The Architecture of the Paulista School

Artigas's uncompromising political rhetoric achieved material form in most privileged spaces - private villas, sports clubs and university buildings - but their architectural programme can nearly always be read as an illustration of a rhetorical point. Interiors were kept as open as possible, in which (as Hugo Segawa has described) 'traditional hierarchies of use and sociality' were abolished, so that 'shared spaces were elevated in importance, while private areas were kept as compact as possible.'21 There was also superficially less emphasis on luxury - these were tough and uncompromising spaces that made a point of revealing the amount of labour that had gone into their construction.22

The Casa Elza Berquo in Sao Paulo (1967) is a good example of Artigas's principles in built form. The origins of the house are themselves highly political. The military coup of 1964 landed Artigas in prison as a security risk, and although he was released after twelve days, he remained under suspicion by the authorities until 1966 when all charges against him were dropped. It was during this period of surveillance that he was offered the commission by Berquo and her husband Rubens Murilo Marques, both academics at the University of Sao Paulo. She was evidently an understanding client. When Artigas enquired if she was sure - did she really want him to design a house from his cell? - Berquo replied that she was quite happy to take him on as 'architect-prisoner'.23 In the end, Artigas stayed out of jail, and the house was built as planned.

Vilanova Artigas, Casa Elza Berquó, Sao Paulo, 1967, sketch.

The house nevertheless has allegorical aspects that refer directly to its origins. The house itself comprises a concrete box, held up by nothing more than four tree trunks. Internally, a hole is cut in the roof allowing light to penetrate. In this light-filled space, defined horizontally by the four trunks, a small tropical garden flourishes. The weight of the roof and the unlikeliness of the trunks produced an allegorical contrast. Artigas's choice of deliberately poor materials to support the house's most fundamental structure was an ironic commentary on Brazil's development. He stated:

this technology of reinforced concrete, which allows this splendid architecture to be made, is no more than an incurable stupidity in respect of the contemporary political situation.24

The Casa Berquo is an ironic commentary on Brazil's modernization: the modernity of its roof is supported by the oldest and crudest of building technologies, as if to say that Brazil's own modernity is no more than superficial, and that it is likely to collapse at any moment.25 Aspects of this house, as contemporary photographs of it make clear, speak of a life of some luxury. It occupies a secluded plot, surrounded by the high fences and enormous trees typical of a high-end Sao Paulo suburb. The view of the rear of the house shows its cantilevered roof jutting out over a beautiful pool, like a tiled version of a Color Field painting, while the casually arranged tables and chairs suggest a languid sociability. The interior, with the trees clearly visible, is full of interesting places to sit and things to look at. It is all done out in the best possible taste. At the same time, the higher-resolution images show the roughness of the concrete surfaces, with the traces of the wooden formwork clearly visible, a technique still unfamiliar in a domestic setting. Around the

Pilar Com Tronco Arvore

Vilanova Artigas, Casa Elza Berquó, Sao Paulo, 1967, interior.

roof, great concrete panels hang down in a scarcely credible manner, like concrete curtains. Overall, the house has the precariousness of a tent -it is little more than a concrete canopy held up by sticks, and at ground level the interior and exterior spaces blur, rhetorically and in actuality, into each other.

A much larger instance of the same allegorical structure can be found at Artigas's building for fau-usp of 1961-9. This is a very large, reinforced concrete, horizontal pavilion, rising to about four storeys; the surfaces are again exceptionally rough. It has a massive, light-filled atrium covered with glass, and it is open to the elements at ground level. It is held up by columns of improbable lightness, which suggest the idea that materiality cannot be transcended. They taper in the middle, creating an apparent structural weakness. Not only that but the upper storeys of the building are rhetorically exaggerated in mass. Windowless, they cantilever out all around the building, as if more than half of this already massive structure rests on these comically insufficient stalks. It looks as if it has a duty to fall down. But it suggests, as Adrian Forty has written, a 'strategy' for building in Latin America, combining a simple technology

Vilanova Artigas, Casa Elza Berquó, Sao Paulo, 1967, interior.

Vilanova Artigas, Casa Elza Berquó, Sao Paulo, 1967.

Vilanova Artigas, fau-usp, Sao Paulo, 1961-9.

Vilanova Artigas, fau-usp, Sao Paulo, detail, 1961-9.

(concrete) with unskilled labour, the latter a resource that Brazil is supposed to have in abundance.26

In reality, fau-usp is as technically sophisticated as any building of the time, with huge spans describing equally huge voids. It is also notoriously expensive to maintain. But it articulates on a large scale the aesthetics of poverty; an allegory of underdevelopment informed by Marxist political beliefs, it looks poor even if in reality it is not. Unlike Niemeyer's Modernism, its intent is desublimatory. It does not, in other words, seek to lift one out of the everyday world, to achieve a sense of the Surrealist merveilleux or have any other transcendent experience. Quite the reverse: it seeks to bring one down to earth, to remind one of the limits of everyday existence, and in so doing suggest more realistic ways of living.

Other projects by Artigas worth citing include the Taques Bittencourt house (1959) in Sao Paulo for its formwork imprints and stone wall; the dressing rooms for the Sao Paulo football club (1961) for an astonishingly rough concrete finish; the Santa Paula yacht club in Sao Paulo the same year, for a great concrete roof teetering on inverted triangular columns (a sketch for the later fau-usp); the Zezinho Magalhaes public housing project at Guarulhos, close to Sao Paulo's international airport (1967); and the Jaû bus station (1973). In all these projects, structure and materials are explicit, and very little is concealed. It is obvious how each building is built and with what. The materials are rough and readily available, and the techniques pre-modern or vernacular as much as they are modern. And there are, as is so striking at fau-usp, highly rhetorical formal contrasts: fat concrete roofs balanced on feeble-looking columns or vernacular stonework set against reinforced concrete. The same formal sensibility can be found in several other architects of the Paulista school: Joaquim Guedes, Fabio Penteado, Ruy Ohtake and Paulo Mendes da Rocha. The work of the Curitiba-born Joao Filgueiras Lima (Lelé) is important in terms of its continuation of the Modern Movement as an ideological project rather than a stylistic one. His administrative centre for Salvador (1974-5) makes use of prefabricated elements on a massive scale through which the landscape penetrates.

For some of his followers, however, the radical potential of Artigas's work was curtailed by the nature of his patronage (see chapter Five). I have already shown how Artigas's affiliation to the pcdoB 's line on proletarian revolution allowed him to concentrate on high-class housing for select clients. The emphasis on the re-education of the wealthy now seems perverse, a deferral at best, while the precise nature of this 're-education' remains obscure. Nowhere is it made clear how living in surroundings of béton brut and tree trunks may inform a revolutionary attitude. Whatever revolutionary sentiments these buildings were supposed to produce are ameliorated by soft furnishings and luxuriant vegetation. In any case, in Brazil as everywhere, revealing the frankness of the building process is no guarantor of sympathy with those who laboured in the building. As a revolutionary tool, Artigas's work remains obscure.

What can be said about it with certainty, however, is that it supplies a critique of the developmentalist aesthetic of the Carioca school. Paulista buildings age. Artigas's works look good regardless of their condition, because they seem to have been built as ruins in the first place. That of Reidy, by contrast, or Niemeyer needs constant attention to maintain an illusion of newness. The actually ruinous condition of parts of the fau-usp building (its leaky ceiling, for example, dripping with stalactites) seems part of the aesthetic programme rather than a negation of it. The appalling physical state of Reidy's Pedregulho by contrast seems only to indicate its failure.

+1 0

Post a comment