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The boys from Brazil

The Modern City Facing the Future: Sixth International Docomomo Conference

Brazil is a wonderful country for anyone who loves the style of the 1950s, where it mostly originated.

Every boomerang-shaped coffee table or amoebashaped swimming pool can probably trace its ancestry back to the plan of the house Oscar Niemeyer built for himself near Rio in 1953, where there is scarcely a straight line to be found.The craze for the interior cultivation of profuse tropical foliage, characterised by Osbert Lancaster as the 'Jungle-Jungle' style, can safely be attributed to the influence of Niemeyer's colleague, the landscape architect Roberto Burle-Marx.

As Brazil was blessed by remoteness from the theatre of war, art and architecture could develop there throughout the 1940s, ready to flourish in the remarkable following decade. The most gorgeous flower of all was, of course, the new capital of the country, Brasilia, with buildings designed by Niemeyer to a plan by Lucio Costa, and built with astonishing speed between 1956 and its inauguration in 1960.

This was the setting of the Sixth International Docomomo Conference, held in Niemeyer's elongated street-like University of Brasilia building, planted by Burle-Marx. It was a dramatic conference because of the setting, the subject ('The Modern City Facing the Future'), and the issues that have come to the fore concerning the future of Docomomo itself.

Though by its title it is dedicated to documentation and conservation of works of the Modern Movement, it has always also had a wish to emulate CIAM and contribute to debate about the future. Its founding chairman, Professor Hubert-Jan Henket, is himself a successful practising architect in the Netherlands, but he has announced that he will resign in 2002 and the Dutch will no longer support the central organisation.

Who, if anyone, will assume the role? What, now that the significance of the Modern Movement as 'heritage' is much more widely accepted than it was in 1988 when Docomomo was conceived, is its role to be? The only bidders for the mantle so far have been the French. But with a firmly historicist conception of Docomomo, and facing some suspicion of the proposed funding direct from the French Ministry of Culture (with its desire for French and English to have equal standing in all international publications), their proposal did not secure approval. Nevertheless Paris, where the next international conference is to be held in 2002, would clearly be an appropriate home for Docomomo, and hopefully a solution enabling it to go there can be found.

The title of the Brasilia conference looked to the future, but most contributions, apart from the opening and closing papers, looked to the past, and where the future was discussed it was mainly in ecological terms. Kisho Kurokawa opened the conference at Niemeyer's stunning and immaculate Itamaraty Palace - Brazil's Foreign Ministry - with a paper devoted to 'The Network and Ecological City for the Future', advocating the provision of 'eco-corridors' through cities, as he is doing himself in recent projects in China and Malaysia. Allen Cunningham's concluding paper focused on similar themes, which he considered should be the focus of Docomomo's next decade.

Important though the ecological issue is, however, it is essentially technical: the achievement of the Modern Movement surely lay in the interpretation of technical issues in terms of social, humane, and formal objectives - an idealism that Docomomo must sustain.Though technology has played an important part in Docomomo's conferences, history and theory have been central, which distinguishes them from the American conference series 'Preserving the Recent Past' (the second of which has just taken place in Philadelphia).

Notable papers at Brasilia included Jean-Louis Cohen on 'The Modern Movement and Urban History', contrasting French and German approaches to planning in Alsace and Lorraine during their respective hegemonies; Hilde Heynen on 'Sibyl Moholy-Nagy's Matrix of Man: Criticising the Modern City', with a feminist slant; Jagdish Sagar on Chandigarh, for whose urban management he was formerly responsible; and a number of papers on local themes from Australia, currently a fertile source of conservation theory and practice.

Brasilia itself was the focus of a number of contributions, but these generally treated peripheral aspects: there was no core paper dealing adequately with the ideas behind Brasilia's planning and its future. Indeed, there was no representative from the city authorities at the conference, and a petition was handed round for signature protesting at the threatened abolition of the specialist group within the national conservation agency in charge of the pilot plan.

Though a senior local architect asserted that the monumental core was sacrosanct, the green area surrounding it and leading down to the lake seems to be threatened with increasing encroachment by substandard development. The city region as a whole, with a population of 2.5 million as against a planned 500,000, can be seen as a notable success, but the pressures generated are manifest.

James Dunnett is an architect in London

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