Inside Brazil, the erotic potential of Modernism is manifest on a grand scale at Pampulha (1940–42), Niemeyer’s first major solo commission. The project was a high-class housing estate built around an artificial lake, in an outer suburb of Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third largest city and the capital of the inland state of Minas Gerais. It was initiated by the governor of the state of Minas Gerais, Juscelino Kubitschek (later president of Brazil, 1957–61), who proposed it as both a significant extension to the city and a piece of real-estate development through a publicly funded scheme to prime a new area with infrastructure. Designed in 1940, the complex was largely completed by 1942, in time for it to be featured prominently in the MOMA exhibition Brazil Builds.

Niemeyer’s design for Pampulha had six principal elements: the lake with the dam, six kilometres or so in perimeter, a casino, a yacht club, a hotel, an open-air night club (the Casa do Baile, or House of Dance) and a church. There was also, close to the yacht club, a house for Kubitschek. All the buildings exploited the possibilities of reinforced concrete: hence the extraordinary asymmetrical double vaults of the church and the undulating form of the Casa do Baile, which echoed the form of the islet on which it was located. The casino too was a formal experiment as much as anything, elaborating the idea of the architectural promenade, and juxtaposing a variety of contrasting forms and surfaces (in the eyes of more than one observer, it also pushed taste to the limit). The result there drew in certain historical models too – all the buildings made use of azulejos – and the boldness of the architecture, with its many decorative or non-functional elements, led to comparisons with the Baroque. The invocation of the Baroque is of itself an invocation of an erotic sensibility: a response to the purity of the classical mode, Baroque art is bodily if nothing else.

The erotics of Pampulha, however, are most clearly represented in an unbuilt part of the scheme, the hotel. Designed along with the rest of the main buildings in 1940, in plan it recalls the two hotels discussed earlier, namely Costa’s Park Hotel in Novo Friburgo and Niemeyer’s own Grande Hotel at Ouro Preto. Like those two buildings, this one is a low, horizontal structure raised on pilotis; two levels of bedrooms rise above. There is, on these upper floors, a slightly inclined glazed facade the width of the building, allowing all the bedrooms to enjoy views of the (spectacular) lake. The view takes in the Casa do Baile, which the hotel formally echoes. Some bedrooms on the eastern side of the building might also have had views across to the church of Sao Francisco. It is, like the earlier hotels, a building designed first and foremost to make as much use as possible of the site, sublimating the view. But it departs from the earlier hotels in the treatment of the ground floor, which is much larger and more elaborate than anything seen in the earlier schemes, a huge area with spectacular views both inside and outside. It is formally complex, a big roof resembling an artist’s palette, holding in play a series of undulating colonnades. There is not a straight line in sight; the palette form is punctuated by holes, out of which sprout great palms, and it is hard to tell if you are inside or outside. It is a highly rhetorical space that makes a case for a decidedly irrational, anti-functional architecture, a departure from the Modernism of the northern Europeans.
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