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Buildings for people: The work of Lina Bo Bardi

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An exhibition at the British Council and a day of talks at the ICA shed a light on an icon of Brazilian architecture

Creating buildings that truly reflect the community of an area has never been an easy task, yet Lina Bo Bardi seemed to be able to embody the whole process, creating architecture loved by those who resided within it.

Born in Italy in 1914, Bo Bardi moved to Brazil with her husband, architect Pietro Maria Bardi, after the second world war in 1946. It was at this time that Brazil was beginning to gain recognition for its modern architectural movement. An exhibition at MOMA in New York, entitled Brazil Builds Architecture New and Old, solidified the countries place within the architectural world.

One would be forgiven for calling Bo Bardi a modernist since she used materials and shapes so synonymous with modernist architecture. Her own house on the outskirts of Sao Paulo became an icon of Brazilian modernist architecture.

Yet she rejected the term ‘modernism’, refusing to be aligned with either modernist or post-modernism in Brazil. Her work ascribed great values to the use of new and progressive materials but she juxtaposed this with an interest in the heritage of the area, creating buildings which truly sat within their context.

Bo Bardi’s deep understanding and love for Brazil and its people sets her architecture apart. She had specific ideas as to how the country should develop and advocated that Brazil should not belong to western culture. Although originally from Italy she rejected dual nationality, relinquishing her Italian citizenship and becoming a Brazilian citizen – and her work reflects this both culturally and politically.

Her connection with people and community features heavily in the exhibition at the British Council.

Designed and built by Assemble, the exhibition fills an awkward space outside the British Council and spreads into the ground floor, revealing a timeline of Bo Bardi’s life. The materiality and its honesty parallels with that of the architecture of Bo Bardi.

The materiality and its honesty parallels with that of the architecture of Bo Bardi

‘The exhibition is about the atmosphere that her work generates,’ says Noemi Blager, curator. ‘The activities contained within her buildings are organised without hierarchy: swimming is as important as a jazz concert, or playing chess. She creates a culture of convivial diversity: inclusive environments where old and young interact, and everyone has a purpose. This is what she achieved in SESC Pompeia leisure centre, Sao Paulo.’

Showing the ongoing interaction with her architecture, film installations by Tapio Snellman portray the life and activity within the SESC Pompeia, one of Bo Bardi’s most notable projects.

The SESC Pompeia, a social and cultural centre formed in an old factory in Sao Paulo, is a place for community interaction, housing swimming, football, theatre, art, dance, and a canteen – while allowing space purely for passing through.

The building was due for demolition until Bo Bardi proposed for the centre to be constructed within it. She then listened to those constructing her visions and developed the building with them. Marcelo Ferraz, who worked with Bo Bardi on the project, described her as ‘the person who inspired the most trust on site’.

Once the SESC Pompeia was completed Bo Bardi continued to contribute to the project. She should be recognised for this almost maternal wish to remain there to look after the buildings which she created.

Though Bo Bardi died in 1992, the SESC Pompeia still stands at the heart of the community in Sao Paulo, and is a tribute to her architectural knowledge, passion and sense of presence.

Bo Bardi’s work in Brazil is often overshadowed by that of Oscar Niemeyer, and exhibitions of her work are few and far between. Lina Bo Bardi: Together and the talks that accompanied it give an honest insight into a woman who carved out her own unique style of architecture.

The exhibition runs until 30 November at the British Council Gallery, 10 Spring Gardens.

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