Brazil has a strong native school of modern architects and has profited from the visits of foreigners and European exiles
Originally published in AR March 1944, this piece was republished online in November 2010
The present inclination of all Englishmen is to look beyond Europe for the future. We know, now, what the Dominions mean to us. And the rest of the world? It lies with the United States, Russia, and Latin America. But Latin America has a particular appeal of sentiment, for it represents what we intend by Europe upon another soil and in another clime.
But we know very little, most of us, about this continent and its pair of mysteries, Brazil and Mexico. I call them ‘mysteries’ because they are so rich a subject for speculation that we could think of them for ever and never come to an end of their possibilities, past and future. Yet Mexico is neighbour, geographically, to the United States. The wonders of its Aztec, Mayan, Colonial architecture are becoming known. We know that Mexico is among the lands of living art. Most of us have heard of Diego de Rivera and have seen the reproductions of his frescoes. What we are discovering now and should have known before, for Brazil is, three times bigger than Mexico in population, is that Brazil has an old architecture worthy of its history and a modern architecture, not yet ten years old, the best architecture, there can be no question, in the modern world.
The link between new and old in Brazil, as everywhere else, lies in the climate and the landscape, and this mutual harmony is governed by a rule, that so long as what is new is good it will go together, perfectly, with the old. Not that, in Brazil, old and modern buildings stand side by side, but both have been built in harmony with the setting, and so form an entity. This is the genius loci, the spirit of contribution of the Brazilian nation. The modern is just as much Brazilian as the old. Both together, and separate, are something fresh and undiscovered to most Englishmen. We want to be able to look at a building and know that it is Brazilian. In the beginning, as is natural, we expect to be reminded of Portugal, with a difference. For the Colonial houses at the Cape are not Dutch, entirely. The Colonial buildings in Mexico are not precisely Spanish. The Baroque in Mexioo does not, in actual fact, bear much resemblance to the Baroque in Spain. It is Baroque under an Indian influence, effected by the soil and clime. And so it is in the case of Brazil. We see the effect of Portugal, but under the Brazilian sky. And Portugal has always been more restrained and cold than Spain. We shall find no evidence in Brazil of the ‘excesses’ of the Spanish spirit, no trace of the heresiarchs or extreme followers of the Baroque from Spain. The buildings are quieter and more considered, proving the hand of Portugal and not of Spain.
Rio de Janeiro has a few old churches of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but these old buildings are in no sense the background of the capital. In their interiors we shall find what we expect - gilt carvings, rich sacristies, and painted tiles or azulejos. These sculptures and decorations are associated with the name of Master Valentim, a craftsman who was born in Brazil and trained in Portugal. But the beauties of Rio are its sea and mountains and its modern buildings. As a capital, it has all the nervous energy and excitement of a city of two million inhabitants, predominantly Latin, in a setting more tropical, and more beautiful, than Naples. It is the city of Carnival, as that was understood at Venice in the eighteenth century, with a more Southern exuberance and fantasy. The nearby Petropolis has Empire villas, for we should call them ‘Empire,’ built under French influence in the time of the second Dom Pedro, when Brazil had Emperors, but we should find the tropical trees more interesting than the colour-washed walls and classical interiors. Nothing old in Rio de Janeiro can compete for our interest with the beauties of Nature, which are eternal, and with what is new and of our time. Rio is a city of the present and the future. What is past, comparatively, is dead and faded.
For the old we must see Bahia, the capital of Brazil till 1763. It is Sao Salvador da Bahia, on the bay of All Saints, well and truly, for it has two hundred churches - and a great negro population to give it colour. There are an upper and a lower town, and the negro fishing quarter by the harbour. ‘I’hc fish wives of Bahia even typify the national costume of Brazil with their gay colours and their turbaned headdresses. When we applaud Carmen Miranda, one of the only artists of tile films, it is of Bahia that she reminds us. For the songs and dances of that fishing quarter, transmuted, are or a like importance in Brazil to the Andalusian Gypsy influence in Spain. Here are the eaves of song, and the bright dresses.
In the upper town are - the Baroque churches, Bahia has, in fact, three splendid Baroque buildings The parish church of Pilar has the sort of exterior that we associate with Southern Italy or Sicily, and at that a fine example flanked by the curious pillared building which in those other countries could have been built, about 1820, by a local architect in Greek temple style, under the influence of the local excavations. The church of the Third Order or Sao Francisco is more interesting to us because it is not Italian, nor yet, exactly, Portuguese. The elaboration of its carved front is more like a Mexican building. It recalls the Churrigueresque churches built in Mexico which, so confusingly, have little resemblance to the authentic buildings of this much abused architect in Spain. I cannot remember any church in Portugal that suggests this church of the Third Order in Bahia.
But the third Baroque building, the church and monastery of Sao Francisco de Assis, is quite definitely Portuguese from the plain exterior to the exuberance that hides within. The cloister is two-storeyed, with azulejos on both floors all round its walls. They are the typical blue and white tiles of Portugal, and the scenes as so often there, are drawn at will from the Bible or from mythology. These azulejos must be the work of craftsmen in the first generation from the mother country. This tiled cloister could be in Coimbra, in Oporto, in a dozen places, and is a charming example of an art which is peculiar to Portugal. But the astonishing golden interior of this church is so entirely Portuguese that we must be allowed to deflect our narrative, for a moment, to the Baroque of Portugal. So much was destroyed by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 that we have to look elsewhere than the capital for examples, and begin at Oporto where the church of Sao Francisco, down by the harbour, and the convent of Santa Clara, on the steep hill above, prove to us what fantasy and imagination can achieve by gilding. There are, however, smaller instances that are more extraordinary still. The interior of the’ convent of Jesus at Aveiro, of the convent of the Conceicao at Beja, where the “Portuguese Nun” passed her life and wrote her Letters, the interior of a little church at Faro, these and a few more, are uniquely Portuguese in their carving and their gilding, in the manner particularly in which the back of the high altar is built up and recessed in tiers like little, diminishing coffers, or the eaves of a pagoda. This form or fantasy of decoration is found nowhere else than in Portugal, and has yet to be admired. Baudelaire, dying, and driven from Paris by his debts, paid to take refuge in Belgium, where he could find nothing in that whole country to solace him but the Baroque churches of Malines, and he mentions in his letters the church of St Loup and its gilded carvings. We feel certain that Baudelaire would have loved the golden altars of Aveiro, Faro and Beja. Their gilding is of a quality never found in the Baroque churches of Italy or Spain. The reason for this is that it was the gold of Brazil; and the high altar of the church of Sao Francisco at Bahia, flashing, glittering, “rutilante de dorures,” is another instance.
How lovely has been the Iberian influence on the architecture of the Americas, when we think of its wonders! Of the churches of Puebla, of the Mexican high altars; of Antigua, Lima, Quito, Potosi, and now Bahia! The Iberians, architecturally, have been the greatest colonists. The Portuguese only less than the Spaniards; their relics being Goa in India, and Bahia in Brazil. But there are fine churches, as well, in other places in Brazil. Churches. and convents at Recife (Pernambuco), and at Olinda, and the Jesuit Misiones in the South. If we think of the fine sites, architecturally, in Spanish America we shall find so many of them are churches built near the gold or silver mines. This is true of Mexico, Bolivia, Peru. It is true of Tlaxcala, Guanajuato, Taxco, Potosi. And we shall find that it is true, equally, of Minas Geraes, where lay the gold mines of Brazil.
The gold of Brazil was discovered later than the gold of Mexico or Peru. The first consignment of gold to reach Portugal from Brazil only arrived in 1699, and later still came the Brazilian diamonds. It was in consequence of this wealth that the court of the Braganzas became one of the most extravagant in Europe, and we can read of its fantastic appearance in Beckford’s Letters, and still see the Royal carriages at Belem. Much of the Brazilian gold was spent on music and of course nothing is left of the singers, of Caffarelli or Egiziello. Nothing is left, and no one again will ever sing their songs. But if, on the analogy of Mexico and Peru, we look for architecture among the gold mines we shall find it.
The old mining towns of Minas Geraes are two hundred miles inland from the Atlantic, and more than that distance north from Rio. The chief of them is Ouro Preto (Black Gold), and whether the name of it refers to some special quality in the precious metal or to the method by which it was mined, we do not know, but in fact it was all worked by negro labour. Not Indian, like the gold and silver mines of Mexico and Peru; but African. The whole town of Ouro Preto has lately (1933), and wisely, been declared a national monument; nothing may be pulled down or built without permission. It has been calculated that Ouro Preto had in the middle of the eighteenth century a population of two hundred thousand, most of them being negro slaves. At this point we may well ask why it is that neither the gold of California or Klondyke, the gold reefs of Australia or the gold and diamonds of the Rand, have given birth to architecture? Is it only the Iberians, and never the Anglo-Saxons, who build as well as mine. Had they been Gothic buildings we might have learned this moral long ago, but the mining towns of Spanish America and Brazil are Baroque and Rococo. They have only come, late, to our appreciation; though what could be more appropriate to a gold mine than the interior of a church all glittering with gold?
The general aspect of Ouro Preto is shown in the accompanying colour plate after the water-colour by Chamberlain, an English artist who visited the town about a hundred and thirty years ago, and wrote a book of his travels in Brazil with illustrations in aquatint. In this drawing we get the colour of its white walls and red tiled roofs. It is a town of churches upon little hills, with winding, streets, like that which leads up to Santa Ifigenia, a church built for the negroes. A characteristic of Ouro Preto are the Baroque fountains at least one of which, the Chafariz dos Contos, consisting of a stone shell from which the water drips, set in a bold stone scroll upon the plaster wall, is worthy of the lesser Roman fountains of Bernini, though somehow it is typical of Portugal and could be neither Spanish nor Italian.
But the attraction of Ouro Preto are the sculptures of Antonio Francisco Lisboa, known as O Aleijadinho, ‘the little cripple,’ the son of a Portuguese father and a mulatto mother. His late date (1730-1814) compares with that of Master Valentim, in Rio, and shows how recent was this last stirring of the Baroque spirit. O Aleijadinho was a leper, and the frightful ravages of the disease which may have been leprosy in combination with other maladies as well, so mutilated him that in his last years he had to be carried to his work under a wide sombrero and a flowing cape, so that none could see his features. He had lost his hands and fingers and the chisel and mallet had to be strapped on to his stumps. He worked all day, and was carried home after nightfall. His sculptures in wood and stone are to be found in other towns of the Stae of Minas Geraes, in Congonhas, Mariana, Sao Joas del Rey, but, chiefly, in Ouro Preto; and the soft soap stone of the district which hardens considerably after it has been quarried was his favourite material comparing in this respect with the soft, golden stone of Lecce in Southern Italy and Noto in Sicily, which enabled similar effects to be obtained. In Minas Geraes the building stone is orange coloured, richer than the pale gold of Lecce or the golden stone of Noto, while the sculptures of Aleijadinho are in the greyer-greener soap’stone. The facades of two churches at Ouro Preto, Sao Francisco and Sao Joas del Rey, are the work of O Aleijadinho. Both are of rather similar design, with round towers to either side and a flat front of stucco between stone pilasters, but the doorways and the carved decorations are from the hand of O Aleijadinho. In Sao Francisco the doorway is of wonderful elegance, like an elaborate mirror frame, and there is a great sculptured medallion above the door. In the other church the doorway is, if anything, still more elegant, and the sculptor’s hand is at work again upon the cresting of the roof, above the cornice. In the interior of Sao Francisco the font is by O Aleijadinho, and probably the most beautiful and elegant of all his works, a font like a wall fountain, consisting of a basin with a great sculptured frame behind it and a statue of St Francis, with figures of cherubs at his feet, while a winged angel flies above his head, and ,more cherubs ride upon the cornice. Another font by O Aleijadinho with a half figure of the Madonna and Child is in the church of the Carmelites at Quro Preto.
Another, and indeed the last work by this crippled genius, is at Congonhas do Campo, a mining town not far away. It is the pilgrimage church of Born Jesus do Matosinhos; the doorway is by his hand and so are the Twelve Apostles in rhetorical attitudes upon the terrace. Below, upon the terraced hill, lie six chapels with conical roofs, for this pilgrimage church is modelled upon the Bom Jesus and its chapels and terraces near Braga in Portugal, and upon the similar church at Lamego. But Congonhas do Campo does not show O Aleijadinho at his pest. He was too crippled by disease. The Twelve Prophets upon the top terrace are rigid in attitude and the actual walling of the terraces is crabbed and ugly. In the interior’ decoration of the Ouro Preto churches he had the help of the, painter Manoel da Costa Athayde, who does not compare unfavourably with the Bavarian and Austrian Baroque painters, which is to say, his painted scrolls and columns are more interesting than his figures. Athayde is a master of painted ornament, but not quite a painter.
To sum up, Ouro Preto is beautiful for its fantasy and elegance in little things. It has no one church, in particular, like the splendid church of, Taxco, or like the Santuario de Ocotlan, or the church of Tepozotlan. All these are in Mexico, and are already famous. It is not built upon Inca foundations, like the churches of Cuzco and Quito. It has not the unrestrained fantasy of the Mexican churches, nor the solid Spanish magnificence of the churches in Ecuador, and Peru. But it is the Rococo of Joao V, come from Portugal, and flowering unexpectedly in this remote and romantic setting, hundreds of miles into the interior of auriferous Brazil, and to be admired in the knowledge that it was a negro slave population who worked its mines and thronged its winding streets.
But we must bid farewell to these Baroque churches and linger with our readers for a few moments in what could be called Brazil’s negro plantation days, of which the memorial is in the splendid book of coloured plates by the Frenchman Debret, a pupil of David, who was invited to Rio de Janeiro in order to preside over the academy of painting by Dom Pedro I, Brazil’s first Emperor. In its pages we see the negroes carrying palanquins, and would recall that there are persons still living who remember being carried in sedan chairs up the steep streets of Bahia. The street scenes in Debret are full of negro colour, and we even get the impression of a particular black slave physiognomy as though, and this is not improbable, the slaves came from a special part of the Gold Coast. Many, perhaps the majority, were brought in English ships. They are not the blue-blacks of Senegal, but came, let us suppose, from Gambia, a Cape Coast Colony. There are plates, too, of court scenes with the ladies of Rio wearing Empire dresses. A later book by Rugendas, a German painter, is not so interesting as Debret, of whom we must say, too; that he had full understanding of the tropical flowers and trees, and made good use of the opportunity. His book is in fact a historical document of the first importance for the visual appearance of Brazil under its first Emperor and, as, well as this, it is among the most beautiful illustrated books of the early nineteenth century.
‘The opera house at Manaos, on the Amazon, eight hundred miles above its mouth, is the most typical Brazilian building of the nineteenth century’
The Empire style, under the French architects of Dom Pedro I, was succeeded by a plethora of fantastic buildings, all through the nineteenth century and, indeed, till recent times. And the sculptures were in keeping. Probably the opera house at Manaos, on the Amazon, eight hundred miles above its mouth, is the most typical Brazilian building of the nineteenth century. This was built during the rubber boom. But there is more pleasant criticism to be passed upon the Brazilian furniture, often of dark jacaranda wood, modelled on the jacaranda beds and chairs and tables of the previous century, and with mounts of silver. The sacristies of Rio and Bahia have splendid jacaranda presses for the vestments. It is a Brazilian wood - but the forms and shapes are Portuguese. And there are the works of the Brazilian silversmiths, under the influence of Lisbon.
Early in the twentieth century it might have been thought that Brazil was destined for a future of great prosperity, but that the arts would go on for ever under the worst influences from Europe. There was no enormity of nineteenth century France, Italy or Belgium that was not perpetuated in Brazil. The vitality and exuberance of a new and expanding population has inflated the very draperies of the modern statues. Brazil, we might consider, will be the last land of all to discover a sanity in modern architecture. Indeed, at any time from the beginning of this present century, the arrival of the new architecture into the Latin tropics must give birth to the most appalling horrors. How could it be otherwise, with a past consisting only of Rococo, and surrounded by all the worst excesses of the present? The history of why this has not happened is so recent that it is difficult to unravel it. So far as it is due to any persons in particular, it seems to be from the taste and criticism of Lucio Costa, and under the lead of Gustavo Capanema, who is Minister of Health and Education. It has all taken place since the Vargas government came to power in 1930. But the visit to Brazil of Le Corbusier, in 1936, marks the true beginning of the movement.
Le Corbusier used to be the most rigid and uncompromising of the modern architects in Europe. He has taken many years to become the master of his own conventions, while there is every reason to suppose that his buildings are not suited to a rainy climate. To Switzerland, perhaps, or Norway, but not to France or England. They need, in fact, strong sunlight; and in our latitudes this can only be given with the help of snow. A building designed by Le Corbusier for Barcelona and never carried out, marks the first use of the inventions that he took with him to Brazil. These were nothing less than a new architectural feature, which in the hands of his followers in Brazil has developed into the only solution for their climatic problems. For Le Corbusier has not practised in Brazil, he has been consultant architect. The problem in question is that of heat and light. The imported mid-nineteenth century architecture had made houses and offices alike, impossible to either work or live in. But there must be some means to turn the violent heat and light to advantage and profit by them, and this has beenaccomplished, as Mr. Kidder Smith describes in greater detail later, by two methods. The first is a pierced screen of concrete or camboge, a sort of cement adaptation of the convent grille as seen in Sicily or Spain, or of the wooden moucharabie of Moslem lands. The other is the brise-soleil, but we prefer quebra-sol in Portuguese, a prettier word and hotter, more tropical in sound. The quebra-sol is a movable sun-blind put outside the building, and used skillfully it can add much to the beauty of a modern building, for some few of these buildings are beautiful in the accepted sense, with no limitation.
Some of the architects are Brazilian and some are foreign. Alvaro Vital Brazil, an easy name, has at least one extraordinarily beautiful building to his credit, the Raul Vidal Elementary School, and’ it was completed in 1942, p. 79. The problem here was not to spoil the view of Rio across the Bay; and to make a sheltered playground for the children. This has been accomplished by raising the school on a line of columns through which the mountains and blue sea ~re seen, and making the shade under the building into the playground. The same architect built the laboratory at Sao Paulo for the making of snake-bite serum, also completed in 1942, and the curiously romantic purposes of this building must remind us we are in Brazil, and that behind us lie the forests of the Amazon. But so far we have not met with the quebra-sol. Alvaro Vital Brazil is content with small, square windows in a white facade.
‘Even the water tower at Olinda has become, in skilled hands, a mysterious erection like some extremely sensitised hearing apparatus for receiving messages from another world’
The Ministry of Health and Education in Rio offers the most startling use of the new invention. This building is not yet finished, and it is the result of collaboration among the modern architects. Lucio Costa has worked upon it; Le Corbusier has been consultant, and his pupil Oscar Niemeyer has contributed. Two sides of this building, which are in shade, are made of glass entirely. The other sides have those movable blue-painted sunshades which are worked by a crank and are turned with the movement of the sun, giving perpetually varying effects of light and shade within the building. The problem, we admit, is different. Yet it is sad, after this, to walk past and contemplate the building that houses our Ministry of Information! But even the water tower at Olinda (Pernambuco) has become, in skilled hands, a mysterious erection like some extremely sensitised hearing apparatus for receiving messages from another world-and under the water tower there is a dancing floor. It is a lesson, too, how well it looks beside a Baroque church. And it is worthy of remark that Catholic nuns are managing schools in some of the best modern buildings in the country.
Oscar Niemeyer, the pupil of Le Corbusier, has been given his opportunity at Bela Horizonte, a new settlement in Minas Gera.es, three hundred and fifty miles north of Rio, upon an artificial lake. Later on, some of the Government departments may move here, for it is three thousand feet above the sea. Niemeyer’s buIldings comprise a Yacht, a Casino and a Restaurant or Night Club on an island. The Casino is of steel, cement and glass, while in the interior, use is made of onvx from the Argentine and light-coloured native woods. The restaurant is circular, with a small stage and lily pond in the interior of the circle. But the Yacht Club is the most interesting of the three buildings, with indoor and outdoor restaurant and swimming pool. A landscape gardener, Roberto Burle-Marx, has assisted in the layout and decoration of these buildings, and has made a mural painting for the Yacht Club. It is this same landscape gardener who is reputed to make special use of the croton with its variegated leaves, which is native to Brazil, but only known to us in the most steaming of Victorian stove houses. Burle-Marx uses all the different varieties of the crotons, and masses or regiments them in their colours.
The brothers Marcelo and Milton Roberto designed the Brazilian Press Association Building in Rio with its roof garden, and Correa Lima, the seaplane station upon the bay. Both these show modern architecture adapted to the new purposes. Of course, not all of Rio’s modern buildings are to be admired. Some of the new apartment houses are frankly hideous. And there are wild fantasies, such as the office building in Sao Paulo, built on the design of the flag of the city of Sao Paulo, with a flag pole at one side of concentric windows, the main windows representing the stripes of the flag, and a round window at the top, the city’s seal. Also Rio, Sao Paulo and the other towns are so fast growing that general planning has been impossible, and the better modern buildings stand in isolation, or are even spoilt by their surroundings.
An Austrian architect, Bernard Rudofsky, who is now living in the United States, came to Sao Paulo in 1938, and in the space of three years built a pair of private houses that in their way are among the greatest successes of the whole modern movement. One of them, the Frontini house, has a great thirty-five foot glass door that slides open on to the garden, while another feature is an open grille of concrete with roses growing through its openings. Rudofsky has made inspired use of the tropical flowers and foliage, and of their shadows on the walls. The forms of the trees have an effect of intoxicating richness against the cool control and serenity of the architecture.
The Arnstein house is bigger in scale and more remarkable still. It has been described as the most beautiful house in the entire American continent and it was only completed in 1941. No fewer than five garden courts are enclosed in it, yet the total area is small. They are individual courts, the size of rooms, planted with flowering oleanders, with trailing vines and gorgeous orchids, with calmellias and gardenias, bamboos, lianas and mango trees. The organ cactus is in its proper setting; and not only the house but the garden courts may be said to open a new chapter in tropical gardening. Again, the plain white walls are quite beautiful against the foliage. The whole conception of this pair of houses and their gardens is original but, like all else, it has a precedent; that precedent is the classical landscape garden of Japan. We are reminded of the fifteenth century gardens of the monk Soami, in Kyoto. The Arnstein and Frontini gardens and their houses recall the temple gardens of Daisen-In and Ryuanji in Kyoto. Those are among the greatest aesthetic masterpieces of Japan, while these are the best modern architecture of our time.
Brazil, then, has a strong native school of modern architects and it has profited by the visits of foreigners and European exiles. But, as a whole, it is a school of architecture. Of what other country can it be said that some of its best buildings were finished but three years ago? The Raul Vidal Elementary School, the Ministry of Health and Education, both in Rio; the experiments of Niemeyer at Belo Horizonte; the houses of Rudofsky at Sao Paulo; such are the summits of this achievement. They are most promising, coming from a land bigger in area than the United States, half as big again as Western Europe, and with a population of over forty millions.
In this crucible of races we may expect other things as well as architecture to emerge. More than all else, it may be music. Brazil has already one remarkable composer, Vila Lobos, and a decorative Portinari. Younger painters and sculptors will, in all probability, appear. If once again, after a woken architecture has come to life, then the emergence of painters and craftsmen will not be sporadic. They will fill their place against their proper background, in a way that has been impossible since the Napoleonic wars. In this sense, architecture is the most important of all the arts. Once that is established, the rest is natural and spontaneous; and composer, painter, writer, painter, are no longer freakish and isolated figures. It would certainly seem as if in Brazil, architecture, the Sleeping Beauty, was stirring after century or more of death throughout the world, her slumber of a hundred years. She has during the World War. But here are her buildings, and they should inspire us when the war is won.