The Brazilian Modernist’s work is celebrated for its punchy, honest concern for social good
In 1951 two glass houses were completed, one in North, the other in South America. One was the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, which became an emblem of all that was right, or wrong, about the International Style. The other was the Casa de Vidro, on the edge of São Paulo, built by Lina Bo Bardi as a home for herself and her husband the art dealer and curator Pietro Bardi. Its celebrity and that of its architect have burned more slowly.
For all the attention that postwar Brazilian Modernism commanded, Bo Bardi (while never precisely obscure) failed to share in it to the same extent as Oscar Niemeyer, or her friend Lucio Costa. She was less prolific, with perhaps half-a-dozen significant built projects. She worked in gloomy São Paulo and out-of-the-way Salvador de Bahia, rather than sexy Rio and futuristic Brasília. She was hard to categorise − just to call her Modernist didn’t really describe what she was about.
My own first encounter with her work came thanks to an RIBA exhibition in the 1990s, and Piers Gough’s enthusiasm. I was struck not only by her daring and creative freedom, but by the reciprocity in her work between the human and the built, the animate and inanimate. For this reason she is the main character in my forthcoming book, Why We Build, which explores the interaction of buildings with the thoughts and actions that make them, and that inhabit them. Now there are signs that her time, reputationally speaking, has come: Kazuyo Sejima included a display of her work in the 2010 Venice Biennale, and the AA mounted an exhibition earlier this year of her and her ex-boss Giò Ponti. Another show, with contributions by Madelon Vriesendorp and others, will open at the British Council in September.
Lina Bo Bardi
School of Architecture, University of Rome
From Italy to Brazil (1946)
Casa de Vidro (1951)
Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP)(1960)
SESC Pompéia (1986)
‘Linear time is a Western invention, time is not linear, it is a marvellous tangle, where, at any moment, points can be selected and solutions invented, without beginning or end’
Apart from the fact that sufficient recognition is overdue, there are reasons why she should be getting it now. As contemporary architecture gropes towards rediscovering social purpose, she offers an example of someone who was clear about what she wished her buildings to do for the people who experienced them. This is demonstrated in her three best-known projects: the Casa de Vidro of 1951, the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), which opened in the 1960s, and SESC Pompéia, created in stages from 1977 to 1986.Where the Farnsworth House is famously embarrassed by inhabitation, the Casa de Vidro welcomes it: it was conceived as a setting for the Bardis’ eclectic and changing collections of old masters, folk art and objets trouvés, and for a social life that included Roberto Rossellini, John Cage and Saul Steinberg among their guests. It was also an instrument for experiencing the rich flora and fauna of its almost-tropical setting: built on a steep slope, and supported on slender pilotis, it gradually became enveloped by trees. The house, stark and dramatic in early photographs, would progressively recede.
With MASP she applied the techniques of the house − the raising-above-the-ground to provide a heightened experience of life − to a public project, a museum displaying a magnificent art collection. It consists of a glass-wrapped concrete box containing two floors of galleries, which hovers above a public plaza level with the eight-lane Avenida Paulista, which turns out to be the roof of two more concrete floors, half-buried in a slope and containing a library, restaurant, theatre and ‘civic hall’. The upper box hangs off two concrete portals, shaped like giant football goals, which span 70 metres: the effect is to make the public plaza, which has housed concerts, political protests, a circus and the ordinary wanderings of everyday existence, into a potent place. The box above becomes a cuboid ark, or a concrete parasol, both impressive and sheltering.
In the upper level gallery, Bo Bardi created an installation of the paintings (now scandalously destroyed) in which they were fixed to upright glass panels secured at their base with concrete blocks to stop them toppling. Together, the paintings and glass panels formed a transparent grove in the side-lit space, in which you could look both at a painting and past it to others, and to other viewers. The artworks were not windows on a wall but occupied space, as they might have appeared on easels to their makers. As Aldo van Eyck put it, ‘they were not just pictures − things you look at − but paintings, things made through the actions of a painter.’ Like the house, MASP is a framework for multiple layers of life and time, and means of making relationships between them − the activities in the plaza and the Avenida, the actions of dead artists and living viewers. The ambitious engineering does not draw attention to itself, but serves to make possible the intangibles of space, and activity; substance is enlisted to enable the insubstantial. The detailing is blunt and rough, deliberately so − wishing to ‘eliminate cultural snobbery’, she sought ‘arquitetura pobre’, poor architecture, using basic materials.
In the district of Pompéia Bo Bardi designed a cultural and social centre for a remarkable organisation, SESC, which, funded by private businesses, aims to provide everything from theatre to dentistry to the general public. Here the brief was to replace a partly ruined factory, but she found that it was spontaneously housing some of the activities, such as barbecues and a puppet theatre, that SESC was supposed to serve. So she kept the factory, repaired it, and formed a village-like assembly of spaces within, enhanced by (for example) a winding waterway and a large hearth. Later she added a cluster of three concrete towers, tough and castle-like, that are as emphatic as her other work is subtle. At least part of her motivation was to protect SESC Pompéia against the fluctuations of Brazilian politics, to make a ‘Citadel of Liberty’, as it would be called, which hostile regimes would find hard to delete.
The biggest of the towers contains a stack of sports courts. The next contains changing rooms and bars, and is linked to the first with proto-Hadid flying walkways, such that the usually mundane journey from locker to court becomes a thing of urban drama. The third is a cylindrical water-tower, ringed with the roughest daywork joints you will ever see. Together, the castle and village make a genuinely democratic space, where people wander, play chess or football, sunbathe, perform or watch a performance, and make or view art. At the same time it is a powerful place: Bo Bardi doesn’t just make these activities possible, she honours them and intensifies them.
All this is but a fragment of Bo Bardi’s life. Political activist, designer of furniture, temporary exhibitions and theatre sets, as well as an architect, each activity extended and informed the other. And her work with tiny budgets in Salvador de Bahia was as important to her as her buildings in the ‘pile of bones’ (as she put it) that was the harsh business city of São Paulo. But her house, MASP and SESC reveal what was important about her: her generosity, playfulness, openness, seriousness and strength of mind. Many architects talk about designing for ‘life’ in a general way; she meant it, and in highly specific ways. Social concern did not, for her, mean she had to be sentimental or insipid, but that her professional artistry and skill should be applied to spaces available to everyone. Few architects have achieved a balance of content and form as she did.
Illustration by NILS-PETTER EKWALL @ SYNERGY ART