“Digital technologies can stimulate empathy”
Queer Eye Brazil host Guto Requena on urban design – and love
Guto Requena is one of Brazil’s most innovative architects. Natasha Berting chats to the Queer Eye Brazil host about how design and technology affect the way we build – and feel about – our cities
Guto Requena describes himself as being ‘obsessed’ with the relationship between design and technology.
This article was originally published by our friends at What Design Can Do, a platform about the social impact of design.
The founder of Estudio Guto Requena is known for creating spaces that blend the physical with the virtual and emotional, crafting ‘affective experiences’ that bring people together in unique and playful ways. Sustainability and ‘Brazilianness’ are two other essential aspects of Guto’s work, which spans everything from retail and residential architecture to urban furniture, lighting, immersive installations and even jewellery.
Though digital technologies play a massive part in his projects, what really sets them apart is the way they are used to plant seeds of empathy and connection, rather than as tools for convenience or productivity. Think, for example, of a dancing pavilion that reacts to its visitors; an interactive sculpture that celebrates LGBTQ+ stories; or a biophilic building that is teeming with life – both inside and outside its walls.
When Guto isn’t busy designing, you might find the São Paulo native teaching at universities around the world, or tinkering away with fellow tech enthusiasts at Juntxs, the research laboratory he founded together with his studio.
More recently, he has also taken up an exciting new role as one of the hosts of Queer Eye Brazil, a spinoff edition of the immensely popular US television series. Here, we talk to Guto about his creative journey so far, and how he has managed to build a thriving career out of pushing the envelope. He also spills the beans on a big move that’s coming up this year, and his best advice for the next generation of urban designers.
Q&A: Guto Requena
Hi Guto. First of all, I wanted to congratulate you on your recent milestone marking 15 years since you started Estudio Guto Requena. How did you celebrate?
Thank you so much. Well it’s been 15 years – it’s incredible. We decided to celebrate with an exhibition. It was an open studio. We occupied a very special house in the historic downtown of São Paulo, and added all these technological layers to it. So we added contemporary furniture, lighting and technologies, 3D printers, and some mock-ups of our product designs. We did a five-day event composed of lectures, a party, a brunch and this big exhibition.
On the second floor was a revision of the past 15 years: of the architecture, interior design, product design and installations we’ve done. And then downstairs we presented our new research, projects and products, including a new immersive installation which is called Emotional Stimulus.
It’s a very beautiful installation which invites six people to sit around a circular table. We plug different sensors into their body like brainwave sensors and heartbeat sensors, and then they listen to audio that connects them.
Emotional Stimulus invites us to reflect about very important issues in contemporary society: like racism, LGBTQ-phobia, ageism and the body in the city. So it’s a very architectural and urbanistic installation, but it’s also very dematerialised, because it’s basically six people sitting around the table. And then we have a projection on the table that paints, in real time, a collective painting that is a result of the emotional output that we collect through the sensors.
Looking back at your career, are there any projects that stand out as turning points or highlights?
There have been many projects from the heart in these 15 years. I could highlight the Dancing Pavilion in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the Olympic Games,which won the big prize at Prix Versailles. Also the urban installation called My Heart Beats Like Yours. And finally, the club we designed in Paris called Terminal 7.
I think the projects that move my heart the most are the ones where I use sensors to create spaces and experiences that talk about emotion and technology. So my big research comes through these notions of how we can use new digital technologies to invite people to smile, to stimulate empathy, and to look at each other.
Why was this so important to you?
This is the big question, right? I think somehow it’s an obsession. I think one of my favourite things is walking around the city and just observing people. I love seeing how people interact with each other and with the city. And seeing the power of architecture and urban furniture to make people come together.
It’s more urgent than ever that we design experiences that bring up feelings of empathy, love and collectiveness.Guto Requena
Somehow I think my obsession got stronger in the recent years, in this context of the extreme far-right president we had in Brazil. In an era of so much hatred, I think it’s more urgent than ever that we design experiences that bring up feelings of empathy, love and collectiveness. And I think the more that technology is being developed, the more we should pay attention and take care of these very important issues.
Has the pandemic changed the way you design?
Yes, the pandemic made us make a big revision concerning our values, and concerning different issues in design and architecture. I keep thinking, why do we need another chair? Right? Why another table? It made me consider what was really urgent and important, like the climate emergency.
One project I started during the pandemic is my own home, my apartment. We spent one year designing it and one year remodelling. It’s an iconic building from 1962 in São Paulo, and it made me reflect on some things. Since I couldn’t live in nature at the time, I decided to bring nature closer – bring it into my apartment. So I created a big urban jungle in the apartment. But it’s also a very automated and flexible apartment. I can open and close doors and curtains and interfaces that allow the rooms to be more collective or more individual. I can control everything using my voice, my phone or the keypads: the lights, air conditioning, curtains, video, and sound system. It’s been an interesting and intriguing experience to live in this environment that mixes nature with technology. And I think it’s part of an important reflection that I had during the pandemic.
We were so excited to see that you recently became one of the Fab Five in the Brazilian version of Queer Eye on Netflix. What made you decide to take on that project?
Yes. Oh, my God. Queer Eye Brazil. It’s been such a great journey, and an incredible experience. We shot the series in about four to five months. I accepted the job because I knew I would have the opportunity to step into different worlds. I was able to go to the suburbs and peripheries of Brazil and be inside the homes of people very different from my own bubble. So it was so much learning – and a lot of crying. I would love to invite you all to watch it. It’s in Portuguese, but there are English subtitles, and it talks about something that really matters in my work as an architect, which is the evolution of empathy.
So I love this show. I used to watch it when I was just a kid, and it changed my life. It was the first time I saw gay men empowered and hosting a popular show. And that was a revolution in my mind. It had a great impact on my life, for sure. So 20 years later, when I was invited to be part of the show, it was a big honour and a big challenge. In the end, I would say that I was transformed. It’s a reality show about transformation, but I feel that I’m the one that was transformed through this deep and emotional experience.
Queer Eye was the first time I saw gay men empowered and hosting a popular show. And that was a revolution in my mind.Guto Requena
What is something you learned from the experience of filming the series?
I learned more about paying attention to others. And how even small changes to our homes can change our sense of well-being. From better lighting and lay-out to adding colours and plants: simple and inexpensive ideas can have such a big impact on people’s lives.
Nest to your hosting duties and your studio projects, you also run Juntxs. Can you tell us more about ut?
Yes. So Juntxs Lab was a dream. Since I was a student in architecture, I always wanted to have a lead to investigate new technologies. So Juntxs is the place in my studio where we have computer scientists, hardware and software store experts. This is where we invite neuroscientists and psychologists to work with us on a specific project. So this is the area in my studio where he’s been developing in the past years urban experiments, immersive technologies, immersive experiences. So I can give you one practical example, which is the heartbeat sensor we often use in our projects. We used to order it from China. And now we found a way to develop our own hardware inside the Lab. It works much better, it’s cheaper and it’s locally made.
Since having this laboratory, I think our work as an architecture studio has become more provocative. It allows us to have a deeper understanding of these new technologies, and to create an ecosystem of researchers, other laboratories, universities, and other companies. So we are mapping and scanning what’s going on in Brazil and trying to create this atmosphere of innovation. It’s been such an incredible experience.
How do you stay inspired – and sane – with so much on your plate?
That’s a good question. So it’s very important for me to be offline as well, sometimes. That’s why I created this urban jungle in my home. This is the place where I can recharge and spend time with my family, which is my husband and my two dogs. So for me, it’s very important to find the balance between doing all this work and being with my family and being as close to nature as possible.
We also have an apartment in Lisbon now, and started a studio there, because my husband is Portuguese. So the idea is to spend more and more time between São Paulo and Lisbon. We are beginning some projects there, and in the future I really hope to impact and to have more clients in Europe.=
Any advice for aspiring architects in Brazil (and beyond)?
I would strongly recommend young architects and urban designers to get in touch more with programming. So learning the basics of interaction, working with arduino, and other technological interfaces. I think the more we get into programming, the more we understand the huge possibilities of designing this hybrid world. This is major and there is no way back.
What’s so good about this?
Guto Requena’s young life was marked by violence. He was once kidnapped for several days and later his father was brutally murdered for unknown reasons. However, he decided “that I was not going to look at darkness for the rest of my life, but instead at light”. We can all take inspiration from his story.
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This article was originally published by our friends at What Design Can Do, an international platform about the social impact of design.