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.

Le Corbusier, plan for Rio de Janeiro, 1929.

A year later, 1929, Le Corbusier first visited Rio de Janeiro. The conditions he found were not promising. As fascinating as Brazil was for him, it was also at that moment an isolated and provincial culture, only 17 million in population, mostly rural, and socially backward. What high culture existed was imported from Europe. As Lauro Cavalcanti has noted, the fact that Le Corbusier spoke only French on his Rio visits –apparently without interpretation – meant that his audience was limited to a highly educated, middle class. It seems that the audience for his 1929 talks in Rio numbered as few as ten, mostly the architects (Costa,Niemeyer, et al.) with whom he would go on to collaborate. Even then, Costa recalled dropping in on one of the lectures and leaving again, not really having paid much attention. In the mid-1920s there were only eleven subscriptions in the whole of Brazil to L’Esprit nouveau, edited by Le Corbusier and Amedée Ozenfant, a journal usually considered vital for the development of Modernism. The great Brazilian historian Sérgio Buarque de Holanda complained that Brazil’s culture was just ‘grafted’ from elsewhere: ‘this means that a false tradition has arisen which doesn’t stop short of prolonging foreign traditions . . . what we need to is to find our own way’.

Le Corbusier’s visit is nevertheless important in developing a dialogue between Brazil and Europe on the topic of modern architecture, and, moreover, providing Le Corbusier with a great deal of imaginative material. The crucial design output of this visit is perhaps the plan for Rio de Janeiro. Here a series of sketches re-imagine the city as a serpentine mega structure, curving along the coast, providing its citizens with both beach and mountain scenery and a new transport infrastructure. It is pure fantasy, and never worked up into anything concrete, but has echoes in housing projects done later by Affonso Reidy, including the iconic Pedregulho (1947).

Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, Brazilian Pavilion, New York World’s Fair, 1939, sketch.

From this point on, a series of significant moments can be delineated, in which Brazil became progressively more central to a global history of Modernism. The most important of these is the sensational mes, already mentioned. But before the mes’s completion there had already been the equally sensational Brazilian pavilion for the New York World’s Fair by Costa and Niemeyer in 1939.

This brought Brazilian design to an American audience for the first time, and created for that public a profoundly erotic image of leisure, luxury and natural abundance that was hard to resist. The pavilion also made clear the country’s immense scale; by means of a giant map of Brazil on which the us was super - imposed, Brazil was shown to be rather bigger in land area than the main part of the host nation.
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