Brazil Builds and History

The Grande Hotel at Ouro Preto was a small building in a remote location. Part of the reason it assumed such importance was its presence in a remarkable exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1943: Brazil Builds: Architecture New and Old, 1642-1942. Curated by the museum's co-director Philip Goodwin, himself an architect, with photographs by G. E. Kidder-Smith, it was vital in reinforcing the idea of Brazil as a modern nation, and the architectural careers of Costa and Niemeyer in particular.30 Its impact in Brazil was considerable, too, moma, Brazil Builds, cover, 1943.

aided by the production of the catalogue in a bilingual edition (the Portuguese title was Construgao Brasileira). For the Modernist critic Mario de Andrade, writing in 1943, the importance of the exhibition could not be overstated:

I believe it is one of the richest gestures the usa has yet made in relation to us, the Brazilians. It gives us confidence, diminishes the disastrous inferiority complex that we have, gives us consciousness of our normality, and makes us realize that we have modern architecture of the most advanced kind in the world.31

Luis Nunes, Olinda water tower, 1937. Reproduced in Brazil Builds.

In terms of its impact, Brazil Builds was a critical event of the same order as the realization of Brasilia.32

With good reason, the critics of the exhibition, both at the time of its production and subsequently, have tended to emphasize the remarkable new architecture produced by Niemeyer and his circle. This interpretation has tended to overshadow the fact that the exhibition was as much an argument about the past as the new. Specifically, it juxtaposes Brazilian architecture of the early colonial period with the contemporary, making a series of highly rhetorical comparisons through the medium of photography.

There is a particularly suggestive spread on page 158 of the catalogue. It depicts a Modernist water tower in the colonial city of Olinda in the state of Pernambuco, north-eastern Brazil. Now a de facto suburb of the adjoining, much larger, city of Recife, it is of similar historical importance to Ouro Preto, and is another unesco World Heritage Site. Kidder-Smith's photograph, taken in 1942, depicts the Alto da Se, the town's central square, which occupies a distinctive site at the highest point of the town. There are spectacular views of Recife and the Atlantic coast from here. The photograph depicts the tower, built in 1937 by the radical young Recife architect Luis Nunes, rising to six storeys above the square. An exceedingly plain building, it is built of camboge or pierced concrete blocks. The ground floor is left open (for dancing, apparently) with the upper storeys raised up on pilotis. Although made of concrete, in image, Kidder-Smith emphasizes its graph-paper-like qualities; its construction notwithstanding, it resembles early Mies buildings in its formal restraint. Kidder-Smith's photograph has it in bright sunshine, and it has perhaps burnt out slightly too, so any details are removed. The photograph depicts it surrounded by a group of colonial buildings - to the right, the squat, Baroque Igreja da Se, to the left a large house. There is a mature tree on the far right framing the church. The building itself is uncompromising and plain, daringly brutal, as Lauro Cavalcanti has described. It does not seek any 'structural similarity nor dialectical relation between future and past'. It is a 'monolith, announcing new times'.33

Yet this is not precisely what is communicated by the image. Nunes's tower is framed picturesquely by the surroundings. It rises above them, but its delicacy and purity mean that it does not dominate them; indeed, the church and the tower have equal billing, more or less. And there is a formal comparison too, the verticals of the church tower emphasized by the water tower, while the white line of the third floor is continued by the projecting cornice of the house. Investigate further and other comparisons begin to suggest themselves. As Goodwin notes - in fact it is the only thing he says about it - the tower is highly illusionistic, its utilitarian appearance disguising the fact that only a part of it is used as a storage tank. And in the image, its scale is quite uncertain. By burning out the details, Kidder-Smith plays up the fact that it could read as a 30-storey slab block. These things suggest a connection with the Baroque, which is illusionistic if nothing else. In other words, the dialectic between past and present is strongly here in the image, whatever the aims of the architect.

Brazil Builds presents colonial architecture as a kind of proto-Modernism: austere, site-specific, using local materials and techniques, fit for purpose. Hence - consistent with Costa and Freyre - the enthusiasm for the casa grande, the form most amenable to this Modernist revisionism. The Fazenda Vassouras, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, is a simple square mass on a huge monumental terrace, barely decorated outside, but housing some spectacularly florid interiors. The Fazenda Colubande, in

Fazenda Vassouras, from Brazil Builds.


Säo Gon^alo, state of Rio de Janeiro, is an austere, horizontal building, with a grand terrace affording a splendid view - a prototype Grande Hotel.34 The Fazenda Garcia, near Petropolis in the mountains in the state of Rio de Janeiro, is a simple house built into a steep forest hillside, almost inseparable from its forest surroundings.35 Besides the fazendas, there are discussions of forts and industrial buildings, and a great many colonial

Fazenda Garcia, from Brazil Builds.

churches. Lricio Costa's Museum of the Missions, in Sao Miguel das Miss5es in the far southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, built in 1937 from the ruins of an eighteenth-century church, is represented, notably, within the historic part of the catalogue: a 'simple, glass-walled building' that 'provides a pleasantly non-competitive background for the brilliantly arranged sculpture.36 In each case, however, historic buildings are selected to represent the Modernist argument; the colonial is powerfully represented as a prototype Modern, austere, simple, logical and sculptural.

However, Brazil's historic architecture can only be understood as a precursor of Modernism if it is also primitive. Brazil Builds demands that it be primitive in order to be authentic, drawing on by then well-established models in other areas of the visual arts. In painting and sculpture, primitivism was, by 1943, ubiquitous, and moma had played a large part in its propagation. moma's landmark exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art (1936) was the first large-scale attempt to codify abstraction in art, and it did so by referring to so-called primitive art from sub-Saharan Africa. The exhibition catalogue, written by the museum's young director, Alfred H.

Barr, included a famous diagram that showed a direct lineage to 'primitive' work.37 The cult of primitivism is equally well represented in Brazil Builds. Its historic buildings are those that are easily recuperated into a primitivist paradigm: without exception, they are simple, robust and austere, just like the Modernist buildings they supposedly prefigure.

Goodwin's view is notably inclusive. But it also clearly excludes much from its understanding of Modernism. It disparages most of the contemporary fabric of Brazil's big cities. It has little to say about Sao Paulo, for example, then overtaking Rio as the country's largest commercial and cultural capital. It ignores the gargantuan Edificio Martinelli in that city, a skyscraper the equal of anything in New York, built in 1929 in the style of an over-scaled Renaissance palazzo. In Rio, Goodwin can complain only about the modern development along the Avenida Rio Branco, for example, development that turned a small colonial town into a version of Second Empire Paris, complete with the technological infrastructure (the paved roads, the street lighting, the trams, the elevators) that made such a vision of modernity possible. Neither does he say anything about Belo Horizonte, a new city designed from scratch by the planner Aarao Reis between 1893 and 1897, whose vast grid and ambition already strongly recalled Chicago. The extraordinary and now justly celebrated Teatro Amazonas in Manaus is dismissed as 'academic correctness' and 'sterility'; it is not 'living, breathing architecture.38

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