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Bossa nova beat: the symbiosis between Brazilian architecture and music

Modernism nurtured the rich symbiosis between Brazilian architecture and music

Antônio carlos jobim and lyricist vinicius de moraes brasília architecture and music brasil architectural review 1465

Antônio carlos jobim and lyricist vinicius de moraes brasília architecture and music brasil architectural review 1465

The musical partnership of composer Antônio Carlos Jobim and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes brought bossa nova to an international audience with songs such as A Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema) (1962)

It’s not uncommon to find approximations between bossa nova and Modernist Brazilian architecture, especially when dealing with the symbolic crystallisation of modern Brazil: Brasília. When describing the hope for a ‘light modernity’ in 1950s Brazil, Lorenzo Mammì explained that ‘Niemeyer’s architecture and Jobim’s music are expressions of delight in a singular instant in the face of repetition; of the preservation of the emotional halo around word and space in the face of the search for precise expression’.

The fact that Juscelino Kubitschek was both the great champion of this architecture and a figure who became known to history as the ‘bossa nova president’ isn’t down to chance. It is also no coincidence that Antônio Carlos Jobim (also known as Tom) and Vinicius de Moraes are the composers of the Sinfonia da Alvorada (Symphony of Dawn), an epic soundtrack for the modern capital, built in the middle of the cerrado’s solitude. Both arts share a strong identity that gives Brazilian modernisation its true meaning – a modernisation that occurred before the 1960s ‘age of festivals’ and television, on the one hand, and the explosion of cities spearheaded by realestate speculation and favelisation, on the other.

It might also not be by mere happenstance that important Brazilian songwriters, such as Jobim and Chico Buarque, studied architecture. In fact, in Buarque’s small poetic autobiography in which he paid tribute to his childhood idol, Oscar Niemeyer – the architect had designed a house for Buarque’s father, which was unfortunately never realised – he wrote that ‘when my music turns out well, I think it sounds like something by Tom Jobim. Tom’s songs, in my mind, are Niemeyer’s houses’.

Oscar nieymeyer set orfeu da conceição orpheus of the conception by morae architecture and music brasil architectural review 1465

Oscar nieymeyer set orfeu da conceição orpheus of the conception by morae architecture and music brasil architectural review 1465

The three-act stage play Orfeu da Conceição (Orpheus of the Conception) by Moraes with music by Jobim and stage setting by Niemeyer premiered in 1956 at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro

Limited importance was attached to architecture at the time of the Modern Art Week of 1922, when a significant cadre of Brazilian poets and painters had already adopted a distinctly avantgarde stance. Nonetheless, from the second half of the 1930s onwards, the practice of architecture led Brazil’s cultural production on a vertiginous trajectory that culminated in the inauguration of Brasília in 1960. ‘In Brazil, artistic precedence fell on the shoulders of architecture’, Mário Pedrosa explained in 1953, because young architects ‘were the true revolutionaries’. The statement carried with it a clear jab at the ideological nationalism of Brazil’s Modernist painters – already anachronistic compared with the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer, Affonso Eduardo Reidy and other young architects.

Flyer for nieymeyer set orfeu da conceição orpheus of the conception by moraes architecture and music brasil architectural review 1465

Flyer for nieymeyer set orfeu da conceição orpheus of the conception by moraes architecture and music brasil architectural review 1465

A poster for Orfeu da Conceição (Orpheus of the Conception)

It was not until the 1950s that Brazilian artistic production in the areas of popular music, poetry and plastic arts – including bossa nova and Concretism in its many forms – finally reached the standard of modernity previously set by architecture, and became capable of producing internationally important cultural contributions that were sophisticated without being aristocratic. Though set approximately 20 years apart, it could be argued that the famous show of bossa nova musicians at Carnegie Hall in 1962, for example, is as important as the Brazil Builds exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1943 – just as Frank Sinatra and Jobim’s famous 1967 disc can be compared to Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer’s UN headquarters building project from 1947.

Doorway to brasília aloisio magalhães eugene feldman  john dos passos  lúcio costa oscar niemeyer the national congress 1465

Doorway to brasília aloisio magalhães eugene feldman john dos passos lúcio costa oscar niemeyer the national congress 1465

Doorway to Brasília is a collaboration between artists Aloisio Magalhães and Eugene Feldman. It includes text by John Dos Passos, Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer. The National Congress in Brasília by Niemeyer, opened in 1960, a year after publication of the book

And the perfect backdrop for Brazil’s nascent cultural production was the southern area of tropical Rio de Janeiro, with the relaxed seaside climate of the generous promenades in Ipanema and Copacabana, along with the wide, open spaces of the Aterro do Flamengo and the modernity of its ‘cold palm grove of cement’ (to borrow from a song by Caetano Veloso). In fact, it is in Rio de Janeiro’s cosmopolitan environment that the cultural physiognomy of modern Brazil was formed. Brazil’s then capital was the site of the amalgamation of the country’s various regionalisms into images brimming with national identity. Rio was not only the setting for the birth of modern Brazilian architecture and bossa nova, and where they were disseminated from — it was also their very raison d’être.

Oscar nieymeyer sketch architecture and music brasil architectural review 1465

Oscar nieymeyer sketch architecture and music brasil architectural review 1465

Sketch by Niemeyer – a drawing that led him to architecture. He said his work was not about form following function, but rather ‘form following feminine’. It was the female form that inspired his curvaceous buildings

Architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha alluded to this when describing the song Corcovado by Jobim (‘Da janela vê-se o Corcovado, o redentor, que lindo!’ [From the window you see the Corcovado, the redeemer, how beautiful!]). Mendes da Rocha considers that a ‘window at that height presupposes an apartment building’, and the landscape is beautiful only because ‘behind us there is a breeze, voices and pans with beans on the stove, a laundry tub and drying clothes hanging on the clothes line.’ By mirroring the vision of a dense, vertical, and simultaneously Edenic city, bossa nova and modern architecture offer an understanding of what life is like for Rio’s urban middle class. In Brazil, the combination of cultural influences in music (samba and bossa nova) privileged the singularity of melodic design; by contrast, jazz in the United States took a ‘polyphonic’ shape, based on harmonic structure. Lorenzo Mammì deepened that comparison by observing how, in the US, the performance culture, based on instrumental improvisation, is in tune with an ostensible professionalism. In Brazil, meanwhile, the intimate atmosphere is brought to the public in the form of a certain amateurism that tries to resist the temptations of the technical, which musically brings singing closer to the spontaneity of speech. ‘We can’t state, in fact, that João Gilberto’s singing rests on the chords of its musical accompaniment’, writes Mammì. In fact, we often hear the opposite: ‘chords hanging in the corner, like clothes hanging on a clothes line’. In comparison with architecture, we could say that Niemeyer’s free form isn’t based on any obvious structural framework. On the contrary: this framework is often hidden, giving prominence to the sinuous contour lines – a flat, seemingly volumeless profile. In that aspect, Niemeyer is the polar opposite to Buckminster Fuller, the North American architect-designer, inventor of the geodesic dome and a firm believer in the notion that geometry and technology would be able to bring order to the world.

Canoas © tamar guimarães courtesy of fortes d’aloia gabriel, são paulo rio de janeiro oscar niemeyer architectural review brazil 1465

Canoas © tamar guimarães courtesy of fortes d’aloia gabriel, são paulo rio de janeiro oscar niemeyer architectural review brazil 1465

Source: © TAMAR GUIMARÃES. COURTESY OF FORTES D’ALOIA & GABRIEL, SÃO PAULO/RIO DE JANEIRO

A film still from Canoas by Tamar Guimarães features a cocktail party at the Casa das Canoas, the house Oscar Niemeyer designed for himself in Rio, 1951-53. The video explores Brazilian modernity in housing, politics and arts

Given this view of a culture accustomed to valuing art as an expression of labour, bossa nova and Brazilian architecture unsettle some North American critics and artists, surprised by the ‘effortless’ simplicity of its shapes and its melodies – apparently freed from the barest trace of labour in their creative process, even when they’re constrained by tremendous constructive rigour. In other words: it might be said that, for the North Americans, everything occurs according to a public dimension, whereas in Brazil it is the affectivity of the private sphere that colours actions, and that lends them intimate subjectivity.

Doorway to brasilia cover oscar niemeyer alvorada palace 1958 architectural review brazil 1465

Doorway to brasilia cover oscar niemeyer alvorada palace 1958 architectural review brazil 1465

The cover image of Doorway to Brasília features a column from Niemeyer’s Alvorada Palace of 1958

One of Niemeyer’s best-known statements is his affirmation of not paying much attention to architecture, since ‘life is what truly matters: friends, women …’ Though apparently meant as a witticism, Niemeyer repeated the statement many times, displaying a mixture of bad political conscience – the perception that architecture in Brazil was generally cut off from social problems – and a genuine inclination towards informal antiprofessionalism. Hence, despite being a compulsive worker in his surrender to design, something to which his devoted experience in Brasília attests, Niemeyer vehemently rejects the image of the labourer. He thus invented a fictional ‘double’ of himself, who, as a sort of ghostly afterimage ‘purer’ than he himself was, would always guide him towards beauty as a supreme value. He writes: ‘If I start designing a project, it will take me by the arm, leading me in ecstasy to the new, curved and unpredictable shapes we so prefer’.

Though there’s an anti-bourgeois ideological undercurrent to this posture, along with a clear Romantic fascination with indomitable, inspired genius, one can also perceive the traits of a ‘beach civilisation’ – in Jobim’s words – where the professed refusal of productivity betrays a lyricism attached to the tempo of everyday life, its indefinite duration filled with carefree idleness. Le Corbusier seemed taken by a voracious urge to project all the time, and to convince governing authorities and industrialists alike of the importance of getting his projects built; Walter Gropius, in turn, committed himself to founding a school, and to creating a field of collective projects based on teamwork. Niemeyer, who never taught, was a true soloist in architecture. And he attributed his designs to a vague doppelgänger while apparently resting in his Avenida Atlântica studio, among photographs of naked women, becoming the longest-lived of all the Modernist architects. Instead of pursuing the ideal of industrial standardisation, he devoted himself to the exercise of variety. Hence the magic of the Pampulha Modern Ensemble, the starting point of his oeuvre – where, in the words of Carlos Eduardo Dias Comas, glossing Le Corbusier’s phrase, the architect ‘delights himself in the wise, correct and magnificent play of folias under light’.
Translated by Anton Stark

This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Brazil – click here to purchase your copy today