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Completing the canon

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Brazil Built: The Architecture of the Modern Movement in Brazil By Zilah Quezado Deckker. Spon Press, 2001. 253pp. £27.50

Mention Brazilian architecture and most people will think of a few buildings in Rio de Janeiro (the Ministry of Education and Oscar Niemeyer's house, perhaps), of Brasilia, and of some of Niemeyer's late works.

That the architectural production of such a large and diverse country should have been contained in such a few and, as it happens, unrepresentative examples is in no small part due to the exhibition 'Brazil Builds', mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1943. This exhibition and its accompanying book put Brazil on the map of Modern architecture for the first time, but set the pattern for the way Brazilian architecture has been interpreted ever since.

Zilah Deckker's book examines the exhibition from the American and Brazilian ends. The story begins in 1940, when, after long indifference towards the South American republics, the United States opened a charm offensive towards its southern neighbours. Alarmed that they might align themselves with the Axis powers (whence many of their immigrants came), the US began a policy of 'hemispheric solidarity' and 'pan-American unity'.

Under Nelson Rockefeller, the Office of Inter-American Affairs was set up to 'strengthen the bonds between the nations of the Western Hemisphere' through economic aid and cultural links. It was with support from the OIAA that the Museum of Modern Art put on a series of shows of Latin American art - and of these, 'Brazil Builds' was by far the most successful.

In May 1942, Philip Goodwin, the museum's architectural director, and a young photographer, George Kidder-Smith, neither of them with any previous knowledge of Brazil (or of Portuguese), set off to spend two months collecting material for the exhibition.

What made their task particularly hard was that very few works of Modern architecture in Brazil had yet been completed, though some - such as the Ministry of Finance at Recife (see picture) - were under construction. Part of the achievement of the exhibition and the book was to convey from these widely dispersed and mostly unfinished buildings the appearance of a flourishing and unified Modern architectural culture.

Alhough the exhibition's flattery of Brazil and Brazilian architecture was too late to have much political effect (Brazil had already entered the war by the time it opened), the critical interest was enormous. Its influence extended far beyond the US. In Brazil, it convinced the Brazilians themselves that they had created something coherent and original, and in Europe the book was widely distributed - it was after seeing it in 1945 that the young Lina Bo Bardi decided to leave Italy for Brazil, where she became one of the leading architects of the second half of the century.

But just as quickly as Brazil was taken up by the Western critical establishment, so almost as suddenly was it dropped.

By the early 1960s, after the completion of Brasilia, it was, Deckker writes, as if 'Brazilian architecture had, effectively, ceased to exist'.

This loss of critical attention was hardly because Brazil stopped producing interesting architecture - there are manifestly world-class buildings from later decades. It seems rather that these works did not fit within the unified and distinctive canon set up by 'Brazil Builds' and could not easily be labelled as 'Brazilian'. In a sense, 'Brazil Builds' did as much damage as good by prematurely codifying Brazilian Modernism, and for this reason the reactions to it from within Brazil have always been ambivalent.

This year has already seen one new book about Brazilian Modernism, Valerie Fraser's Building the New World (AJ 24.5.01). Deckker, who is herself Brazilian, has some common ground with Fraser's excellent survey, but what really distinguishes Brazil Built is that for the first time we have, in English, a book based upon new primary research - drawn from the archives in three continents - to dispel some of the mythology that has surrounded Brazilian Modernism since the MoMA exhibition.

Adrian Forty is professor of architectural history at the Bartlett.

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