Bo Bardi and Poor Architecture

Such ideas were pushed to their limit in the work of Lina Bo Bardi, an Italian-born naturalized Brazilian, who had trained and worked in Italy in the office of Gio Ponti, and amongst other things documented the ruined condition of Italy's cities after the war. Her own office had been destroyed in an air raid in 1943. In Brazil she built little, but what she did build was outstanding. She was also the founder and first editor of the design magazine Habitat (1949-53), highly regarded outside Brazil, as well as the creator of the Museum of Popular Art of Bahia.27 Through her drawings, writing and her cultural activity, she made a more complete case than anyone else for an aesthetic of poverty. The two best-known projects both occupy crucial sites in Sao Paulo, and make an appeal to a collective social life, making public space as much a part of the building as concrete or glass.

Bo Bardi's Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo (masp) of 1957-68 sits opposite the Parque Trianon, midway along Avenida Paulista, then the financial heart of the city. With the exception of the park, it is an area that conspicuously lacks public space. One is either inside a building or part of the traffic of the avenue, symptomatic of an exclusionary system that, consciously or not, divides the worlds of work and non-work, wealth and poverty. The one big exception to this is the masp. It occupies four floors on some of the most densely built up and expensive real estate in Brazil. But it manages to occupy space without taking publicly accessible space away from the city. The means of doing this is a remarkable, probably unprecedented structure. The building is split horizontally in the middle, with the two lower floors - a temporary exhibition hall and

Lina Bo Bardi, masp, a restaurant - effectively below ground. These floors support a plat-Sa° ^Lila sketch, form, which forms a covered public square. Above that are two immense 1968' pre-stressed concrete beams each 70 metres in length, from which hang two further floors containing the main offices and the galleries of the main collection.

The public plaza is, unusually for Brazil, permanently open to the street. The huge span of the beams means it is unobstructed, although it is mostly shaded by the upper floors of the museum, no bad thing given the summer climate in the city. The plaza extends to the rear of the building, providing views of the city to the north. In a particularly hard urban environment, with few areas of public space, the masp is, and has always been, well used throughout the day. Aldo Van Eyck wrote after its construction that it was 'an amazing feat for the building is indeed both there and not there, giving back to the city as much space as it took from it. An impossible site if ever there was one - all the more so because it was destined to remain open - not built on.'28

Bo Bardi's sketches of masp before its completion show the sublimation of this public space. In one sketch done on 4 May 1965 in a faux-naif style, the plaza is depicted from the north, and is shown surrounded by

Masp Lina Bardi

Lina Bo Bardi, masp, Sao Paulo, 1968, with an anti-corruption protest, c. 1992.

vegetation; the strip of planting around its edges appears continuous with the Parque Trianon on the south side of the street. Meanwhile, the great Brutalist gallery recedes, to be replaced by what is in effect a children's playground. Where you expect to find sculptures are in fact slides and carousels. Bo Bardi's original treatment of the exhibition spaces continued the theme of public access to culture. She wrote:

The new museums should open their doors and let pure air and new light in . . . it is in this new social sense that the masp was conceived and directed specifically at uninformed, unintellectual, unprepared masses.29

The original concept for the exhibition spaces had the painting collection displayed on glass stands in the centre of the space; the usual arrangement of walls and partitions and the accompanying linear progression through museum space was abolished. At the same time, the uninterrupted curtain walls of the east and west fronts of the museum suggested the interpenetration of inside and outside spaces, as if the collection and its surroundings were no longer to be considered separate from each other, or the one valued any higher than the other. The effect was reminiscent of the famous image of André Malraux, de Gaulle's minister of culture, contemplating a vast, de-hierarchized array of photographs of sculpture for his book Le Musée imaginaire, a book Bo Bardi undoubtedly knew.30 Bo Bardi herself wrote of her antipathy to

Lina Bo Bardi, masp, Sao Paulo, interior with original arrangement of pictures, 1968.

traditional arrangements for viewing art: in the new setting 'pictures and public are liberated and free'; viewing pictures becomes a matter of choosing a dance partner; one approaches the work of art in the same way one chooses a dancing partner, as a meeting of equals rather than one in which one party has the upper hand.31

The masp project materializes a number of crucial ideas in Bo Bardi's thought. As an Italian immigrant, she had a formative experience between 1958 and 1963 living in Salvador in the north-eastern state of Bahia, one of the poorest of Brazil's cities and one with the highest Afro-Brazilian population. Partly as a result of that experience, she came to regard Brazil as essentially a childlike nation, undeveloped and naive by First World standards, but strong in this essential character.32 Crucial terms in Bo Bardi's

Lina Bo Bardi, sesc-Pompéia: site as factory before construction.

thought were 'happy', 'pretty', 'simple' and 'poor'. Her language now seems patronizing and neo-colonial. But equally, in using words like these she empathized with a version of Brazil normally kept from view by the authorities, except in carefully controlled circumstances. Her Bahia museum of popular art was thought subversive by the military, which occupied and closed it in 1964, and forced her to resign as director; she spent much of the subsequent decade away from both Brazil and architecture. At the same time her identification with the poor seemed to have something of the same exoticizing character seen in (for example) the 1959 movie Black Orpheus by Marcel Camus, a version of the Orpheus myth set in a Rio favela. Like Camus, Bo Bardi seemed to wish to keep Brazil in a state of attractive underdevelopment, perhaps because she herself had ways of escaping it. Her houses, such as the house built for herself and her husband Pietro in the luxuriant suburb of Morumbi that now houses her archive - are sophisticated exercises in a rustic modern style, calculatedly rough weekend houses for a client base that had enough wealth and sophistication to enjoy a bit of austerity.

These reservations apart, masp remains if nothing else an astonishing form, and its programme of public space is one of the most successful in the history of modern architecture. Like the Place Beaubourg in Paris or the Rockefeller Center in New York, this is a modern space that appears to be both well used and well liked. Even more extraordinary is Bo Bardi's last major building, the Servido Social do Comércio (sesc)-Pompéia (1977-86), a publicly funded arts and leisure co-operative in a post-industrial no-man's land. To describe the sesc as a leisure centre suggests something prosaic and functional, when it is neither. It is enormous, first of all - 16,500 square metres - the size of a large office building. It is by conventional standards perhaps the ugliest building in this book, deeply inelegant, awkward and brutally finished, with no apparent relation to its surroundings. This was all apparently intentional: Bo Bardi declared that she wanted the sesc to be 'even uglier than the masp'.33 But an extraordinary range of activities are possible in the centre, from theatre and art exhibitions to ceramics and metal-work classes to film, to swimming to aerobics. There are two swimming pools, a gym and a very cheap (and good) restaurant.

Lina Bo Bardi, sesc-Pompéia: site as factory before construction.

Sesc Pompei

But the most remarkable features are formal. The sesc occupies the site of a former brick factory, and reuses a number of low, functional brick structures from it. Then there are two towers housing the sports facilities. One deliberately recalls the demolished factory chimney, and has a crude construction in thick bands of concrete visible from afar - if anything, it looks cruder than the simple industrial structure to which it alludes. Bo Bardi wrote that its detailed design was left to the builders who themselves developed the look of the final structure, defined by plywood formwork sliding up the tower to provide room for 56 piled rings, each 1 metre in height. The cotton waste on the external face was used as a sealing element during the concreting phase and moulded the final lace effect of the surface.34

The other tower, containing swimming pools and other sports facilities, is a big cuboid of the same height as the water tower, and is characterized by strange irregularly shaped holes covered with metal grilles. These were made to provide natural ventilation, replacing the need for air conditioning, a technology that generally horrified the architect. Bo Bardi described the holes as 'prehistoric', turning the users of the building into temporary cave-dwellers.35 The sympathetic Catalan critic Eduardo Subirats has referred to the building's aesthetic of play, turning a space or work into a space of leisure. The original site was a site of hard manual labour, transformed into a space of creativity and relaxation. Subirats relates this explicitly to notions of poverty (see Rocha, cited at the outset) and to Johann Huizinga's notions of creativity and play from Homo Ludens, still fashionable on the libertarian left.36 Subirats and others therefore describe the sesc as a poetic transformation first and foremost, rather than one driven - as it would have been in the us - by a rational imperative, however superficial. Subirats defines the sesc as such:

It's a model of poetic intervention in a real situation . . . it defines a specific sense of civilizing architecture through the dignification of human life, through the active participation in collective processes of artistic communication, of the collective management of knowledge, of the collective creation of a collective identity.37

All Bo Bardi's work was justified in terms of 'poor architecture', which she related to her experience of living in the north-east:

I was looking for simple architecture, one that could immediately communicate that which in the past was known as 'monumental'. . . I made the most of my 5 years in the northeast of Brazil, a lesson

Brutalist Factory

Lina Bo Bardi, sesc-Pompeia, Säo Paulo, 1977. Concrete walkways linking the towers.

of popular experience, not as folkloric romanticism but as an experiment in simplification. By means of a popular experiment I arrived at what might be called Poor Architecture.38

Poor architecture, like those things, was the product of a privileged, but sympathetic, imagination: it is not simply touristic in that it does more than merely appropriate poor forms for rich use, as it were; it seeks some kind of engagement with, or identification with, poverty. Bo Bardi's perspective sketches of masp, for example, do not for the most part represent the typical visitors to a museum complex, the wealthy and the privileged; instead, she represents children, a section of society that she rhetorically blurs with the poor; children and the poor are for Bo Bardi in effect the same thing, simple, undeveloped, but natural people from

Lina Bo Bardi, sesc-Pompéia, Sao Paulo, detail, 1977. 'Prehistoric' holes.

whom civilization can and should learn. According to Roberto Conduru, poor architecture is materially poor 'yet rich in fantasy and inventions. It is a premise for a free and modern future that, together with the achievements of the most scientific practice, will retain at the beginning of a new civilization the values of a history full of hardships and poetry.'39 An architecture, in other words, that is mostly poor in a poetic sense, that holds poverty to be the locus of authentic culture. As society progresses, and becomes materially richer and more sophisticated, it has a moral obligation to remind itself of its origins. Something of this can be seen in the sesc-Pompéia, a building that symbolically exists outside modern time. In its harsh, but unmistakably modern, surroundings, its history is hard to disentangle. The new bits of the building in some ways look older than the refurbished old bits; like a castle or keep, the main tower might be medieval. Its strange window openings at first sight look as if they may be evidence of decay, and as the architect makes clear, they are technically a means of denying the rich world.40 The sesc-Pompéia takes the logic of Artigas's work as far as it may conceivably go in a monumental building. This is some achievement, and as virtually all critics are agreed, it supplies a set of remarkable, unique spatial experiences. But at the same time, it could not supply a model for mass housing as its author really wanted: it was far too individual and irrational for that.

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