Brasil Arquitetura’s Museu Cais do Sertão on the waterfront of Recife is a bold attempt to reverse the decline and obsolescence that has afflicted the city’s port area in recent decades
The naming of a cultural building often makes reference to a historical fact, a unique location or a prominent figure: the case here is slightly more complex. The Museu Cais do Sertão on Recife’s waterfront – an ensemble of a former warehouse, a new concrete volume and green spaces opened in two phases in 2014 and 2018 – combines in its name two words and associated images that could not be more opposed. Cais (quay) conjures ideas of water, connectivity and dynamism. Sertão (the xeric scrubland landscape of Brazil’s backlands) conveys drought, isolation and harsh conditions.
‘A piece of sertão placed by the water could have the power to transform the arid landscape of a port in decay and a city in need of revitalised public life’
Although it covers almost 10 per cent of Brazilian territory, the semi-arid landscape of the sertão is not one of the first images that springs to mind when thinking of Brazil. Rich in cultural history and folklore, articulating what meanings this word and landscape encompass is not an easy task. It is fitting, therefore, that the museum was conceived to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Brazilian singer and composer Luiz Gonzaga, who used his music to bring his interpretation of the sertão landscape to a wider audience.
The weight of Gonzaga’s work comes from popular songs which depict a meaningful and happy life, still possible amid the harshness of the sertão, but Brazilian literature also provides an entry point to this uncharted territory, often contrasting it with the more pleasant and aspirational coast. One of the first vital readings is the 1902 Os Sertōes (Rebellion in the Backlands), a report by journalist Euclides da Cunha on the military expeditions against the rebellious village of Canudos in the north-eastern state of Bahia. As a man from the coast, Cunha’s dichotomy between the coast and the sertão provides a mirror for civilisation and barbary that is challenged as the book progresses. Similarly, João Cabral de Melo Neto’s 1955 play Morte e Vida Severina (The Death and Life of a Severino) charts the changing social structures as the main protagonist, Severino, journeys from the arid sertão to the coastal city of Recife along the Capibaribe River. But the depiction of the sertão’s inhabitants, nature and the struggle for survival in João Guimarães Rosa’s 1956 novel Grande Sertão: Veredas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands) is perhaps the most mystic and multi-layered, requiring so many language artifices that translating the book to other languages remains a challenge.
So when it was announced that Recife, a city on the coast of Brazil, would host this new museum, many questions were raised. Why not Exu, a city in the deep sertão of the state of Pernambuco and the hometown of Luiz Gonzaga? Why not Rio de Janeiro, where his career took off? This riddle might find an answer in the museum’s specific location on the edge of Recife’s port.
Recife’s origins are as a trading post of the neighbouring settlement of Olinda, and its port area is one of the few features of the city that has remained relevant throughout some 500 years of history. In the 2010s, when planning for the museum had already begun, the port was undergoing changes in land use and a redefinition of its operations. Recife was no longer the main port of the region, with most of its activities being expropriated by Suape, a newly built port 50 kilometres south of the city. After a long debate as to whether the port should remain partially functioning or be shut down, the decision was made to keep the port operational but restricted to fewer operations, leaving a significant extension of the quay and a group of warehouses empty and redundant.
Local authorities saw this as an opportunity to extend the renovation of this island of Recife, a historic district of the city that has been subject to decades of decline. Since the 1990s, the revitalisation of this area has been focused on introducing new functions, users and residents through tax incentives and loans, successful in attracting technology companies but less so in attracting visitors or new residents.
Triggered by the changes in the port area, the state government of Pernambuco initiated an urban and feasibility study for this redundant territory, defining a basic programme and spatial and financial strategies incorporating the existing warehouses. The project aimed to improve the offer of public and open spaces along the quays and, moreover, the connections between the waterfront and the island of Recife. During this study, it was decided by the federal and state government that a museum would be incorporated into the plan, drawing visitors to the port area, adding to a diverse programme of leisure and commercial activities as well as a passenger ferry terminal.
Following a direct commission by the Ministério da Cultura, the museum was designed by Brasil Arquitetura, co-founded by Francisco Fanucci and Marcelo Ferraz. The space allocated to the museum was warehouse number 10 and its adjacent cargo forecourt, a configuration that defined the design. The composition of the building’s volumes, totalling an area of 7,500m2, follows the parallel lines of the quay, the existing warehouses and the road network. The buildings form a sequence, starting to the north with a square, followed by the former warehouse building – housing a temporary exhibition space – and end in a new concrete block elevated above a 56 metre-long open space, housing the permanent exhibition space, auditorium and rooftop restaurant.
This spatial configuration is a mirrored version of an initial proposal that would have positioned the elevated block on the opposite side of the existing warehouse. During the initial phase of construction, the project had to be altered given the poor state of the existing warehouse, a mixed structure of iron and precast concrete from which only the roof structure was partially reused. As a result of this alteration, the public square under the elevated block now lies in front of the Malakoff Tower, a cultural venue across the main road. The architects have even proposed to integrate both spaces, but this is yet to be implemented.
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The salient feature in this collection of volumes and spaces is the elevated block. The use of exposed concrete (pigmented in yellow to reference the soil of the sertão) and the gesture of lifting this massive block over a span of 56 metres are clearly inspired by the work of Lina Bo Bardi (Fanucci and Ferraz had previously collaborated with the late Italian-Brazilian architect). Her influence can also be perceived in the careful use and reinterpretation of local craftsmanship and references to local culture, such as in the veil of filigree precast concrete panels that cover the two sides of the elevated block.
The elements of this facade have been designed using patterns drawn from the sertão’s vegetation or the dry soil to reconfigure a traditional element of Brazilian and moreover Pernambuco’s architecture: the cobogó. These screens of hollow bricks, initially conceived as a cheap construction material, were later used as an alternative to brise-soleil in some of the first expressions of modern architecture in Brazil. Such pioneering use of cobogós is central to the work of Luis Nunes, the architect responsible for emblematic buildings in the region such as Olinda’s water tower, featured in the 1943 MoMA exhibition and book Brazil Builds. Here, the use of cobogós helps to lighten the visual weight of massive prismatic blocks that are inserted into a historic city fabric.
Internally, the museum follows a recurrent practice in contemporary cultural institutions. The permanent exhibition related to Luiz Gonzaga’s life and work, curated by Isa Grinspum Ferraz, goes beyond a mere display of objects and tries to translate his oeuvre into experiences in a diverse set of rooms and spaces. The sequence of open and closed spaces references elements from both sertão and the port, through a palette of materials such as stone or Corten steel. Here the reference to the work of Bo Bardi is also remarkable, particularly in the design of a water feature that mimics the Pajeú River.
This river is a constant in Gonzaga’s songs, along with the idea of how water and rain have the power to transform the harsh reality of the sertão. Recife has been through its own transformation, subjected to a sequence of attempts to renovate and regain public space and infrastructure in the last decade. Ignited by the preparation to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup, there have been plans to introduce public transport on the main river (an unrealised initiative), to renovate the waterfront and, more recently, to create the Capibaribe Park. Cais do Sertão is perhaps Recife’s first new landmark, in a bid to promote urban transformation. In the first years of operation, it has attracted a considerable number of visitors and placed the city in the lens of contemporary architectural discussion. In the case of this museum then, Gonzaga’s idea that water brings relief to the sertão is reversed: a piece of sertão placed by the water has the power to transform the arid landscape of a port in decay and a city in need of revitalised public life.
Francisco Fanucci, Marcelo Ferraz, Pedro del Guerra, Cícero Ferraz Cruz, Luciana Dornellas
Nelson Kon, unless otherwise stated
This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Brazil – click here to purchase your copy today