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Troubles in paradise: the country of the eternal future

Index jean manzon manaus 2019 architectural review 1465

Brazil drew the hearts of such luminaries as Stefan Zweig and Lina Bo Bardi, who sought promise in its eternal future

Brazil was discovered a ‘second time’ when Philip L Goodwin and GE Kidder-Smith spent two months exploring and surveying the country’s colonial and modern architecture, in preparation for New York’s MoMA exhibition. The ‘first time’ takes us back nearly 450 years, when Portuguese caravels approached the Brazilian shores. Whether it was because contrary winds and currents sent them the wrong way, or because Pedro Alvarez Cabral’s crew was under strict orders to keep its mission a secret, Brazil was officially discovered in the early evening of 22 April 1500.

‘Brazil’s importance for the coming generations cannot be assessed even by the most daring calculations’

Describing it as ‘paradise on earth’, crew member Pêro Vaz de Caminha reports in a letter sent to the king that it is an ‘extraordinarily healthy’ country that produces ‘all sorts of things in abundance’. From terra incognita to ‘land of the future’, Brazil’s promise seems proportional to its sheer vastness, as if its incredible potential could fill every inch of its underpopulated immensity. All that was known at the time was a long stretch of Atlantic coast – nearly 7,500 kilometres in length, it is reduced to a line on a map. Beyond this narrow strip of lowland plains lies an impenetrable interior of virgin forests, thorny scrublands, tropical savanna, fragile marshes and thick jungle.

© the saul steinberg foundation artists rights society ars  dacs london 2019 architectural review 1465

© the saul steinberg foundation artists rights society ars dacs london 2019 architectural review 1465

Source: © THE SAUL STEINBERG FOUNDATION/ ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS) / DACS, LONDON 2019

Drawn around 1966, Saul Steinberg’s Autogeography paints a landscape that mixes the real with the imaginary

Development was slow, accelerated only by sporadic, and sometimes hazardous, episodes – the auspicious attempt to plant imported sugarcane on its extraordinarily fertile soil, or the accidental discovery of gold, diamonds and gemstones along the banks of its rivers. Latex extraction proved a very lucrative enterprise and, since rubber trees were exclusively found in the Amazon at the time, Manaus unexpectedly became the country’s first city to be urbanised, in the 1890s. While the rubber boom was short-lived and Manaus rapidly fell back into poverty, the monumental public buildings it financed stand as legacy. In front of the Teatro Amazonas lies the wavy patterned pavement of black basalt and white limestone – first inspired by Lisbon’s Praça do Rossio, it was then replicated in Copacabana and became the country’s most famous postcard. Rio de Janeiro was not the precursor in this instance; for once, the wave of modernity was travelling in the other direction. Moving deeper inland is like travelling back in time, observes Swiss-born poet Blaise Cendrars, who first went to Brazil in 1924 – by boat to relive the impressions of the first seafaring men – and later wrote Le Brésil, des hommes sont venus (1952) [Brazil, some men have come]. The plane had been invented by then, but its use would do little to remedy this temporal shift: flying from Rio to the Amazon or to Mato Grosso would still ‘drop you impromptu in the midst of the Neolithic’. His short text captures the country’s stark contrasts and multiple contradictions. Mesmerised by Carioca skyscrapers, he finds them too small when set against the prodigiousness of their backdrop. He insists on ‘the most beautiful landscapes on Earth, the most colourful’, but the superlatives barely suffice when ‘everything is turned up a notch’ and ‘the light is so intense it scares painters’.

Untitled 1

Untitled 1

Source: r; THREE LIONS / HULTON ARCHIVE / GETTY IMAGES

Stefan Zweig’s Brasil, País do Futuro, published 1941 (left) and Zweig looking out over a model of Brazil, circa 1930 (right)

Beyond natural beauty, Brazil’s promise lies in the ‘new kind of civilisation’ it suggests. Not expecting any ‘intellectual stimulation’, Austrian author Stefan Zweig had completely underestimated the impact his first flying visit would have. He would return, and in Brazil, Land of the Future (1941) he highlights the ‘courage and generosity in all the modern things, and with all the traces of a well-preserved ancient culture’ that stunned him on his arrival. The meaning of concepts such as ‘civilisation’ and ‘comfort’ suddenly collapses. Published two years later, during Lina Bo Bardi’s last year at university, Brazil Builds was ‘something marvellous’ that represented ‘a beacon a light amid all the death and destruction’ for the young Italian architect. Escaping the exhaustion of postwar Europe and the Roman establishment, she wanted to uncover the grass-roots potential of a young nation in the new world, start again somewhere with no ruins, no bad habits, no closed horizons.

From her first watercolour of Recife, sketched while on the Almirante Jaceguay before reaching the leaning and wallowing mountains of Rio de Janeiro, where she recalls the sight of the imposing Ministry of Health and Education, the young émigrée never stopped painting, drawing and photographing the new world around her. In issue 1 of Habitat (1950), she published snapshots of hammocks swaying aboard gaiolas, commenting on how the fabric is simultaneously bed and armchair, making it the most adequate invention to rest. She observed human bodies and the ways they sink into a chair, slouch against a wall, or sprawl onto the floor, blaming contemporary industrial design for seeking to create arbitrary forms that reject established logic and ignore natural laws. Everyday objects and popular art turned into a constant source of inspiration. Learning from the hammocks’ downright simplicity, she experiments with wood, steel and leather, making what she claims to be ‘Brazil’s first modern chair’.

Lina bo bardi no navio almirante jaceguay rumo ao brasil 1946 sem autor architectural review 1465

Lina bo bardi no navio almirante jaceguay rumo ao brasil 1946 sem autor architectural review 1465

Source: © INSTITUTO BARDI / CASA DE VIDRO

Lina Bo Bardi bound for Brazil in 1946

Editing a magazine gave her a platform to interpret, translate, digest, reflect and question. In issue 2 of Habitat (1951), she forgives the ‘many flaws’ of Brazil’s new architecture, writing that ‘it is young, it hasn’t had much time to stop and reflect, but came into being all of a sudden, as a beautiful child’. If Portuguese architecture is heavy, always solidly anchored into the ground, Brazilian architecture is more like elevated floating mass, seemingly infinite lines stretching out beyond the horizon – think of the incongruity between the immutable thick stone walls of Souto de Moura’s chapel and Carla Juaçaba’s polished stainless-steel beams held in delicate balance, displayed next to each other on San Giorgio Maggiore.

Lina bo bardi chair design © instituto bardi  casa de vidro architectural review 1465 brazil

Lina bo bardi chair design © instituto bardi casa de vidro architectural review 1465 brazil

Source: top left and bottom right; © Instituto Bardi / Casa de Vidro

Bo Bardi made careful observations of the surrounding world, her chair designs inspired by the way people interact with their environment

Perched high above the tree canopy of Morumbi’s Atlantic rainforest on the outskirts of São Paulo, the Casa de Vidro (1952) is Bo Bardi’s first project in Brazil. As she travelled the country, an eclectic collection of objects slowly accumulated in the house’s floating interiors – statues wear jewellery, religious carvings safeguard theatre props and colourful ceramic shards are embedded in the garden’s winding stone paths. Here the past catches up with the present, disturbing established codes of conduct, blurring divides between cultural frames of reference.

It would never have been possible to build the same house once the country adopted European regulations (it was planned and constructed under the Côdigo de Normas Brasileiro) and her ideas for the city’s museum of modern art would have been inconceivable in the Old World, under the auspices of the Beaux-Arts. At the MASP, paintings were ripped from the walls, freed, floating in mid-air, read alongside one another, asking visitors to walk around easels to read artworks’ titles and information. Stepping out of his car on Avenida Paulista and standing under the 70m span with 8m of headroom, John Cage declared ‘this is the architecture of freedom’. Bo Bardi, who repeatedly said she felt free in Brazil ‘even as a woman’ echoed Cage by saying the project was a ‘nothing’, a ‘pursuit of freedom, a breaking down of barriers’.

Nordeste exhibition poster lina bo bardi habitat 1 1950 brazil architectural review 1465

Nordeste exhibition poster lina bo bardi habitat 1 1950 brazil architectural review 1465

Source: both images; © Instituto Bardi / Casa de Vidro

The first issue of Habitat (1950) and, on the right, a poster for the exhibition Nordeste, organised by Lina Bo Bardi

Lúcio Costa looked for Modernist inspiration in colonial architecture, but Bo Bardi dug deeper, seeking roots in ‘the wattle-and-daub shelter of the solitary man, laboriously constructed out of the materials of the forest’ and in ‘the house of the rubbertapper, with its wooden floor and thatch roof’. Unafraid to attack Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, she refused to succumb to internationalist tendencies and looked for alternative paths, ways out of ‘inhuman industrial monopoly’. Her houses of air gradually evolved into houses of earth and although her most admired legacy lives on in São Paulo, Bo Bardi was more Bahian than Paulista.

Jean manzon manaus 2019 architectural review 1465

Jean manzon manaus 2019 architectural review 1465

Source: Jean Manzon

The paving at Largo de São Sebastião in Manaus represents the meeting of waters between the Negro and the Solimões rivers

As the country’s oldest city, the colony’s former capital and the site of its large and notorious slave market, European, African and Amerindinan cultures converged in Salvador. Setting up the Bahian Modern Art Museum (MAMB) and spending five years living there, she underlined the importance of ‘an assessment of Brazil’s popular culture, long considered the poor relation of high culture’, with its ‘elements from Prehistory and from Africa, which give it a vital energy’. She continued to write and think about the Nordeste, organising exhibitions of sculptures, tools, artefacts and other ‘precarious architectures’ once back in São Paulo.

Disagreeing with the ‘pseudo-culture’ of global Modernism made by and for the elites, she studied the segment of society ‘driven by necessity to solve its own problems of daily survival’ because she was confident there lay the strength required to develop a new and genuine culture. She argued that ‘this latent force is in abundant supply in Brazil, where a primordial form of civilisation – meaning one made up of elements that are essential, real and concrete, rather than something simple and childlike – coincides with the most advanced forms of modern thought’. She was arguably more Brazilian than the locals. No longer Italian, but never fully Brazilian, Bo Bardi was condemned to remain a foreigner, but she often repeated Brazil was ‘twice’ her country – she acquired its nationality but, most importantly, she chose it. Being a foreigner, a stranger even, can be a strength.

Casa de vidro peter scheier architectural review 1465

Casa de vidro peter scheier architectural review 1465

Source: PETER SCHEIER

Casa de Vidro overlooked Morumbi, before the area became a residential neighbourhood for the upper classes

Casa de vidro nelson kon architectural review 1465

Casa de vidro nelson kon architectural review 1465

Source: Nelson Kon

The interiors of Casa de Vidro have been preserved and are now open to visitors

Zweig concluded that ‘Brazil’s importance for the coming generations cannot be assessed even by the most daring calculations’, while Bo Bardi took it a step further in a lecture to architecture students just two years before she died: ‘if the country fails, it will be your fault, and ours too, because Brazil has everything it takes to create a great “modernity”’. Living in a country where everything seems possible even when it isn’t, she believed the past should be considered as ‘historical present, still alive’ and that we should try to ‘forge another “true” present that could not be found in books’.

Zweig and Bo Bardi have long been personal heroes, probably in part because of their fascination with Brazil. Reliving and revisiting past impressions, distant snapshots and childhood memories – the infatuation never left me. Their words still ring true today. Her sense of adventure, his profound belief in a better world, her insatiable curiosity and his torturous lucidity – even if it led to a tragic fatality. The country of the future now finds itself at a delicate tipping point, its present in a state of unstable equilibrium. Cendrars had compared Brazil’s past to ‘a drama’ and ‘a tragedy’, calling its history ‘Shakespearean’. But just like it fired Zweig and Bo Bardi’s imaginations, the country of the eternal future must continue to inspire hope and promise – despite recent news headlines. The trees, the myths and the fantasies cannot all go up in smoke.

Jean manzon photograph blaise cendrars le brésil des hommes sont venus

Jean manzon photograph blaise cendrars le brésil des hommes sont venus

Jean Manzon’s photographs were placed alongside Blaise Cendrars’ Le Brésil, des hommes sont venus, where it was captioned as ‘the green hell’

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