term plan."
Zewde realizes that the push to establish this memorial could go on for a while. In a way, she says, it’s been going on for more than 100 years, since Brazil abolished slavery in 1888. This could go on for a long time.