Joys from Brazil
In 1943 the New York MoMA exhibition 'Brazil Builds', and its accompanying book, brought mainstream recognition of the fresh take on Modernism seen at the World's Fair four years earlier. The Brazilian Pavilion there had been designed by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer with landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx - the leaders of Brazil's International Modern era, which lasted from Costa's Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro in 1936 to the military takeover in 1964.
This exemplary book looks at the work of Costa and Niemeyer in context, both of the political background of these years and of the fine architects that followed them.
Only the landscape element is not considered, though plenty is said about the natural terrain of Brazil's major cities - Rio, São Paulo and Brasília.
There was little tradition of formal town planning in Brazil's colonial power, Portugal, and - like Lisbon, and especially Porto, but unlike Spanish colonial towns - Rio and São Paulo were developed around their topography. After a move to rationalise Rio's development in the 1930s was frustrated, Brasília was an attempt to fill the gap.
Brazil was the only largely Third World country to produce a series of Modern icons by indigenous architects - not only those already mentioned, but Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Lina Bo Bardi, João Batista Vilanova Artigas and Paulo Mendes da Rocha. The Brazilian architects and historians who contribute the five main essays in the book argue, too, that Modernism did not end in 1964, although Niemeyer sought exile and others resorted to private house commissions. São Paulo architects in particular developed their own form of Brutalism in the 1960s, and the final chapters bring the story up to date. But the familiar midcentury monuments remain the most captivating.
The Communist principles of many of these architects, especially Niemeyer and Artigas, are well known. Yet Brazilian Modernism emerged as an expression of the authoritarian Vargas administration, which pushed the country towards rapid industrialisation in the years 1935-45, as well as of the brief era of democracy that followed.
The authors argue that Brazil's construction industry never matched the ideals of its architects, most particularly in the building of Brasília, where unskilled and poorly paid construction gangs had to work in dangerous conditions for a city in which no social housing was provided. Niemeyer sidestepped the issue by claiming convincingly that the conditions did not exist for such housing to be built successfully. It is a theme that the authors frequently lament, and the last chapter is devoted to recent self-help housing programmes.
That this is a multi-authored work, by architects and historians teaching in São Paulo and Rio, makes for a slightly repetitive text and structure, yet the arguments made are strong and consistent. Save one:
the question of what made that early Brazilian Modernism so distinctive. One author argues that Costa used traditional ways of controlling shade in his Ministry of Education building, another gives place to Catholic Baroque culture.
Le Corbusier took back the rough aesthetic and brise-soleil to Europe, while in Brazil concrete technology became a little more sophisticated. The most daring, dancing structures of amazing stylistic grace, like Niemeyer's St Francis, Pampulha, were conceived around the simplest forms of spanning space, or enthused with the spirit of bossa nova, Brazil's other export of the 1950s. Something of that spirit lingers in the work being produced in Lula's new Brazil today.
The text is serious yet clear, and enhanced by stunning photographs and plans, that are judiciously set alongside or given double-page spreads. Best of all, there is a list of buildings to visit, and contacts for those open only by appointment.
Plan your trip now.
Elain Harwood is an historian with English Heritage