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.

This is in other words a post-colonial milieu, which regards Brazil not as some second-rate colony, always late to developments in Europe, but as a place under development that in fact in some ways may be culturally in advance of things in the Old World. Among the principal figures in this milieu are the poet Mario de Andrade, the historian Sergio Buarque de Holanda, whose Raizes do Brasil (Roots of Brazil, 1936) was one of the first attempts to write a postcolonial history of Brazil, and Gilberto Freyre, a sociologist.

Freyre’s work on race, sexuality and Brazilian identity is particularly relevant here. His major work, Casa Grande e Senzala (in English, ‘Big House and Slave Hut’, but published as The Masters and the Slaves), describes the origins of urban Brazil and the complex relations between the rural aristocracy and its imported slave labour. Freyre’s thesis, both here and throughout his work on Brazil, appears both archaic and extremely modern: he argues that Brazil, unlike the United States, developed a much more fluid approach to race through its peculiar interpretation of slavery; slaves in Brazil were not simply bodies, but also central to the sexual lives of their masters.

Slavery occupied an intimate place in the lives of the colonists, inseparable from ‘sensuality’ and ‘polygamy’. Slavery was in the special circumstances of Brazil, the ‘complement of the harem’. Such intimate relations were, as Freyre recognized, fundamentally exploitative. But they were characterized by an indifference to colour, and in many cases a preference by the Portuguese for the other, which made for a situation very different from that found in the us. Freyre’s optimistic conclusion was that Brazil was, uniquely, a racial democracy in which differences of skin colour were of little consequence. Freyre’s optimism can be easily criticized.
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