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The Journeys In Between: On the Santa Teresa Tram

Part 2 Dissertation 2010
Tala Akkawi
Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL) | UK
For over 113 years trams have travelled round and round a track that connects a modernist valley with a colonial hill, Santa Teresa. Never faltering from its course, the tram travels through a space at each end steered by a loop. Contained here is a certain lyricism and poetry. I have used the dissertation to investigate this poetry to situate in my design proposal of a transport interchange in Rio de Janeiro.

Accompanying the primary understanding of the track as an inhabitable threshold are notions of journey and transience, of motion and experience, of living in a line and of different places including the liminal (the between).

The dissertation begins with an historical evaluation of the origins of the tramway, based on ritual and repetition. By investigating how its origins evolved and manifest today, we are provided with an insight to the overwhelming notion of place present at Santa Teresa. This was most evident during my experience in the journey; explained through a description of the system(s) and, therefore, the nature of the various experiences had by myself, local and tourist. Focus is placed on the everyday, with each situation explored using a combination of methods, such as film, personal accounts and photography, considering various fields, such as behavioural cognition, ethnography and sports. This uncovered a need to reconsider boundaries, augmented by the transient aspect of the tram leading an observer in the system to constantly re-distinguish. The quality of this journey, as distinct yet repetitive, brings about the idea of a recursive circularity. One that tends to stability (the everyday) as demonstrated by Heinz Von Foerster’s Eigenvalues and self-referential Ouroboros snakes.

The dissertation follows by materialising the analysis of this complex system into a moving model, based on the mechanism of an orrery. The machine provided an unexpected outcome – this was not a model of motion but a model for form, made evident through the projection of shadows and construction of spatial experiences. This ‘accident’ highlights a boundary of limitation to formal systems, where design requires a level of abstraction, of ideas and metaphors, in order to transcend the use of intuition.

Tala Akkawi

Tala Akkawi’s dissertation is based on very wide reading which has, in her writing, acquired a surprising coherence. It is concerned with the Santa Teresa tramway in Rio de Janeiro, and is rich in reference and information. There’s some delightful history with some very good historical drawings. But the key concept that emerges in Tala’s dissertation is the tramway (and its associated journey) as threshold and the in-betweenness associated with this.
Threshold, as Tala discusses it, is more than the crossing between 2 places. Tala reflects on thresholds, distinctions/boundaries and liminal states, as explored in several disciplines from anthropology to cybernetics to logic, which she uses to enrich understanding of the quality of the tram journey. It’s not just that the tram journey itself is liminal. The rails themselves, for instance, create distinctions which are enacted by travellers. The circular passage of the tramway is taken to indicate the recursion of self-reference: a concept central to current thinking in boundary logic (distinction drawing: the creation of thresholds and thus the liminal). The mechanics of distinction drawing leads to a notion of the ephemeral (seen as quasi liminal), but also of constructing the constant from the ephemeral, the stable end point of a recursion.
This appreciation allows Tala to give significance to and express the quality of the journey, and to consider a possible design response capitalising on the waiting, the liminal, the threshold inhabited offering the possibility for events to occur within events to fill in the “emptiness” of waiting, of being awkwardly in the in-between. She considers the tram interchange as a place of transition, the point being that the interchange is also a place in its own right (in the manner of the “space” of the thick wall of Mayan architecture, into which one must step as one transits between inside and out). Waiting becomes a positive act, not an empty interregnum.
I found myself intrigued by the mechanism and projection she uses to capture the nature of her understanding such that it begins to suggest form, and then variety.

Professor Ranulph Glanville
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