the politics of the windows

In March 2015, Brazilians inaugurated a new form of political protest: panelaços, or pot-bangings, from windows. On the night of March 8th, then-president Dilma Rousseff took the opportunity of her televised commemoration of International Women’s Day to comment on the economic crisis Brazil and much of the world was experiencing, also discussing the investigations of corruption at Petrobras [Brazil’s majority-state oil company]. However, the bangings on pots and pans—accompanied by shouts of Fora Dilma! Fora PT! [Out with Dilma! Out with the PT!], the honking of horns, and lights being flickered on and off—emitted from apartment windows throughout the country resonated further than the speech of the president, who had seen her popularity ratings drop since the protests of June 2013, but whose radical inversion in approval ratings was consolidated during that period, between December 2014 and March 2015.

That first wave of panelaços and window protests anticipated the action of the following Sunday, March 15, 2015, when millions of people opposing the Rousseff administration took to the streets calling for her impeachment, which would take place a year and three months later. At the time, various panelaços could be seen and heard from the windows of apartments in capitals across the country during pronouncements made by the former president, or during negative news reports against the government, usually when the Jornal Nacional [National News] aired on the Globo Network. On this same program, on March 16, 2015, eight days after the first panelaços, one day after the anti-Dilma protest, audio recordings made by then-Judge Sergio Moro were aired, alongside recorded comments on the panelaços made by Marisa Letícia Lula da Silva, wife of former president Lula, who died in 2017. In conversation with her son Fábio on the “paneleiros” of São Bernardo, she reported having heard noises “only from new buildings lived in by coxinhas [conservatives],” that cost “500,000 reais,” to which her son responded, “let them protest (…) they have their democratic rights.”

Since the 2014 presidential campaign, when the PT won by a small margin, a powerful opposition to the government had circulated in Brazil, particularly on social media networks. The democratization of access to cell phones with an internet connection and the expansion of users on these networks, particularly WhatsApp, were better used by right-wing politicians, some of whom emerged in the context of the 2013 demonstrations, having sold themselves at the time as non-political. Armed with the economic crisis, which was also fueled by the sabotage of congressmen, by the disclosures of the Judiciary combined with the press, in addition to private investments and tactics imported from foreign political strategists, new and powerful ways of gathering opponents of the government were created, rapidly expanding adherence to their diagnoses and prescriptions.

There had been right-wing demonstrations in Brazil since 2013, but the displays from the windows of middle-class condominiums performed something unprecedented. New political agents who were recently articulating (and becoming politicized) through platforms understood as virtual were enlisted over these networks to literally spill over into their private spaces, their apartments, where, equipped with basic noise-making instruments—pots and wooden spoons—they could create noise against the government. These actions, sounds, and images that echoed and amplified amongst high-rise buildings in large and medium-sized Brazilian cities were replicated to exhaustion on digital platforms, as well as by the traditional press, further expanding the herd effect that may have contributed, strategically, toward the massive participation in the street demonstrations that subsequently took place.

Brazilians became familiar with panelaços in the aftermath of the Argentinian economic crisis of 2001, when demonstrators protested by banging empty pots on the streets of Buenos Aires in reference to their state of impoverishment and even hunger. In Brazil, pot-bangers shouted from protected within their middle-class apartments—many of them built, financed, and acquired during PT mandates, which promoted state subsidies and incentives for civil construction—their income and employment stable until then. In this air space, from within their homes, it was possible to spill forth the universe of cell phones and computers and to sonically, visually, and physically encounter their most radical peers who, though they constituted at that moment a small portion of the residents of a building, block, or neighborhood, created a sense that they represented the majority.

This all seems to have been very well planned by right-wing politicians, who meticulously organized the window protests as fuel for street demonstrations. The pots were both the thermometer of and a device for political multiplication at a time when impeachment did not yet seem viable nor had the rise of fascism revealed itself as an electoral possibility on the horizon. The effects of the sounds that silenced President Dilma, on a symbolic day of women’s struggle and political resistance, are still felt today.

The panelaços were repeated several times that year and the following. However, it is worth mentioning that the right-wing demonstrations through the windows did not reverberate alone or without opposition. Since 2014, in many neighborhoods across the country, such as in downtown São Paulo, for example, home to a diverse electoral composition, city blocks have become veritable arenas, where residents vocalize slogans supporting opposing groups and political alignments. On August 23, 2019, panelaços were surprisingly taken up by opponents of Jair Bolsonaro’s administration during a national statement made by the current president. And even more recently, on March 18, 2020, quarantined residents resumed their window protests against the president, which they repeat nearly nightly around 8pm.

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For centuries, windows, verandas, and balconies have served as stages for political leaders, kings, popes, dictators, as well as for celebrities to relate (if at a distance and asymmetrically) with their subjects and fans. 1AVERMAERTE, Tom et al. (orgs.). Balcony. Venice: Elements of Architecture, 14. International Architecture Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia, 2014. Curated by Rem Koolhaas.

The gesture of placing flags, banners, or posters in windows publicly identifies a property with the political position of its residents. The window, or its metaphor, is the site from which one defeats their political adversary, the act of so-called “defenestration.” It is an element associated with the domestic and the civilian, but derived from military forts, for their ability to simultaneously enable protection, visualization, and attack. The first glass window dates back to the 2nd century in the Roman Empire; a material developed with the aim of reconciling isolation and light. One of the strategies most used by black blocks in street demonstrations is to break the doors and glass windows of bank branches, without looting anything. 2DI ROBILANT, Manferdo; MAAK, Niklas et al. (orgs.). Window. Venice: Elements of Architecture – 14. International Architecture Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia, 2014. Curated by Rem Koolhaas.

In the history of architecture, windows delimit the permitted and possible separation and opening between the internal and external worlds of buildings. There are certain specific situations, such as funerary temples, in which connection to the world of the living is considered unnecessary or even undesirable. This applies as well to theaters, cinemas, and many museums, for the control of light and preservation of artwork. Most constructions, however, assume outward opening(s) in different ways. If architecture is made beneath the paradigm of the human body, windows are the eyes. When they are not present, or are insufficient, the environment is considered claustrophobic, asphyxiating, gloomy. Windows are associated with life, light, ventilation, and filtering. 3COLOMINA, Beatriz. “X-ray Architecture: Illness as Metaphor”. Positions #0, 2008. “X-Screens: Röntgen Architecture”. e-flux journal #66, out. 2015. In bourgeois architecture, they are also a site of contemplation, providing a vista, a view on the world, a physical connection with it, even an escape for the imagination.

Johanees Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657-1659)

This membrane between domestic and public spheres, permeable but visible, materializes in the design of each type of window and its associated materials. While the opening to the outside world emerged in human dwellings as a shapeless opening or hole, such as an eye or a cavern, it has developed and consolidated itself as a rectangle. Through the rectangle is framed a section of what surrounds a building, a landscape that can be seen partially from the inside, and vice versa, as the life of those residing behind each window can be delineated for those who see from the outside through the borders of the respective window frames.

If the metaphor of the eye as a window onto the soul still circulates, even as cliché, so does that of painting and art as a window onto the world. Windows and paintings, the former as a moving reality and the latter as representation, are arranged on the inner surface of buildings. Here is where the history of architecture and the history of the visual arts meet, according to a similar procedure of framing against the wall. 4ARDUI, Olivia. “De corpos expostos: entre presença e representação”. In: ARDUI, Olivia, BRYAN-WILSON, Julia, PEDROSA, Adriano. Histórias da dança. Vol. 1: catálogo. São Paulo: MASP, 2020. Rectangular canvases were developed during the Italian Renaissance, when other possible, competing formats also emerged, including tondo (circular), widely used, for example, by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). Today, however, the rectangle remains hegemonic. Videos, in turn, also maintain a rectangular relationship with their scenes, the frames. All of architecture, even when in opposition, is also deeply marked by the paradigm of the right angle. Although mostly rectangular, like the supports of paintings and the environments in which they are inserted, windows are not neutral, nor are they equal. Windows are function but also form.

Luiz Zerbini, Copan (2010)

The windows of the Louvre’s back section were originally designed in wood and glass. It is known that João Artacho Jurado (1907-1983), the building’s architect, designed many of its windows in partnership with the Liceu de Artes e Ofícios [School of Arts and Crafts], especially those located on the main façades, which are often larger; the back areas stipulated more conventional, therefore cheaper, windows from the construction market of the time, even if these are generous compared to those on the current market. Some were recently replaced with authorization from the condominium by similar ones in painted white aluminum and glass. Companies often distribute special offers and information on the advantages of this update, citing greater protection from sound and the elements. The windows of the Louvre, both old and new, despite being generally the same size, alternate between two types, which accompany the apartments in the Pedro Américo block, in general, bedrooms and living rooms. Composed of four equal parts, in which the two central leaves can be opened, only the internal blinds [venezianas] of the bedrooms are covered by an external shutter [persiana], originally produced in iron by the Ferraretto company, which can also be reclined at 60º, allowing for an increase in light and ventilation while maintaining the intimacy they are intended to protect.

On the front façade of the Copan building, which covers the environments of the rooms of differently sized apartments, brises cover every window. But in the back, especially in block B, originally designed to house a hotel, they appear completely revealed. Divided into 20 rectangular parts of varying sizes, the windows designed by Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) in glass and steel have tilting upper pediments, which allow the environment to be ventilated even with the main leaves closed. The lower pediments are made of opaque glass to increase the lighting in the room without compromising privacy. Originally, apartments in blocks C to F had their laundry areas facing the back, so that more than half of the Copan’s rear façade is marked with masonry cobogós, which allow the space to be ventilated without exposing the laundry and cleaning areas. With the changes in the design for the building’s construction, several apartments in blocks E and F have their living and bedrooms facing the back, their views thus through the cobogós. Several changes, however, were made by residents; many opened windows to 110 cm from the floor, demolishing the upper part of the cobogós. In the kitchenettes with floor-to-ceiling windows, on the contrary, some built masonry up to the same height, creating a protection that reduces the feeling of vertigo, leaving the bricks in view from outside through the glass; finally, entire apartment walls, which create giant squares for those who see in from the outside, in latticed brickwork, where the kitchens and laundry areas are located. Unlike the Louvre, in which all bathrooms in the back apartments have windows facing the central span of the building, together with the laundry rooms, or the Copan, where most bathrooms either do not have a window or face the laundry areas protected by cobogós, both facing the living rooms and bedrooms, at the São Luiz Plaza the bathrooms and laundry areas are oriented towards the façades, something more common in popular building designs than in middle-class buildings.

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The Louvre building and the Copan were built in the 1950s, when mass communication migrated from radio to television. With this, ways of doing politics were radically changed, coming increasingly within the realm of publicists and image strategists. In Brazil, during the so-called New Republic, if we consider the period between the election of Fernando Collor de Melo and the coup against Dilma Rousseff in 2016, many of the political agreements during these administrations aimed at extending the mandatory allotted air time of each political coalition on television, fundamental to the electoral success of respective candidates. Since the 2018 election campaign, social networks have become the central media in politicians’ strategies for the management and circulation of information, be it factual or not. The centrality of communication migrated from television to computers and, above all, to cell phones.

Since the 1980s, in the context of the first cycle of neoliberalism and finance capital, the world experienced a boom in the construction of mirrored buildings; more recently, they are covered by more or less translucent surfaces, which have transformed buildings into boxes of reflection and light, aiming to make the window, in principle, obsolete. 5WISNIK, Guilherme. Dentro do nevoeiro. São Paulo: Ubu, 2018 Often in these projects there is no possibility to even open the membranes that cover them, controlling all light with internal blinds and curtains, the entire environment air-conditioned. In theory the window has been gradually overcome by continuous façades, glass curtains, which no longer frame anything, well in line with the anti-historical and relativistic spirit of post-modernism.

However, windows seem to reaffirm themselves as a structural device of contemporary representation politics. Even the most well-known system of one of the largest computer companies in the world is called Windows – whose classic background image is directly inspired by the framing of an idealized landscape; the same term is used on competing computer brands when users navigate overlapping rectangular surfaces. The Brazilian political protests of recent years were experienced through windows, virtual-real, which were often crossed through by the promise of a greater horizontality and symmetry between people and power, creating new paradigms of what is protest and participation, thus changing the equation of the country’s political forces. However, the window pre-dates the painting, and post-dates politics. This seems to be the organizing structure of its formal designs, with profound effects on the lives within and outside of the glass.

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This text was originally published in the book reds (museu do louvre pau-brazyl. 2020) and revised in June, 2021.

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  • 1
    AVERMAERTE, Tom et al. (orgs.). Balcony. Venice: Elements of Architecture, 14. International Architecture Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia, 2014. Curated by Rem Koolhaas.
  • 2
    DI ROBILANT, Manferdo; MAAK, Niklas et al. (orgs.). Window. Venice: Elements of Architecture – 14. International Architecture Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia, 2014. Curated by Rem Koolhaas.
  • 3
    COLOMINA, Beatriz. “X-ray Architecture: Illness as Metaphor”. Positions #0, 2008. “X-Screens: Röntgen Architecture”. e-flux journal #66, out. 2015.
  • 4
    ARDUI, Olivia. “De corpos expostos: entre presença e representação”. In: ARDUI, Olivia, BRYAN-WILSON, Julia, PEDROSA, Adriano. Histórias da dança. Vol. 1: catálogo. São Paulo: MASP, 2020.
  • 5
    WISNIK, Guilherme. Dentro do nevoeiro. São Paulo: Ubu, 2018

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