The second cause is less concrete, perhaps. The first great period of interest in Brazil coincided with its emergence in the world as both an economic power and a democracy. The ‘disappearance’ of Brazil from international discourse coincides, arguably, with the period of military rule, when from 1964 onwards Brazil and Brazilian culture became inward-looking and xenophobic. The revival of Brazil in architectural terms is coincident with the return to democracy, but more than that, its entry into a globalized world of trade and the consolidation of its economy, particularly under Cardoso and Lula. But further, we might say that Brazil once again has started to represent a kind of future. It is big, and growing, and it has interests in areas of strategic, but often overlooked importance in the contemporary world. It is, and has long been, the world’s leading producer of bioethanol, and since the 1970s has run much of its private cars on this fuel. It grows soya in immense quantities, most of which it sells to the Chinese. It has lots of oil, most of it recently discovered. It builds more than 2.9 million cars annually, equal to production in France, and comfortably exceeding that of the UK and Spain. Its aerospace industry is the third largest in the world, and dominates the world market for airliners of up to 100 seats. There are few areas of the contemporary world in which Brazil does not have some strategic interest.
If during the years 1930–60 Brazil held a pre-eminent position in the field of architecture, it is equally true that post-1960 it faded. It is a commonplace in international architectural discourse that after Brasilia ‘nothing happened’, in the words of Zein; it is equally a commonplace inside Brazil that architecture post-1960 is clouded by shame and doubt, a function of a political situation that placed many if not most architects under suspicion.

In crude economic terms, Brazil is no more a racial democracy than the United States, with success closely associated with pale skin. But the Freyre myth (Gilberto Freyre, a sociologist) is nevertheless vital in the construction of a modern Brazil, and still widely believed. Most importantly, the concept of a racial democracy underpins the work of the Modernist architects discussed here: at Brasilia, for example, as Niemeyer wrote, the idea was a city of ‘free men’ with access to the best living conditions regardless of racial or social origins – as we shall see, an idea built into the city fabric in the planning of its residential buildings. Freyre’s beliefs were widely shared.

Brazil’s Modernism exists in two related intellectual contexts, the exceptionally vibrant intellectual life it developed in the first half of the twentieth century – a context that fed directly into architecture – and the foreign architectural criticism produced in response to Brazil’s modern architecture. The local contexts first: the flowering of Modernism that occurred in the 1930s was part of a more general development of an intellectual culture, a scene consisting of a number of well-connected, middle- or upper-class, generally Francophile individuals, whose knowledge of developments in Europe was good. They were also – probably for the first time – committed to Brazil and concerned to explicate it, or represent it in terms of a relationship of equals with the rest of the world.

Brazil’s geography is important here in a national context, but it is also important at an urban level – at the level of human geography. I understand Brazil as having a certain geographical shape, one dominated by cities in the south-east but imaginatively connected with rural places elsewhere. At the level of urban geography, the cities themselves are often highly distinctive.
The modernization of Brazil and the architecture that went along with it were intimately bound up with a continental-scale vision of the country in which the cities and the land were very much part of the same system. Brasilia is a case in point, as you shall see further; the vision of the city was not simply that of a showcase capital built in the Modernist style, but also a means of opening up the interior of the country for development.

A map with Brasília commanding the centre

The architecture is concentrated in a few places, mainly big cities: Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Brasilia, with the occasional excursion to Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Recife. But by and large this is a history of the metropolitan centers, because this is where the architecture is. It would not be right to attempt another history; the story of Modernism in Brazil is the story of the cities. Among those cities, Brasilia and Sao Paulo are pre-eminent in representing what a modern Brazilian city ought to look like. Both are showcases of Modernism, albeit in different ways. Looking at a map of Brazil, it will become clear too that the triangle described by Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Brasilia is extremely small by comparison with the area of the whole country, which slightly exceeds that of the continental United States. My emphasis might seem to some the equivalent of describing American architecture only in terms of the corridor between Boston and Washington, DC, ignoring everything further west. That argument makes sense up to a point. But the differences between the two cases are greater than their similarities.

Tanks in Rio de Janeiro, the day after the 1964 coup.

These distinct notions of politics are nevertheless fragments of a broader history. The period 1929 to the present is characterized by a number of major transitions, from dictatorship to democracy and back again, periods of economic despair, and equally periods in which to some – such as Stefan Zweig – Brazil appeared to be on the point of becoming a world power. The crucial ideas are, first, Brazil as a country with a colonial history. The Portuguese lost control of the country in a military coup in 1889, but this came after decades of weakness: for example, a bizarre period from 1808 to 1821 found Rio temporarily as the centre of the Portuguese empire after Portugal itself was lost to Napoleon. All attempts at political and cultural modernization in the twentieth century were in one way or another attempts to establish a post-colonial identity, the chief example of this being Brasília, whose inland location was a figuration of this desire, a turning away from the cities of the coast, founded by Europeans and looking towards Europe, towards the uninhabited interior.

By traditional standards, Brazil’s Modernism is of a decidedly impure kind. This has long been recognized, but more usually described as a fault. In architectural discourse, perhaps the best-known statement about it is by the Bauhaus-trained architect Max Bill. We have already seen his opinion of the mes. Even worse was what he had seen in São Paulo. Bill was incandescent. In the city he had found
modern architecture sunk to the depths, a riot of anti-social waste lacking any sense of responsibility towards the business occupant or his customers . . . thick pilotis, thin pilotis, pilotis of whimsical shapes lacking any structural rhyme or reason, disposed all over the place.

It became easier to say that, in terms of architecture at least, ‘after Brasília nothing happened’, and this is certainly the impression given by many histories of the topic, both domestic and foreign. It was a process aided by the exile or imprisonment of most of the crucial figures of Brazilian Modernism, from Niemeyer to Mendes da Rocha. But an enormous amount happened after Brasília, not least because under the military Brazil underwent an unprecedented period of economic growth, the so-called economic miracle during which many large infrastructural projects were realized: the br 230 Trans-Amazonian highway (1972), the Ilha Solteira hydroelectric scheme of the Paraná River (1973) and the São Paulo metro (1974) are representative examples.

In 1942 Niemeyer’s widely reported designs for the luxury housing development at Pampulha and the exhibition Brazil  Builds (1943) at moma in New York were again vital in disseminating the developments in Brazil to the wider world. Niemeyer’s conspicuous involvement on the design for the United Nations headquarters building during the years 1947–50, under the leadership of the American architect Wallace K. Harrison, made Brazilian modern architecture in effect the image of world government – indeed modern government in general, thinking of Harrison’s later design for Albany civic centre in upstate New York.

Gregori Warchavchik, house, São Paulo, 1928. 
The house is now badly decayed.

At the other end of the timeframe is February 1922, when a remarkable arts festival, the Semana de Arte Moderna (Modern Art Week), took place in São Paulo’s Municipal Theatre. Organized principally by a painter, Emilio di Cavalcanti, and a poet, Mário de Andrade, it marks the first attempt to introduce Modernist culture to Brazil, and – most importantly – to establish the nature of Brazil’s potential contribution to it. In terms of architecture, the real starting point is 1927, when the Russian émigré architect and polemicist Gregori Warchavchik started work on a Modernist house for himself and his wife in the São Paulo suburb of Vila Mariana. Completed in 1928, the house is a tour de force, integrating the latest European practice with local materials and methods.

Marcelo and Milton Roberto, ABI building, Rio de Janeiro, 1936–39.

In standard architectural histories, Modernism is a set of precise values, with clearly defined historical limits. For Kenneth Frampton, Modernism’s origins lay in the latter part of the nineteenth century, in the various flourishings of Art Nouveau, for example, and the work of William Morris. Modernism came into being in the first two decades of the twentieth century through Le Corbusier and his followers, and the Bauhaus, then passed through the polarized sensibilities of Brutalism and Miesian neo-classicism. It is underpinned throughout by the certainty that architecture and human behavior are linked, and the resultant belief that architecture can and should change human society. It often declares itself to be inevitable, the logical result of developments in the human and natural sciences. Most importantly, the historians of Modernism write, it is over.

Lucio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer and others,
MES building, Rio de Janeiro, 1936–43.

The architectural emblem of this process is unquestionably the mes. The result of an architectural competition initiated by the energetic 36-year-old minister of culture, Gustavo Capanema, it marked the beginning of the Brazilian state’s long-standing engagement with Modernism. Designed in 1936 by a team consisting of Lúcio Costa, Carlos Leão, Jorge Moreira, Oscar Niemeyer, Affonso Reidy and Ernani Vasconcelos, with the involvement of a painter, Cândido Portinari, and a landscape architect, Roberto Burle Marx, on the exterior, the building indexed the best young architectural talent available in Rio. But it was the involvement of Le Corbusier that attracted particular comment outside Brazil. Invited by the team, Le Corbusier arrived in June 1936, and spent four weeks on the project, during which he worked most closely with Niemeyer. Niemeyer became Le Corbusier’s de facto interpreter, translating the Swiss architect’s ideas for the rest of the team, and it was his involvement on this project that kick-started his remarkable seventy-year career.

Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer and others,
MES building, Rio de Janeiro, 1936–43.

Ever since its discovery by the Portuguese in 1500, Brazil has been a mythic as well as a real place. Its empty centre in particular has been an imaginative space as much as a real one, filled with all manner of fantasies. For Brazilians themselves in the 1950s, it was the site of the construction of a new capital – a central episode in this book – an act that realized a long-held desire to unify the nation and open up commercial development of the country’s supposed vast mineral wealth.