Ailton Krenak: “Instead of Operating in the Landscape, We Should Blend in With It”

Ailton Krenak is a renowned environmentalist, philosopher, writer, and poet who holds honorary doctorates from the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Federal University of Juiz de Fora. As an Indigenous leader, he played a pivotal role in advocating for Indigenous Rights, which were eventually enshrined in the 1988 Constitution of Brazil. His profound ideas have been disseminated through lectures, educational courses, and books, including notable works such as Ideas to Postpone the End of the World, Life is not Useful, and Ancestral Future.

Krenak has a unique talent for transforming his life experiences into profound concepts, which he conveys through oral and poetic language. His worldview blurs the boundaries between landscapes, human beings, animals, rivers, and mountains. He strongly advocates for a reassessment of our lifestyle, emphasizing the importance of 'breaking up the ground to allow the channeled waters to resurface.' On September 5th, he participated in a discussion in São Paulo during the Archtrends Summit 2023, organized by Portobello. During this event, he shared his insights on topics such as cities, forests, and the future of our planet.

Romullo Baratto (ArchDaily): Before I begin, I would like to thank you for the time you gave for this interview. I am sure our audience is eager to hear your insights.

Ailton Krenak: Occasionally, I feel surprised by people interested in my work in unexpected places. The possibility of working in different contexts has become common throughout my experience, so when someone is interested in an activity I do, I receive it as recognition. Because I know that there are, in literature, for example, people who write wonderfully well — and sometimes they write along their entire lives — and are only recognized much later.

RB: Your work may have a broad appeal because of your adept use of poetic language filled with vivid imagery. This linguistic approach enables people to connect with your message effortlessly. It fosters open communication without erecting barriers, facilitating important discussions on crucial topics, such as the environment.

AK: Many times I had to tell people that this does not exist. We are the medium and also the environment. It is fundamentally unnatural for humans to perceive the landscapes in which we dwell merely as tools or resources. This represents an extractive mindset. As long as we use language that portrays the world as something external to us, we will persist in endorsing extractive practices. This applies both to the Earth's biosphere and to the worlds we construct in our imaginations. Let's consider the possibility of developing alternative ways of inhabiting this world. If we continue to approach this task with the same mindset, our actions will remain extractive. We are trapped in this misunderstanding that engineering and hard sciences produced throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries and until now. This logic has influenced how we have constructed human settlements and engaged with the world.

In today's world, every human settlement, particularly in the Western world, tends to replicate its own established patterns. The materials used may change, but the underlying framework remains largely consistent. Take, for instance, a place like Dubai, which often touts its architecture as modern. It makes this claim because it perceives itself as part of a tradition. However, it embodies some of the least desirable aspects of tradition, which involve perpetuating colonialism and extractive practices. It is a form of mimicry where it appears that something new is being introduced, but in reality, it is a continuation of the extractive model. The question arises: How can we envision human settlements that coexist with other forms of life without expropriation?

Once, a Lama visiting Brazil shared a practice from his community: every morning, they would look at the ground to ensure there were no ants before taking a step. I was intrigued and asked, 'Why do you go to such lengths to avoid stepping on ants?' He replied, 'Of course! Why would we intentionally harm an ant?' I understand that this perspective on the world is non-extractive; it prioritizes not harming even the smallest creatures. Instead of stepping on an ant, you let it pass, and then you continue on your way.

RB: Scientific research on the environment and the climate crisis often warns that we are approaching a critical point of no return. This data suggests that if we take no action, humanity's existence on Earth could be in jeopardy in the foreseeable future. How do you view this information, and how does it align with your concept of a worldview?

AK: The warning of possibly reaching what experts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) call the 'point of no return' essentially signifies the potential cessation of Earth's ecosystem providing humans with the resources we have enjoyed for free until now – things like oxygen, water, and abundant prosperity. However, our mindset is deeply entrenched in a global capitalist economy, where we tend to assign value to everything, including essentials like air, water, and overall well-being. It is as if we feel the need to quantify the very experience of being alive.

The point of no return is when the planet's biosphere will stop giving us everything we have had so far for free, and then we will have to start paying, literally, with our lives, for everything we want.

I like to consider the possibility of something akin to a supernatural entity, resembling what James Lovelock termed the Gaia hypothesis. According to this theory, Earth could be seen as Gaia, a living organism endowed with a sense of humor and intelligence, rather than a static, lifeless platform. I believe that this living organism, which plays a pivotal role in maintaining the delicate balance of our ecosystem, might eventually cease to provide us with essential resources for free. Consequently, we would be compelled to confront the genuine costs of natural resources. In this perspective, the 'point of no return' wouldn't necessarily entail the abrupt extinction of the planet's biodiversity. Instead, it might lead us through the entire 21st century akin to slugs struggling on a scorching sidewalk. The slug does not perish, but it faces considerable difficulty moving forward.

RB: Not a pretty picture, is it?

AK: It's a terrible picture. Some individuals may prefer the concept of extinction, often referred to as the 'sixth extinction,' which implies the complete dismantling of the existing world order we've known, including erasing our oldest memories of Earth. The 'point of no return' would signify the moment when we no longer have any chance of thriving and must instead focus on mitigating the damage. We would enter an era primarily characterized by mitigation efforts.

When I wrote Ideas to Postpone the End of the World, I was addressing these very issues: ideas that could delay the immediate consequences of our actions but may not avert all the damage. We are perilously close to what the climate panel refers to as the 'point of no return.' In some ecosystems, such as the Amazon, we could potentially reach this critical point in as few as five years. If we persist in deforestation, burning, and degradation, the Amazon's ability to regenerate will diminish within that time frame, transforming it into a damaged and weakened ecosystem.

RB: You commented on the planet’s diversity, and I wanted to hear a little more about that. The Western idea that we are all the same does not consider the experience of life in which we are all different. How do you imagine the city for these differences? Can the forest teach the city something?

AK: I have been trying to find a suitable term to describe what we typically call 'cities.' I have chosen to refer to them as 'human settlements' because the word 'city' carries significant historical weight, conjuring images of places like Mecca, Athens, and Baghdad, which were established in ancient times – true cities. Throughout the ages, we have essentially been replicating this model. Many of our actions in the 21st century closely resemble those taken three or even four thousand years ago.

The question is: with so much technological development, why wasn't Sapiens able to invent something other than a cave, a bunker? A building made of iron, cement, and concrete is a cave. And a cave of bad taste. Can't we create permeable environments, where we can feel like we belong to spaces, instead of on top of spaces?

I have long been fascinated by Hélio Oiticica's ideas, parangolés and penetrables. Those ideas were very advanced for his time and were somewhat neglected. If people who deal with cities, architecture, and even engineering had paid more attention to Oiticica's statements, perhaps a true school of parangolé experiments, permeable and habitable, would have emerged that could no longer be a city. It's as if it were a forest becoming — something organic.

In São Paulo, I had a remarkable experience collaborating with the artist Bia Lessa. At the time, we were still grappling with the aftermath of the pandemic, which provided us with an opportunity to envision an extreme portrayal of urban decay in the city center. We imagined accelerating the dystopian narrative in Largo do Paissandú to the point of utter ruin, with buildings collapsing and people living in deplorable conditions. Once we reached the pinnacle of dystopia and devastation, we began working with the remaining structures—removing floors and walls from deteriorating buildings and retaining only their basic frameworks. We revitalized the area by planting vegetation, creating forests, and reintroducing wildlife, effectively converting it into a dedicated space for fostering organic life. We facilitated the emergence of concealed, directed water by excavating the ground, allowing it to nourish the surrounding environment.

We are departing from a state of dystopia and creating a utopian vision within what was once an urban ruin. This concept aligns with Paulo Tavares' idea of reimagining the city as a 'forest ruin.' If we view the city as a type of ruin, as I do, it naturally holds the potential to transform into an environment resembling a forest. Thus, it is possible to envision a forest coexisting within the city's urban structures. The question that arises is: why aren't other alternative developments allowed to emerge within this heavily surveilled urban space, which is, without doubt, one of the most closely monitored environments? It's observed meticulously in terms of health, behavior, and movement. This excessive surveillance has led to a stagnation of urban development over time, resulting in contemporary architecture that often bears a resemblance to structures from thousands of years ago.

Ailton Krenak: “Instead of Operating in the Landscape, We Should Blend in With It” - Image 2 of 4
Ailton Krenak at Archtrends Summit 2023. Photo © Guto Campos

RB: How can the concept of affective alliances, as discussed in your book Ancestral Future be effectively employed to create something that transcends conventional urban structures and contributes to the transformation of the city into a more forest-like environment?

AK: The idea of an emotional alliance is still perceived within a very human limit. This limit still concerns relationships between humans, admitting that they are diverse, and plural and that there are many possibilities for being human, but still within this limit. We should consider something closer to the tangible aspects of our world, beyond our personal preferences and comfort. If we only think about our comfort, we will quickly consume the rest of the planet.

RB: This is life in the Capitalocene.

AK: It is the capitalocene. It is necropolitics. In this harsh and competitive environment, affection finds little space to flourish. Building affective alliances becomes challenging in such a hostile setting. If we indeed reach the point of no return, as discussed earlier, the prospect of forming alliances may become unimaginable. Instead, we must shift our focus towards mitigating the damage. Some parts of our planet have already suffered, and we've worked to mend them.

It is a very eroded worldview: we, humans, are left looking like bubbles without the ability to form what we call affective alliances, which is precisely to affect each other to the point of producing in ourselves a different experience of being alive, other than reproducing the metropolises, the superstructures.

When I think about large cities and examine their infrastructure, it becomes nearly impossible for me to imagine significant change.

RB: Almost…

AK: I almost find it impossible. I ask myself: What will we do with so much stuff that used to be a mountain and has become rubble? While laboratories are working on converting construction waste into new building materials, these efforts are currently limited in scope, and a substantial amount of debris is still left unutilized.

Ain’t that it? Rubble, rubble, rubble. This situation not only results in economic losses but also causes harm to the local landscape. It functions as a burden that disrupts the environment by impeding vegetation growth, polluting nearby waters, and hindering the thriving of other organisms.

RB: It brought to mind the imagery invoked at the start of 'Ancestral Future': the river, weary of mistreatment, retreated to the depths, remaining there until it decided to resurface. What insights can architects and urban planners, individuals capable of envisioning solutions beyond replicating caves and millennia-old cities, draw from the behavior of rivers?

AK: How organisms like a river communicate is highly enigmatic. When a river vanishes, we perceive it as a loss. But for the river, it is a form of self-preservation. To glean lessons from it, we must move beyond a purely rational approach and undergo a shift in perspective. Instead of merely interacting with the landscape, we should strive to become one with it, forging a deeper connection.

RB: In a way, the Brazilian exhibition Terra at the Venice Architecture Biennale, curated by Gabriela de Matos and Paulo Tavares, seemed to draw inspiration from some of your ideas, suggesting that addressing certain present and future challenges requires a return to ancestral practices, as you've mentioned, involving a form of expansion. Were you aware of this project, and if so, what are your thoughts on their work?

Ailton Krenak: “Instead of Operating in the Landscape, We Should Blend in With It” - Image 4 of 4
Gallery "Lugares de origem, arquelogias do futuro". Photo © Rafa Jacinto / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo

AK: I came across their impressive project presented at the Biennale. The Brazilian Pavilion garnered considerable acclaim, offering a fresh perspective in our contemporary world filled with challenges. In the context of Europe, amidst conflicts and the climate crisis, Brazil's work seemed like a breath of fresh air and an opportunity to expand the perspectives of those responsible for shaping the world we will pass on to future generations.

Ancestral Future is a statement about the moment we are living in now. A declaration that our present experience articulates memories and experiences that put us in a favorable position to make changes.

If we grasp that the future has roots in our ancestral past, it becomes like a capsule that propels us forward. Yet, if we perceive the future solely as something that lies ahead, always beyond our reach, we run the risk of lagging, unable to keep up.

RB: In an interview with the curators, Gabriela says it is even “irresponsible” to think about this future prospectively because this does not propose any immediate movement to change ways of life.

AK: Exactly! It is arrogant to think we will deal with something yet to come. It is a guessing game. This idea of a prospective future, something ahead, does not make sense. If we can deal with the idea of the future, it should happen in the present, now.

ArchDaily thanks Portobello for facilitating the interview with Ailton Krenak during the Archtrends Summit 2023.

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Cite: Baratto, Romullo. "Ailton Krenak: “Instead of Operating in the Landscape, We Should Blend in With It”" [Ailton Krenak: "Em vez de operar na paisagem, devemos nos confundir com ela"] 16 Oct 2023. ArchDaily. (Trans. Simões, Diogo) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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