Testimony of a Carioca Architect: Concrete, Sun, and Vegetation

by LÚCIO COSTA

1

WHEN one considers the present state of modern architecture the contribution of Brazil is unexpected and surprisingly important. Unexpected, because Brazil of all countries would seem to be one of the least predisposed to modern architecture, in the face of the proverbial inefficiency of its workmen, the absence of an apprenticeship system, the relative backwardness of industry, and the general dislike of “collective living.” Our architecture is important because it has succeeded in adding plastic lyricism and concern for human emotions to the structures in which we live and work. On these additions depends the survival of architecture when its mere functionalism will have outlived its usefulness—survival not only as a didactic example of an outmoded technique of construction, or as testimony of an outdated civilization, but in the more profound and permanent sense of a work of art still valid because it will still be able to touch the heart.

Let me try to explain what the plastic lyricism and emotional content of architecture looks like. After the maximum requirements of good engineering and intelligent, socially enlightened planning have been fulfilled, there remain factors which only groat imagination and sensitivity can supply. Their common denominator is beauty—beauty in the materials of building and in the variety of inspiringly new shapes in which they are used; the curves and planes which bring a building closer to nature, and nature itself invited to be a part of the plan. One may see gardens indoors and outdoors, on the ground floor and on roofs, and houses planned so that each room has the extension of a private garden. The use of decoration is a part of the integral whole —tiles, mosaics, and sculpture add color, design, and richer artistic enjoyment. It all can be summarized as a creative harmony between the buildings of man and the world in which he constructs them.

The conception and recognition of this plastic and emotional quality as a fundamental element in a work of architecture is at the present time the urgent task confronting both architects and the professional teachers of architecture.

How does one account for the surprising accomplishments of our Brazilian architects? How has such progress been possible in so short a time?

two of the answers to this question are found in factors not necessarily peculiar to Brazil, namely our comparatively recent industrialization, and the abolition of slavery which occurred in 1888, later than in other parts of the world — later and without bloodshed. With the coming of the twentieth century the old type of building was no longer an efficient machine. Ways of fabrication, of const ruction, and of living were completely changed and, of course, new trends in taste and style accompanied these changes.

furthermore, our structural engineering was about to enter a new phase characterized in part by a period of apprenticeship and improvement forced on us by a surge of speculative commercial building and also by the insistence of modern architects intent on exploring the plastic possibilities of reinforced concrete. Owing to the great cost and scarcity of steel a substitute had to be found, and reinforced concrete turned out to be more than adequate. This happy marriage of necessity and imagination raised our reinforced-conerete technique to such a degree of virtuosity that it became almost an autonomous school of architecture which is now studied and used by engineers all over the world.

The daring pioneers of this new process were the architect Francisco Serrador and the engineer Emilio Baumgart. Their Teatro João Cactano and the A Noite Building marked the end of the experimental phase. We should also mention Joaquim Cardoso, poet, artist, engineer, and for the last twenty years the brilliant collaborator, first of Luis Nunes and now of Oscar Niemeyer and José Reis in some of our most distinguished contemporary buildings. Another engineer who has decisively influenced the architects is Carmen Portinho, all her life a link between the fine arts and the technical arts, and at present Director of the Department of Public Housing. Among her recent achievements is the municipal housing development at Pedregulho which accommodates nearly twenty-five hundred people. The contemporary movement in São Paulo asserted itself relatively early in the architecture of Gregori Warchavchik, whose own appealing, romantically modern house was built in 1928. In Rio de Janeiro, after the organization of the 1931 Salon, Warchavchik and his colleagues were able to sew the seeds for the modernization of the teaching of architecture.

2

LOOKING back over the earliest years, we remember the first real rebels in the School of Architecture, Atílio Masieri Alves, an enthusiast of the stage designs of Bakst and the acting of Chaplin, and the young student Jaime da Silva Teles, the first in Brazil to hail the new spirit in architecture championed in the early twenties by the French review L’Esprit Nouveau. The first building constructed on pilotis (columns raising the building mass above the ground) was designed in 1931 by Stelio Alves de Souza. The first brise-soleil (a system of exterior sunshades or louvers — sometimes movable — to offset the tropical glare while permitting free circulation of air) was the work of Alexandre Baldassini. Little by little, from 1931 to 1935, there came together a group of young professionals interested in the new techniques and forms of architecture. They were a purist battalion dedicated to the impassioned study of Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and especially Le Corbusier.

The doctrines of Le Corbusier came to be considered almost the Holy Scripture of our architecture. Their socio-economic, technical, and artistic aspects were painstakingly analyzed by our architects. They welcomed the dogmatic discipline of Le Corbusier’s theories and conceived an ascetic passion for his high social principles.

These Brazilian architects ignored the a priori attitudes and strict protocol of official modernism. They were modern in spite of themselves. Their concern was to reconcile art with technique and to provide for mankind the life, healthy and comfortable, dignified and beautiful, which the Machine Age theoretically makes possible.

The definitive landmark of the new Brazilian architecture is the Ministry of Education and Health Building in Rio. From the day of its vernissage, so to speak, it has served both as a model of international importance and the first large-scale embodiment of Le Corbusier’s style. An original sketch for this building, requested for another location, had been supplied by Le Corbusier. But the entire project from drafting table through actual construction was carried out without the least help from the French master. It was a completely spontaneous local achievement that justified the principles for which Le Corbusier had always fought. And one can actually observe, splendidly executed, many of the postulates of the Le Corbusier doctrine: the efficient use of the ground area thanks to the pilotis which allow an independent structure without a massive perimeter of walls; the transparent façades equipped where necessary with brisesoleil in such a way that they are not a part of the supporting walls but simply a source of light and a protective membrane permitting a better use of the interior area; the subdivisions of the interior space independent of the structure which allow greater freedom of arrangement; the elimination of protruding beams to insure the smooth continuity of ceilings; and the reclaiming of useful space by developing gardens on the roof slabs.

This building is beautiful — not only beautiful but symbolic, since its construction was only made possible by a brave disregard of municipal legislation, of customary architectural precepts, and even of the most elementary rules ol normal procedure.

The integrated success of the undertaking, however, was assured by the participation of a man, now internationally known, who by the example and range of his own work has done so much to formulate this new direction taken by contemporary Brazilian architecture. Oscar Niemeyer, trained in Rio and with a thoroughly Carioca mentality, was the one who at the crucial moment saw the latent possibilities of the project and made them realities. His fame has since been increased by his distinguished buildings in Pampulha and his part in the design of the United Nations Building in New York. Gropius has called him “the bird of paradise.”Like his great eighteenth-century predecessor, O Aleijadinho, the colonial sculptor, who worked under similar circumstances, Niemeyer furnished the key to an enigmatic architectural problem. But among his many colleagues, both veterans and novices, certain, ones also deserve special mention. They are Afonso Reidy, one of our most important housing specialists, who drew the designs for Pedregulho, the brothers Roberto, responsible for the ABI (Press) Building and the airport in Rio, Henrique Mindlin, creator of successful apartment buildings and private houses, and the imaginative landscape architect, Roberto Burle-Marx.

Kino Levi in São Paulo brought Italian training to Brazil, and from the moment that the Columbus Building was erected in 1932 showed himself to be one of the leaders of the modern school. João Vilanova Artigas and Olavo Redig de Campos are also exponents of the modern movement.

Burle-Marx is a unique figure. Born in São Paulo in 1909, of German and Brazilian parents, he studied in Rio and in Europe, especially in Germany. In 1934 he began to work as a landscape architect. Few painters have the botanical knowledge which he possesses, and few gardeners have 1 he genius to use local plants in such a decorative fashion. Burle-Marx arranges his gardens as a painter would, with a remarkable command of space, materials, levels, and textures. His technique of massed color bed placement is most effective, and indeed he brings new life to the art of gardening by introducing into his conception and choice of materials and design the principles of abstract plastic composition.

In spite of the international flavor which it shares with good architecture the world over, Brazilian architecture already has a feeling of its own. It is identified in the eyes of foreigners as a manifestation of local character, not only because it revives many ideas peculiar to our tradition, such as our version of the baroque, but fundamentally because it expresses our national personality in our own materials and techniques as determined by individuals of native artistic temperament. It adapts itself, moreover, to the development of our cultural and physical ambience because it is consciously conceived with this end in mind.

We are not arbitrarily seeking originality for its own sake, nor are we concerned simply with audacious solutions to our architectural problems— this would be a negation of art. Our intention is to examine the possibilities inherent in the new techniques as dedicated creative artists bent on charting the still unexplored world of form.

Translated by Elisabeth Sprague Smith