The Brazilian aristocrat Maria Carlota Costallat de Macedo Soares is best known outside her native country for her intense, tragic love affair with one of the greatest poets of the late 20th century, Elizabeth Bishop. However, in Brazil, Dona Lota, as she was known, is remembered as the landscape architect and designer of what she had hoped would be Rio de Janeiro’s Central Park. Although she is often referred to as an architect, Macedo Soares did not study the subject, but she did work for Brazil’s Modernist artist Candido Portinari. Using her natural ability, her extraordinary capacity for hard work and the advantages of her birth, she turned herself into an Olmsted of the tropics.
The informal training she needed to create Flamengo Park was under way when she met Bishop in 1951; the irrepressible Dona Lota was building a house, ostensibly designed by architect Sérgio Bernardes but best described as the result of an often fractious collaboration between client and architect. Macedo Soares was already a key figure in bringing together Portinari and architects and had discovered Bernardes in this context, but she wasn’t overawed by him. While the pioneering use of steel frames may have been the first of many technical innovations he introduced to Brazillian Modernism, the relationship between the lush vegetation of the hills above Rio and the external landscaping were undeniably Macedo Soares’s.
As Carmen Lucia de Oliveira puts it in the book of Macedo Soares’s life with Bishop, Rare and Commonplace Flowers: ‘The house would express Lota’s passionate ideas about modern architecture. It happened that Sérgio had his own passionate ideas about modern architecture. The result was fireworks when the two sat down to discuss the project. He had the architecture degree but she was Lota de Macedo Soares.’ In many ways it was in working with Bernardes, arguing tooth and nail over every decision, that she had her real training. The house is a masterpiece.
It was where Bishop largely wrote Questions of Travel, the collection that announced her as one of the greatest poets of her age. ‘Is it lack of imagination that makes us come / to imagined places, not just stay at home?’ she asks in the title poem. Both book and house share a strange combination of familiarity and ceaseless inquiry into new possibilities. While Modernism was elsewhere being enlisted in the construction of the new state, here it is being tested for domestic use. The house, so full of warmth and personality, is also a laboratory for new ways of building. It announced Bernardes as a major talent and gave Macedo Soares the belief that she could work at a major scale.
‘Lota pointed to some rubble directly in front of the governor’s apartment. “Give me this fill, this aterro (landfill). I’ll make it into a Central Park”’
While Bishop will invariably dominate thoughts about Macedo Soares’s life, more important in the consideration of her work was her friendship and her professional relationship with conservative politician Carlos Lacerda, who was elected governor of Guanabara state in 1960. Recognising in her very strong organisational skills as well as vision, he offered her a position in his administration on his election. What happened next is the stuff of myths. De Oliviera describes it thus: ‘“Tell me what you want,” he said. Lota pointed to some rubble directly in front of the governor’s apartment. “Give me this fill, this aterro (landfill). I’ll make it into a Central Park.”’
It would be an odd tour guide who insisted that Flamengo Park was an obligatory stop on a whistlestop tour of Rio de Janeiro; they would no doubt draw the visitor’s attention to the world-famous beaches of Copacabana or Ipanema. However, the Aterro do Flamengo, as it is popularly known – or, more officially, Aterro do Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes – is the largest leisure area in Rio de Janeiro, offering 120 hectares of ingeniously planned and planted parkland and representing a defining moment in Brazilian Modernism. The myth that it was bequeathed in an act of sudden largesse to Macedo Soares is engaging but untrue; it would be just as accurate to say that Lacerda realised it was the perfect visual expression of his campaign promise to improve sanitation and health throughout the city.
‘Macedo Soares was, on the one hand, goading the prima donnas of Brazilian Modernism and, on the other, fighting its antiquated bureaucracy’
Flamengo represents an important moment in the history of urban planning. Far from being a place of escape from the city, like Olmsted’s Central Park, or a retreat into a pre-urban past such as Hyde Park in London, Macedo Soares’s design for Flamengo – built on land reclaimed for the sea as part of a marina project and sculpted with the earth from the flattened Santo Antonio Hill– embraces modernity. The scale of the park is huge. It incorporated into it not just an existing modern art gallery but also an airport. Macedo Soares did not make it easy on herself. She brought the best minds of her age into its design. She put together a team of eight architects including her old sparring partner Bernardes. She found Ethel Bauzer Medeiros, who had studied the new field of recreation in the United States. She also gave the botanist and landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx one of his first big commissions, tasking him with introducing the species he had discovered on his trips into Amazonia to a public park constituted of salty and sandy soil. Realising that Burle Marx was a genius, she had him plant 11,600 trees from 190 native and non-native species.
The process was brutal. Macedo Soares was, on the one hand, goading and corralling the prima donnas of Brazilian Modernism and, on the other, fighting its antiquated bureaucracy. The political support from Lacerda was not as steady as it might have been: he was only able to appoint her as an advisor and she was left largely to work the system. And while she doggedly stuck to her political master’s expressed intent to root out corruption, Lacerda found out that the scale of graft within the city meant he had to make more pragmatic decisions in that regard himself.
Macedo Soares’s domestic life grew difficult. Work demands dictated that she be in the city Bishop hated. ‘While she saves the doomed city of Rio, I shut myself up with my air conditioner and try to forget it,’ wrote Bishop in a letter to fellow poet Robert Lowell. Sadly this was not all Bishop did: she also drank heavily.
Two years after completing the park, Macedo Soares had a mental breakdown and killed herself. Her family laid the blame squarely at Bishop’s feet. The poet, herself wracked with remorse, allowed them to. However, it would be fairer to refer to Macedo Soares’s own obsessive nature, manifest throughout the design and execution of the massive project. A far more prosaic reason could also be that she caught typhoid in 1964 and was left in a vulnerable physical state. Regardless of the cause, it was a tremendously sad end to a life which had been spent in the pursuit and creation of true beauty.
Illustration by Jeff Östberg