Can City by Studio Swine

São Paulo

22 October 2013

In Brazil around 2.1m aluminium cans are recycled every hour. In São Paulo much of this is accomplished by catadores, scrap metal merchants who scour the city's streets collecting cans dropped by São Paulo's 20m citizens.

This is the setting for Can City, a project begun earlier this year by the London-based designers Studio Swine. Invited to participate in a residency in São Paulo by the city's Coletivo Amor de Madre Gallery, Studio Swine's Azusa Murakami and Alexander Groves focused their attention on São Paulo's recycling infrastructure, the largest city in a nation that recycles 98 per cent of all its aluminium cans – the highest percentage in the world.

"We love looking at systems , which is what is exciting about cities," says Groves. "There are all these loose connections, so as a designer there’s a lot of potential to connect those up. One of the things we love is thinking about how design can retain a strong regional identity in a globalising world. Design can become a portrait of the raw materials and people and skills that are in a place."

Can City proposes a diversification of the role of the catadores who currently collect around 80 per cent of São Paulo's recycled aluminium. Murakami and Groves created a portable foundry that operates on vegetable oil collected from the city's myriad cafés and market stalls. Using this tool the catador is able to diversify his role from supplier to manufacturer, using the foundry to cast simple saleable products from scrap aluminium.

The project operates according to a similar ideology to the studio's earlier Sea Chair, a project that used a portable machine to create stools out of waste plastic scavenged from the sea. Yet Can City is in some way a more ambitious scheme, knitting together assorted elements of infrastructure from across São Paulo.

As well as utilising the catador network and the oil supply of São Paulo's cafés, Can City makes use of scrap material from the city's junkyards. The foundry itself is formed from broken down and abandoned machinery, jerry-rigged together by Groves and Murakami who were guided around São Paulo's industrial zones by a producer on the project, Anya Teixeira.

"In Brazil they call it gambiarra: making do and getting by by improvising designs on the street," says Groves. "It was one of those projects you can plan and plan and plan, creating designs for the furnace on the computer, but bringing it into reality is a really different thing. It was quite a chaotic process of visiting ginormous mountains of scrap metal and old industrial machines and making do with what you find there."

Just as the process behind Can City is imprinted with the identity of São Paulo, so too are the objects created by the foundry. Casting using sand moulds created from materials found at building sites, Groves and Murakami created a range of vernacular aluminium stools.

Each of the chairs' seats are moulded from objects common to the city – coiled electrical piping; palm fronds and wicker basket lids; broken up bricks and hubcaps dropped off the side of wheels. The items are formed to function as reminders of the city and circumstances in which they came to be.

"These items are gallery pieces in the sense that that’s where they've gone so far, but the process could be scaled up," says Groves. "The most exciting thing is making things real and there are plans to make this project larger scale. It’s definitely got legs as it were. These objects have been used as a starting point, but the idea is that it could be extended to cast anything."

With Studio Swine's residency in Brazil complete, Murakami and Groves will now travel to China, where they will continue to develop the project.

"It was designed with São Paulo in mind, but we think there could be applications elsewhere," says Groves. "China uses a massive amount of oil, because of its street food culture and it’s the same with cans. We were in China recently for a research visit and I was surprised to see a version of the catadores in China. They have bikes with trailers on the back that travel around collecting recyclable materials. Can City is very universal."