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The forgotten master of Brazilian Modernism

Subject to several unfortunate twists of history, Affonso Eduardo Reidy was once considered the most important Brazilian architect of his generation

At the height of his career in the mid 1960s, Affonso Eduardo Reidy was generally considered – both nationally and internationally – to be the most important Brazilian architect of his generation. Long-term collaborator Oscar Niemeyer once described him as the ‘gentleman of Brazil’, and penned numerous texts in deferential praise. For Roberto Burle Marx, Reidy’s unrivalled sensitivity to context and natural terrain was a source of inspiration. Domestically, Reidy was responsible for some of Brazil’s greatest public buildings, among them the MAM (national Museum of Modern Art). Abroad, he was admired and respected: a close friend of Le Corbusier, and the only Brazilian Modernist to have a book written about his work by Sigfried Giedion.

Unlike Niemeyer, Reidy never sought to present his architecture as the product of a singular genius, but rather framed his efforts as representative of a collective vision to reinvent his country. Indeed, his career (1929-64) is exactly bookended by a revolution and a military coup – a unique period defined by a National Plan to rapidly modernise and industrialise Brazil. In 1930, the progressive attitudes toward social architecture Reidy had espoused as a student suddenly aligned with the aims of this new government, and the power shift put him in a position to extremely rapidly realise his ambitions.

‘Reidy detested nepotism, and he perceived the appointment of architects (rather than an open competition) as undemocratic’

Reidy became São Paulo’s chief architect through an open competition, and spent the next three decades building mostly popular housing – he accepted just one private commission in his lifetime. While working on his first built project, Reidy met and then married a municipal engineer, Carmen Portinho, one of Brazil’s first female engineers, an activist and a vocal feminist. Together, through both publications and projects, they were a powerful force for disseminating the ideas of CIAM (the couple would later be called by the minister for public health ‘the creators of modern architecture in Brazil’). ‘Differently tempered, she expansive and politically minded, he shy and reflective’, Nabil Bonduki writes, ‘the combination of engineer and architect generated some of the most important works of Brazilian architecture – planned by Reidy, and built by Portinho.’

Their desire to create an identifiably Brazilian Modernism is most evident in the couple’s two mass housing projects, at Pedregulho (1947) and Marquês de São Vicente (1952). While formally inspired by Le Corbusier’s 1929 plan for Rio de Janeiro – a scheme of long slabs topped by highways, better known in its reincarnation as his 1933 masterplan for Algiers – Reidy’s winding blocks differ significantly in their conception and execution. The curves of Corbusier were based on the spatial signatures of cars at speed, and only loosely corresponded to the geography. They were an imposition of technology onto territory. By contrast, Reidy drew out the natural topography, magnifying the underlying qualities of the site in a negotiation between landscape and infrastructure that impressed Burle Marx. This process of extracting graceful splines from the country itself would become a cornerstone of Brazilian Modernism, a principle adopted by Reidy’s most prominent successors. When Niemeyer wrote his autobiography in 2000, he rather underplayed Reidy’s influence on his ‘bold entrance to the world of curves, [a] deliberate protest [that] arose from the environment in which I lived, with its white beaches, its huge mountains … and the beautiful suntanned women’.

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The winding Pedregulho Mass Housing Complex in Rio de Janeiro, begun in 1947. Today it stands in a state of disrepair

Reidy led a group of radical architects comprising Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa. If he has fallen in prominence against his peers, it is for perhaps three unfortunate twists of history. The first concerns his refusal to be involved with the planning for the new capital, Brasília. Reidy detested nepotism, and he perceived the appointment of architects (rather than an open competition) as undemocratic. While Niemeyer initially refused to accept the commission without Reidy (identifying Reidy as the superior urbanist), he quickly capitulated. Critic Geraldo Ferraz wrote of Reidy’s refusal that he was ‘a rare example of an architect who distinguished himself working nearly exclusively for public powers, but who in no way became bureaucratised or officialised’. In a different context, the monumental structures of Brasília that lifted Niemeyer to international fame would probably have been those of Reidy.

Except that, even if he had been involved, he would never have lived to see the city completed. Reidy died suddenly at the age of 55, while completing MAM. If the novel grace and elegance of this structure is anything to go by, Reidy was (like Niemeyer) about to enter a wholly new phase of his career. The premature end to his development at exactly the moment his architecture was achieving its maturity is a second reason for his relative obscurity. The final reason is more banal; because all his work was for the state, his drawings were scattered or lost when the public archives were abandoned during the military coup. As a result, Nabil Bonduki’s book, which for the first time regroups Reidy’s archive, is an incomparable resource. It contains extensive original drawings, photographs and historical material, and is the product of many years of archival research (principally with São Paulo University). Although published 16 years ago, Affonso Eduardo Reidy is still easily obtainable, and remains the definitive monograph on this often overlooked great architect.

Affonso Eduardo Reidy

Editor: Nabil Bonduki
Publisher: Editions Blau

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