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.
These are places that are on the one hand often rather seductive – through climate and physical geography, they may have, like Rio and Recife, outstanding beaches, on which a life of leisure may be played out; or they may, like Brasilia, simply have a pleasant climate that lends itself to a life lived out of doors. The best Modernist buildings, from Niemeyer’s Casa das Canoas to Artigas’s Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism, have celebrated these natural facts.

Security measures in Jardins, São Paulo.
Security fence with barbed wire, CCTV, entryphone and concierge.

But the cities can be exceptionally fearful places too. The beach at Copacabana, one of the most successful urban projects of the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, is delightful, but also dangerous, a place of robberies and muggings and prostitution on an epic scale, which one visits only after taking a number of precautions. More seriously perhaps is the effect of the fear of crime on the design of residential buildings, which can resemble prisons, surrounded by security grilles at ground-floor level and with security posts manned by private guards.

The tendency for middle-class Brazilians to live behind walls in condominios fechados (gated communities) is highly developed. As the anthropologist Teresa Caldeira has described, for the middle class, the city is increasingly a ‘city of walls’, defending its residents from everything that is outside. There are good reasons for this: Brazilian cities remain among the world’s most dangerous, with rates of murder and assault that approach or sometimes exceed those found in conditions of war – and the term ‘civil war’ has been often deployed. Armed attacks on tourist buses travelling from Rio’s Tom Jobin international airport in the early 2000s required a federal response involving the army; in May 2006 a series of attacks on police stations coordinated from prison by a criminal gang, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC, or First Capital Command), effectively shut down the entire city of Sao Paulo for two days. Rates of violence in some cities, notably Sao Paulo, had decreased markedly at the time of writing.

But profound cultures of fear persist in urban Brazil, and their effect on the look and inhabitation of the built environment remains strong. Modernist architecture exists in an uneasy relation with this culture, as we shall see throughout the blog. Modernism’s rhetoric invariably includes some notion of freedom played out in architectural space. At the MES, for example, the entire ground level is in effect an urban square, open to all: the use of pilotis sees to that. It is easy to see that this is as much rhetorical as practical, communicating an idea of openness, a useful idea in respect of the identity that the government might wish to promote.

Or Brasilia, whose superb residential areas on the south wing are in effect an urban park, delightfully planted, through which anyone is, in theory at least, free to wander at will. These places, however, are undoubtedly the exception rather than the rule. It is far more normal to see Modernist buildings with security measures fitted retrospectively, negating whatever sense of free space they may once have had.

Modernism’s values consist of free and public space above all; the reality of Brazil is of spaces that are increasingly privatized. It is rare to see examples of Modernist architecture in anything other than some sort of reserve, barricaded from the outside world. Functionally speaking, Brazilian Modernism is almost never now a truly public architecture, whatever its original intentions.

The country’s origins were originally southern European, and it has had continuous immigration from that region and other parts of the Mediterranean, where traditions of public culture are strong. But to assume that Brazil shares these traditions would be misleading, for its own public traditions are weak. This is not a country of the public square; it has a poorly developed sense of civic life. Its traditions much better resemble those of the United States. Any consideration of Modernist architecture needs to recognize that. Modernism’s tendency to invoke the Mediterranean city works well in Brazil in terms of climate. In most other respects it is a fantasy.
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