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.

The fact that they can be easily disproved is less relevant here than their importance as a belief system; for someone like Niemeyer, an atheist, they came to stand in for religious belief. The musician Caetano Veloso, himself one of Brazil’s more important contemporary cultural figures, has said – invoking Freyre – that he believes in the ‘myth of Brazil’, a phrasing that leaves open to question the objective truth of Freyre’s ideas, but also allows them a continued presence. A very different generation of intellectuals in the 1960s and ’70s under - writes the later forms of architecture I discuss.

Informed by Marxism, the work of Paulo Freire, a sociologist, or Augusto Boal, a radical playwright, or Glauber Rocha, a film-maker, understands Brazil as an essentially poor society that must be recognized as such. Such writers stood in opposition to the utopianism of the earlier generation and its projects such as Brasilia, which they regarded as facile and self-serving. In place of grand utopian projects erected in the name of those in power, they proposed engagement with the poor and dispossessed in the form of cultural acts that would leave no material monument, but (they hoped) would quietly revolutionize Brazilian culture.
In Boal’s tough and radical work, which has been widely performed outside Brazil, theatre becomes a tool for the resolution of conflict in real-life situations. The ‘theatre of the oppressed’ sets out to empower those without power, and to discover tactics of influencing the world around them. In Boal’s worldview, culture is imagined in terms of processes rather than monuments, and, critically, it identifies with those without power – the poor, the marginalized, he is possessed. As we shall see, this vein of Brazil’s intellectual culture became important for some forms of Modernist architecture in the 1960s.
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