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Editorial: Chega de saudade

001 ar cover october web

Only 75 years since the AR devoted an entire issue to Brazil, we turn our eyes to the rich and myriad architectures of this massive country – even as clouds gather on the horizon

Saudade is one of those untranslatable words that always disappoints when attempts are made to explain its meaning in other languages. Considered the first recorded bossa nova song, Chega de Saudade was released in English as No More Blues, but this title fails to translate the complexity of this very Brazilian emotion. Both painful and pleasurable, saudade is the memory of something good that came before, the presence of absence.

The story of bossa nova is indissociable from that of Brazilian Modernism. ‘Artistic precedence fell on the shoulders of architecture’, Mário Pedrosa explained in 1953, because young architects ‘were the true revolutionaries’. The momentum they instigated then propelled Brazil’s cultural production on a vertiginous trajectory, climaxing in the inauguration of a new capital. As Brasília prepares for its 50-year anniversary in 2020, Milton Hatoum paints an alternative portrait, depicting the city’s maddening reality. 

In those days, the enthusiasm for new beginnings was accompanied by fearless optimism and perpetual progress. ‘To the European architect few creatures could appear as fabulous as his Brazilian counterpart as he appears in the stories which filter back from Rio’, write the editors of The Architectural Review in November 1954. A decade after the AR’s special issue on Brazil, the works of Costa, Reidy, Levi and Niemeyer (the inevitable choice for this month’s Reputations) still dominated. They had liberated Le Corbusier’s vocabulary and proven Modernism belonged in the tropics: Brazil is the first country to create a ‘national style of modern architecture’, Reyner Banham argued at the time.

In a country the size of a continent, it is but a small group of prominent figures (mainly white men) who lead the way. The keynote essay weaves together the stories and destinies of these strong characters, confronting their bold visions against a very unstable political backdrop. As the free-form Modernism of the Carioca school made way for rational Paulista Brutalism, we pause to revisit Reidy’s Pedregulho, recently renovated, and retrace the career of Paulo Mendes da Rocha, whose work casts the postcolonial relationship between Portugal and Brazil in sharp relief.

Brazil’s architectural success story conceals its Baroque roots, deeply tangled in colonialism. Costa attempted to ‘deflect the criticism that Modernism was foreign’, writes Fernando Luiz Lara, seeking to decolonise the narrative of Brazilian architecture, but ‘modern/colonial stitching goes much further, and uglier, than that’. Repeatedly referred to as ‘paradise on Earth’ and the ‘country of the future’ (of the eternal future for the cynics), Brazil can appear smothered by the myths and fantasies projected onto faraway tropical lands.

For Lina Bo Bardi, Brazilian architecture requires ‘a continual mixing of technological know-how with the spontaneity and passion of primitive art’. Her legacy and influence comes through in various pieces (including an essay on the Avenida Paulista and a building study on Brasil Arquitetura’s Museu Cais do Sertão in Recife). SESC Pompéia was virtually unknown outside Brazil at the time of her death, but the SESC centres remain some of the world’s most optimistically radical social projects ever undertaken. The oily bodies on the cover are lounging around the rooftop pool of the SESC 24 de Maio, surrounded by São Paulo’s concrete jungle. Designed by Mendes da Rocha and MMBB, it is easily one of the greatest Brazilian projects completed in the last two decades – and all the more important now that Bolsonaro’s government is putting the future of this unique institution at threat. As dark clouds gather on the horizon, the last 75 years of Brazil’s architectural legacy provide a solid foundation on which to build a resilient future.

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