On Architecture in Brazil

John Hill | 05.12.2014
Next month the FIFA World Cup gets underway in Brazil, which will also play host to the Summer Olympics two years later. With so much attention being lauded on the South American country around these events, World-Architects spoke with the authors – Laurence Kimmel, Bruno Santa Cecília, and Anke Tiggemann* – of the recently published Architectural Guide Brazil (DOM Publishers, 2013) to look beyond the sports venues and get a sense of the country's architecture.
Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho – Maracanã, Various Architects, 1950/2014 (Photo: Courtesy of DOM Publishers)

Writing a guidebook on a city’s architecture is one thing, but covering a whole country is something else entirely. How did the three of you manage such a feat, especially considering how the projects range over a fairly large period of time, not just, say, the last decade or so?

Anke Tiggemann: When Philipp Meuser of DOM publishers told me – just before my first private travel to Brazil – that he planned an architecture guide about the country, I just thought: Nice project, but much too big for me. But then I met Laurence in Porto Alegre and Bruno in Belo Horizonte and was suddenly positive that we would manage it as a threesome. In the end we had very good support by several experts from all over the country to complete our final list of the 217 excellent projects.

Bruno Santa Cecilia: We started by listing all sorts of buildings that maintain a strong relation to the place or shown some kind of investigation regarding formal, technical or programatic issues. We thought that these buildings should provide an honest framework of Brazilian architectural production, considering the diversity of its manifestations. Then, since Brazil is a very big country, we grouped them by region trying to provide some easy travel itineraries. Unfortunately, we had to keep some very nice buildings out of our selection not only because of space limitations, but mostly due to their location and accessibility.

Laurence Kimmel: We made a huge preliminary work sampling of all the buildings that we would want to be in the book. It ended up to be more than thousand of them! Well, as we had to make a choice, we organized a vote with the three of us. We could choose 217 buildings, but not the 200 DOM first needed. It would have been too hard for us to leave 17 buildings from the list aside. Brazil is really a country with great architectural treasures. Some of them need to be better known. The wide diffusion now of Lina Bo Bardi’s work is a good sign of the better diffusion of Brazil’s architecture worldwide. [João Batista Vilanova] Artigas should be also better known in architecture schools in Europe.
MAC – Museum de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói, Oscar Niemyer, 1996 (Photo: Courtesy of DOM Publishers)

What are the defining characteristics of modern and contemporary Brazilian architecture, and how do social, geographical, economical, and political issues influence them?

BSC: I think the most defining characteristics of Brazilian architecture could be summarized by a threefold concern:

  1. The relationship to the landscape, in a kind of relaxed mediation between built and unbuilt; interior and exterior; inside and outside.  The close relationship between these domains stems from the climate condition that offers the possibility of open-air use during all seasons, and is one of the most specific qualities of Brazilian modern architecture.
  2. The tectonic expression, based on the relationship between construction knowledge and plastic expression. Brazilian modern architecture succeeds in adapting the ideas formulated by the European avant-garde. This adaptation was necessary if one considers the gap between the principles spread by the modern vanguards and the effective conditions of production in Brazil. I believe the gap between an ideal construction apparatus and the effective conditions of its realization was not just an inevitable situation, but also a cultural and permanent fact that would largely shape the Brazilian architectural expression until today. Another specific condition is the strict limitation of financial and technological resources, what requires a permanent search for inventive constructive solutions, leading to a certain level of improvisation. Brazilian modern masters pursued an oversimplification of the technical solutions and construction details, also made possible by the mild climate. So, in some buildings the structure itself becomes the ultimate architectural expression while in others the tectonic contents are expressed through an exploitation of the very nature of the techniques and materials.
  3. Finally, I should emphasize a strong refusal to rigid functionalism, or the conception of architecture as an immediate reaction to a functional program. This non-functional approach produced in Brazilian architecture some very powerful spaces that once were called by Flavio Motta, a professor in São Paulo, as "meaningful spaces without name." He used it to refer to some large-scale buildings that were recognized by their formal characteristics rather than by specific functions. It is the case of the Canopy at Ibirapuera Park, the main building of the University of Brasilia, the span of the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo or Brasilia's Roadway Platform, where Lucio Costa achieved a remarkable synthesis among architecture, urban planning, landscape and infrastructure.
LK: Openness to the landscape, and freedom of "sculpting" architecture without bothering too much about thermic isolation. Of course, there are more characteristics, but I would choose these two. When I visited Bruno’s office in Belo Horizonte, I could see the way they constructed the building with a concrete primary structure and brick filling or glass. No isolation. You have a direct experience of architectural matter; all details are visible. The beauty is linked to this rawness, this literality, this "truth" of the material. And the "openness to the landscape" inspired an essay in the book, mainly about Lina Bo Bardi’s MASP and Artigas’s buildings, but we can find a similar link between inside and outside in the work of contemporary architects.

AT: At the very first sight Brazilian modern architecture seemed to me very international, not least because of the use of pilotis, roof gardens and free façades. But the formulation is very Brazilian: free forms alternate with rigid geometries, easy transitions between interior and exterior space, the use of brise soleil, etc. Not forgetting that all this was done under rudimentary production conditions!

Brazilian architecture also seems to me to be linked quite directly to politics: Juscelino Kubitschek's decisions to build Pampulha and Brasilía are perhaps the best examples for that – at least concerning modern architecture.
Tropical Tambaú Hotel, Sérgio Bernardes, 1971 (Photo: Courtesy of DOM Publishers)

Brazil is getting a lot of attention because of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. What are some of the good things being done architecturally for these two major events? Any bad things?

BSC: I think the World Cup and the Olympic games shall not leave a great architectural and urban legacy. We'll have some good new venues, but they are the exception, mostly because the government let the job of choosing these important projects to large contractors, instead of making public architectural competitions. Almost all stadiums were highly overpriced and built in some precarious conditions, leading to the death of some workers by avoidable accidents. Meanwhile, Brazil is still lagging behind in indices of primary education, basic sanitation and social inclusion. The government also decided to focus the efforts and financial resources only on the new venues for the games, leaving aside the urban infrastructure. Indeed, some local improvements were done in some cities, but they are not enough. For example, days during the World Cup will be decreed holidays in the host cities to artificially solve the traffic problems. FIFA's standards also demanded a big transformation not only on the buildings but mostly on the cultural experience of watching a game. So, it doesn't matter anymore if you are in Brazil, Japan, Russia or Quatar, you'll have the same experience of being in a stadium, what I think is quite impoverishing. FIFA also made lot of requirements that conflict with the public character of the buildings and the cities themselves.

All these kind of things lead to an overall discontent that not only have killed the festive mood of the World Cup, but has provoked reactions from various sectors of civil society. The government moves toward the creation of a state of exception in order to discourage protests during the games. There is a movement growing in the social media called “Não vai ter copa!” (Will be no Cup!) in order to show this overall dissatisfaction. I believe the there will be no Cup in the metaphorical sense, because there is no real mood for that.

So while there are architectural specimens to be mentioned, the economic and social cost of holding World Cup and the Olympics will leave deep marks that will make these minor accomplishments.

LK: It’s a pity that Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s amazing Serra Dourada stadium in Goiânia had to be transformed. It lost its minimalism, but the roof has still its magic yet.
Estádio Governador Magalhães – Mineirão, Various Architects, 1965/2013 (Photo: Marcus Bredt)

Are there other significant developments and things happening in Brazil that accompany these two sporting events, in addition to the actual venues?

BSC: Unfortunately, very few. In common all exhibit a very precarious condition in relation to the construction of the city. Moreover, many people and corporations related to the events have become enriched.

LK: Although it starts after the end of the World Cup, people should definitely go to the 31st São Paulo Biennial (September 6 – December 7, 2014). You'll just have to come back!

AT: One interesting aspect for me would be to trace the work of architect Fernando de Mello Franco as Secretary for Urban Development in São Paulo. He talks about inventing urban development as a new discipline in Brazil in the midst of the design of great architectonic solitaires and planning. Perhaps this will mean the revival of public space for everyone not only in São Paulo, but also in other Brazilian cities.
Rio Pan 2007 - Tiro Esportivo, BCMF Arquitetos, 2007 (Photo: Kaká Ramalho)

If somebody is traveling to Brazil, be it for the sports events or for other reasons, what might be an ideal itinerary, something that hits on the highlights of the country’s modern and contemporary architecture?

BSC: The highlight is its diversity. Brazil is much more than Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. Those are amazing cities indeed, but the traveler who visits all different regions will be amazed by the diversity of natural landscapes, cultural traditions and architectural expressions.

LK: If I would have to add something to what is written in the book, I would say people going to the FIFA World cup should see the countries territories outside the "official areas" for tourists, see the real country and experience brazilian lifestyle. And concerning architecture, they should visit baroque architecture in Minas Gerais, especially Ouro Preto – it’s the modernity of the 18th century.

AT: And – even, if we wrote about it in our book – I'd like to add that once you are in Minas Gerais, you should make a slight detour and visit Instituto Inhotim: this mixture between one of the most significant collections of contemporary art exhibited in specifically created pavillions in the middle of a botanical paradise is absolutely unique. And the easy interaction of art, architecture and landscape is again very Brazilian.
Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida, Oscar Niemeyer, 1970 (Photo: Courtesy of DOM Publishers)

Where do you see things going for Brazil post-World Cup and -Olympics? Will new buildings and development shift to serving residents, for example, or will a focus on bringing tourists to the country continue?

BSC: Neither one nor the other, unfortunately. If you come to Brazil, please look beyond the games and you will see a fantastic country.

LK: Well, let’s hope that the country’s development will accelerate the population's access to education and good living conditions. Tourists should buy in shops all over the country, not only in tourist areas.

AT: Very hard to tell, of course, from a distance. I hope that the "critical mass" of the Brazilian, which is on the road actually, stays awake and manages to advocate their needs. And I hope, that the situation remains as peaceful and democratic as it can be.

Email intervews conducted by John Hill.
*Author Bios:

Laurence Kimmel is a French architect and holds a PhD in aesthetics from the University Paris X Nanterre. She published the book Architecture as Landscape – Álvaro Siza in 2010. She is a teacher and researcher at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris la Villette.
Anke Tiggemann studied Interior Design in Detmold, Germany. After her degree in 2004, she worked as Research and Teaching Assistant at Hochschule Ostwestfalen-Lippe for CAD/Computer-Aided Design. Currently she lives in Berlin and works as an interior designer and author.
Bruno Santa Cecília is a Brazilian architect with degrees from the Federal University of Minas Gerais. He is professor in the undergraduate program of UFMG and FUMEC schools of architecture, and published the book Éolo Maia: complexidade e contradição na arquitetura brasileira in 2006. Bruno is also a founding partner of the architecture practice Arquitetos Associados and a founding editor of MDC – Architecture Magazine.