Alison and Peter Smithson reveal their intentions for the British Embassy building in Brasilia. The project was never realised but we can envision their design through their growing understanding of both climatic and geographical epitomes in Brazil
Originally published in AR October 1975, this piece was republished online in January 2012
Alison and Peter Smithson were offered the job of designing the British embassy for Brazil’s capital in the spring of 1964. They had to assure HM Government that they were not overcommitted and that they would not take on other work which might compromise fulfilling programme that called for the preliminary design by the end of 1964, final working drawings by December 1965 and letting the contract by March 1966.
Work proceeded on this basis throughout 1965 but the then Minister of Works, Charles Pannell informed the architects of a year’s delay. By Ju1y 1966 the Ministry were intimating that April 1968 might be a realistic starting date but by February 1967 the situation had changed to the extent ‘that the whole scale of the project has now come under review’.
At this point the architects carried out an exercise to see whether they could sustain the original design intention with a reduced programme and at a reduced cost, but the Ministry failed to persuade the Treasury to proceed on this revised basis. In April 1968 the new Minister of Works, Robert Mellish, wrote to say that they wished to terminate the architects’ commission as they ‘no longer proposed to start work on a permanent Residence or Offices for a few years … and that when question of proceeding with the scheme arose in the future as to who should design it should be quite open’.
Despite protests from the architects, the Minister refused to reconsider his decision. Although the commission aroused considerable interest, the architects were unwilling to have their rejected project published at the time. The intrinsic quality of the project as well as its historical interest are enough to justify its inclusion in the AR more than five years later. In this article Alison and Peter Smithson introduce their design.
Even after all the time that has passed it is still painful to write about past lost hopes. To design an embassy for his country is the most flattering commission an architect can be offered, especially in a city he admires. In Rome or Berlin he would be supported by inherited attitudes and scholarship … but Brasilia is something quite other.
For those who were trained as architects in the 1940s, Brazil, Sweden and Denmark were the only sources of live architectural energy in the sense that this energy derived from current built works rather than from the recent past (Heroic period or ’30s) or from the emergent (Le Corbusier’s Unite at Marseilles). Brazil represented a continuation of the Heroic period of modern architecture by an almost literal placing-on- of-hands by Le Corbusier on Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer during their joint work on the design for the Ministry of Education 2 in Rio de Janeiro of 1936.
Lucio Costa’s ‘pilot plan’ for Brasilia (1957), and the major buildings and subsequent planning control by Oscar Niemeyer, made real Le Corbusier’s gestural urbanism of the ’30s (powerfulJy demonstrated in his plan for a Cite Universitaire du Bresil, also of 1936), and confirmed the existence of a society Le Corbusier’s gestures were meant to celebrate-a society well stratified and Baroque in its social forms.
What were we then to offer in Brasilia as an idealisation-a representation- of our own dream for a more egalitarian society with more varied and more spontaneous social forms? The parade-ground perfection of Niemeyer’s main buildings set against that void-with-horizon-behind is so spectacular that it needs to be matched by a very intense form if any counter intention is to be felt.
The low-lying ‘squashed crocodile’ form of our project in some way arises out of a wish to be heard for a moment, and in that moment to give a glimpse of another social formulation-via the quiet shining imagery of the facades and the internal arrangements they represent. The ‘squashed crocodile’ is also a response to more specific demands -those of the climate, the site, and the programme. (Squashed crocodile is a convenient description after-the-event. At the time we were looking for ‘a form that would ride the landscape’.)
The site is almost on the equator so, most confusingly, the sun shines (at different periods of the year) from both north and south. The building’s section is designed to shelter the inside under these varying sun conditions and to work as well as possible when it is wet. It follows, we discovered on the first site visit, an existing local tradition. The Fazienda Babylonia, near Brasilia, has an enormous cover-all roof with loosely arranged areas of activity inside, the areas of more formal use which need quiet having ceilings, the rest being open to the tiles.
The building plot allocated to the British embassy, the last plot in a short row that was also to include the French embassy (originally to be by Le Corbusier but since built to a different design by Jullian de la Fuente, one of Le Corbusier’s last assistants) was an excellent one with permanently open ground on the short front and on one long side down to the lake.
The long body of our building gives views from terraces all along the open side. Its slewed section allows a progression from room to terrace to raised garden, then over the ha-ha across open ground to the lake and the far horizon. This seemed a natural transposition of an English tradition into a climate more suited to the open-air life, and we felt at that time, when Brasilia had 200000 inhabitants but no cinema, that picnics, cook-outs, garden parties and swimming-pool parties would be the main amusements for the foreign communities.
The building as well as the garden was arranged for an easy- do-it-yourself social and cultural life. The main hall and reception rooms, linking the chancery with the residence, made them available to both for receptions, film-shows, lectures, and so on, bulk-head doors as in a ship, cutting off the chancer; or the residence (or both) as appropriate. These bulk-head doors occur at the stair/service towers which divide and connect zone to zone in the building. The garage and service area form the squashed crocodile’s tail.
The stair/service towers support long prestressed concrete beams spanning along the building from tower to tower. The towers were also to be used to erect the beams, since at that time heavy plant was not available in Brasilia. These beams are placed side by side to form a bridge platform on which the rooms are arranged, and can be re-arranged, like jars on long shelves. The skirting and head details of the walls are designed to allow for the sagging and recovery of the floor below and for the crushing and recovery of the floor above under load, without loss of privacy or security between rooms.
Rooms have a jar-like roundness-doorcases like projecting necks or snouts-giving smooth, civilised enclosed spaces to parry the sometimes very harsh light and landscape outside. Their walls are white-painted plastered blockwork, with dark, heavy, climate-resisting ‘pau ferro’ woodwork (doors, door cases, skirtings and heads, windows). Windows vary in scale with the rooms behind – most glass for reception rooms, least for bedrooms, the windows being re-arrangeable to follow changes of the rooms within.
The roof and the Moghul-Lutyens- in-Delhi-style wall-protecting cornices, the floor beams and the towers are in red-oxide dyed concrete (the fine red earth falls from the skies every day making buildings red anyway and Niemeyer’s white saucer-dome is in fact russet graded down to pink from the top). Dark woodwork rests on the dyed concrete upstand (the dimension of which was taken from observation of splash-up) and service area walls are also dyed concrete.
The whole rides in with the landscape which is rust-red as far as the eye can see from the aeroplane. Main horizontal service distribution is within the double roof, vertical distribution is in the towers and horizontal sub-distribution is between the floor beams. Indirect lighting and minimum (homeopathic) air-conditioning is also between the floor beams.
The two lodges are miniatures of the main building; under one of them one formally enters and leaves the site. Offering an alternative to the North American monument style, built in a climate totally different to our own, meant to be self-supporting should services fluctuate as they did in Brasilia, the building could have served a didactic purpose, as an example, for instance, to ‘underdeveloped’ countries and countries in search of a ‘racial’ for want of a better word) building style (Brasilia being geographically on a parallel that gives us Kampala, Uganda, and a number of other places).
We were, moreover, in a unique position to design for the climate through Dr Otto Konigsberger’s School of Tropical Architecture in London: first through their information, then through ‘their man in Brasilia’ from whom we were able to obtain a rare accuracy of data with which to tailor the building both to play with the climate and to mitigate the worst effects climate could have on the users.
The building’s style became something of an answer to the questions posed us by Arab conferences on how to find the ‘style arabe’, and was intended as a definite encouragement for ‘poorer’ countries to attempt their own alternative style to the North American glassbox- in-the-desert as the only prestige package for state bank, conference centre, or palace.
We knew nothing of Brazilian culture before the commission, and still know that of Portugal only through their Macao china, traditional bobbin furniture, heavy brass candelabra, eastern rugs (a very firm footing for the diplomatic scene!) We knew the work of Alijardino in pictures, his baroque churches and staircase and the statues in Ouro Preto.
What we had not fully realised was that Brazil had a more complete Baroque style than those of Germany, Austria Yugoslavia, Italy and Switzerland: It not only seemed to flow off the altar and round the church and down from the ceiling into the plan and all over the outside (for in Bavaria it tends to stop at the doorstep, in Austrian towns at the edges of the front façade, in large Bavarian monasteries at the window surrounds), but it even flowed over to the ground outside, lapping up the balustrades and all down the hillock.
We were dealing with an architecturally literate audience, under-standing the need for architecture as continental people do-an audience whose elite could appreciate the fine subtleties and edge of any architectural performance, and an international architectural elite-for Scharoun was down the road, Le Corbusier up the road, Niemeyer in town, Lucio Costa near to hand and, as Costa said, the Brasilia School of Architecture 2000 miles away from other styles.
We thought that if the British backed out the French would; and so it proved. Le Corbusier is now dead. And so is Scharoun, although the German embassy was built, its programme tripled as ours shrank comparably. Michelangelo was never so messed about by his Pope.
Architects: Alison and Peter Smithson
Assistant Architects: C.H.Woodward, K.E.Baker
Consulting Engineers: Ove Arup and Partners
Consulting M & E Engineers: Ministry of Public Building & Works M & E Department
Quantity Surveryors: James Nisbet & Partners