In this account, Cavalcanti describes most of the significant elements of the building: an extraordinary site, high up above the city in the mata atlantica, with views of the surrounding mountains and sea; a building that plays constantly with ideas of public and private space, collapsing one into the other; a building that still provides areas of intimacy, hidden away from private view; a house that stages and spectacularizes the body, providing a grand terrace on which guests can see each other and be seen to the best effect; a great swimming pool, defining the entrance to the house from the rear – indeed the house, like the later, Californian archetype, seems to emerge from the pool. 

The erotic programme described by Pampulha became part of fashionable architectural taste. In the private realm, Brazil’s wealthy commissioned an enormous variety of modern houses from the 1930s onwards, many of which have since become iconic. The range, variety and quality of these houses is as high as anywhere in the same period. 

The erotic potential of the Casino is reiterated in the much smaller Casa do Baile, a kind of outdoor nightclub. It takes up, in simplified form, the shapes of the hotel terrace, making a combination of a restaurant and a dance-hall, set directly across the lake from the more monumental Casino. Unlike the Casino, it is a calculatedly informal space, which confuses indoors and outdoors, private and public, providing a variety of spaces to frame a number of activities, from the public activity of dancing, to flirting, to (perhaps in the bushes by the lake) something more serious.

The Pampulha hotel is also, unquestionably, a space organized primarily for pleasure. The curves alone suggest organic, bodily forms, but they are filled with spaces for all kinds of physical pleasures: dancing, sleeping, relaxing, and flirting. The furniture is virtually all horizontal. Bar the inevitable Barcelona chairs, the terrace is scattered with chaises lounges and easy chairs. The terrace merges imperceptibly with the beach; one is virtually commanded to lie down. And as Niemeyer draws it, it is a scene that is full of erotic activity. 

Inside Brazil, the erotic potential of Modernism is manifest on a grand scale at Pampulha (1940–42), Niemeyer’s first major solo commission. The project was a high-class housing estate built around an artificial lake, in an outer suburb of Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third largest city and the capital of the inland state of Minas Gerais. It was initiated by the governor of the state of Minas Gerais, Juscelino Kubitschek (later president of Brazil, 1957–61), who proposed it as both a significant extension to the city and a piece of real-estate development through a publicly funded scheme to prime a new area with infrastructure. Designed in 1940, the complex was largely completed by 1942, in time for it to be featured prominently in the MOMA exhibition Brazil Builds.

The first large-scale exercise of this erotically charged Modernist architecture materialized outside Brazil, however, in the form of the Brazilian Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1939–40. This, the first complete collaboration between Niemeyer and Costa, was located in the section of the fair given over to national pavilions. The two architects arrived in New York in 1938 and took up space in the office of Wallace Harrison, who would later coordinate the work with Niemeyer on the headquarters building for the United Nations.

The sketch relates closely to a series of slightly later erotic sketches of mulatas, mostly unclothed, by which Le Corbusier was clearly fascinated. They are big women, large-hipped and muscular, buttocks and breasts highly pronounced the opposite in every way from Le Corbusier himself, a pale, angular, awkward-looking European male. Look at these sketches side by side with the Baker sketch and the connection is clear enough, Baker as quasi-mulata, a safe form of exoticism, temporarily within the architect’s orbit.

Le Corbusier visited Brazil twice before the Second World War, visits that were of signal importance in the architect’s own career, but also of importance more widely in advancing an erotic conception of modern architecture. Kenneth Frampton wrote of the first visit (1929, organized through contacts of the French poet Blaise Cendrars) in particular as a ‘personal epiphany’ for the architect, and (later) probably the happiest time of his life. It also seems to have been an erotic epiphany, since Le Corbusier seems to have enjoyed a ‘close relationship’ (as Frampton coyly puts it) with the African-American jazz singer Josephine Baker, whom he met en voyage to Rio, and who is the subject of a number of drawings. 

Both Zweig and Castro are also preoccupied with the eroticism of the beaches. For Zweig, writing in the late 1930s, the beach is the place where dress codes relax, a place ‘devoted exclusively to luxury and sport, to the enjoyment of body and eye’. For contemporary commentators like Castro, the eroticism of the beach has come to subsume everything else. Copacabana (along with its prolongation, Ipanema) is the only place in a metropolitan city where it is entirely acceptable for diners to enter an expensive restaurant almost naked, in ‘bathing costume, no shirt, in sandals or barefoot, with the vestiges of the Atlantic Ocean still on their bodies . . . 

Niemeyer’s small architectural office can be found on the Avenida Atlantica, the great boulevard that defines Copacabana’s beach. There is in all probability no better-known beach in the world, its fame a product of such films as Flying Down to Rio (Thornton Freeland, 1932), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, where Copacabana is represented as the apogee of urban eroticism. In thinking about the erotics of modern architecture, the beach is surely the best place to start. It is a landscape of vital importance, defining an ideal of sociability that architects have frequently tried to emulate or represent. 

The desire to assimilate the architectural past into the present described earlier was motivated in no small part by the erotic. One motivation was certainly – as with Costa – the desire for cultural continuity between past and present, as a part of an ultimately conservative worldview. But both Costa, and (particularly) Freyre found an erotic nostalgia in the casa grande, a longing for a slow, sensuous way of living in which nature was beautiful and abundant, as was sex; indeed, for contemporary readers of Casa Grande e Senzala, it is the frankness of Freyre’s account of the sexual life of the fazenda that stands out as most prescient.

There are a few other structures built on similar principles. There is a country house for Hildebrando Accioly near Petropolis by Francisco Bolonha from 1950, and a resort complex by the Roberto brothers from 1944, both large-scale exercises in Costa-style Modernism. For Bruand, the latter was a real triumph: ‘a perfect example of the application of the theories of Lucio Costa . . . here the synthesis between local tradition and the modern spirit reaches the high point of perfection’. But the real legacy is perhaps simply in the legitimacy Costa’s theories gave to the use of historic elements in otherwise Modernist buildings

The second case is Niemeyer’s so-called Catetinho (‘little Catete’), named after the president’s palace in Rio de Janeiro. This house for President Kubitschek was designed and constructed by Niemeyer in ten days in November 1956 from locally available materials. It is celebrated as the ‘first’ building in Brasilia, although that honour should really go to the favela of the Cidade Livre. 

The work of Costa, Freyre and MOMA amounts to a coherent intellectual attempt to project the past into the present, with the Grande Hotel at Ouro Preto perhaps its most highly developed manifestation. In terms of architecture, the Grande Hotel produced several significant derivatives, two of which are worth describing in detail. First is Costa’s own Park Hotel, in the Parque Sao Clemente at Novo Friburgo, a mountain resort town in the state of Rio de Janeiro (1940–44). In Cavalcanti’s view, this is no less than ‘Costa’s masterpiece’. In appearance, the Park Hotel is at first sight strikingly similar to Niemeyer’s Grande Hotel. 

Brazil Builds presents colonial architecture as a kind of proto-Modernism: austere, site-specific, using local materials and techniques, fit for purpose. Hence-consistent with Costa and Freyre – the enthusiasm for the casa grande, the form most amenable to this Modernist revisionism.
The Fazenda Vassouras, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, is a simple square mass on a huge monumental terrace, barely decorated outside, but housing some spectacularly florid interiors. The Fazenda Colubande, in Sao Goncalo, state of Rio de Janeiro, is an austere, horizontal building, with a grand terrace affording a splendid view – a prototype Grande Hotel. 

The Grande Hotel at Ouro Preto was a small building in a remote location. Part of the reason it assumed such importance was its presence in a remarkable exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1943: Brazil Builds: Architecture New and Old, 1642–1942. Curated by the museum’s co-director Philip Goodwin, himself an architect, with photographs by G. E. Kidder-Smith, it was vital in reinforcing the idea of Brazil as a modern nation, and the architectural careers of Costa and Niemeyer in particular. Its impact in Brazil was considerable, too, aided by the production of the catalogue in a bilingual edition (the Portuguese title was Construcao Brasileira).

However, the emphasis on what might be termed the sculptural aspects of the building is made at the cost of the building’s practicality; in other words, the concern for surface effect overrides the expected Modernist preoccupations of light and space. Bruand wrote of the disastrous quality of the rooms: their ‘total’ discomfort, their claustrophobic form ‘like narrow corridors’, their scale ‘visibly sacrificed’ to the overall visual effect. Access to the upper floors is via a spiral staircase, which is ‘impractical and dangerous’ for the old and children, and robs each apartment of valuable living space.

At this point Costa became involved. Writing to Andrade from New York, where he was busy building the Brazil Pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair, he politely expressed alarm that Leao’s design was a capitulation to neo-classicism, a style that Costa himself had recently abandoned, but which still had numerous influential adherents. Costa wondered if the project marked a ‘rejection’ of the Modernism with which he was himself now increasingly identified. He encouraged Andrade to commission a further study with Oscar Niemeyer as the architect; Andrade agreed.
These ideas of Costa and Freyre, with all their manifest contradictions, were played out with remarkable clarity in a handful of small buildings. Chief among these is the Grande Hotel in Ouro Preto, whose name belies its small scale. It was designed by Oscar Niemeyer in 1938–9, with the well-documented involvement of SPHAN, and it was completed in 1940. The government of the state of Minas Gerais, of which the town is the old capital, first looked at building a new hotel on 1938, to capitalize on the city’s touristic potential, and considered a number of designs.

Freyre’s affection for the casa grande was shared by many important Brazilian intellectuals of the 1930s, almost all of whom can be identified with the left. Among them was Costa, who included it among the types of buildings of the historical past that he wished to defend. Like Freyre, he moves into a wistful, nostalgic mode when describing the casa grande.

One of the crucial intellectual sources for this unusual attitude to the past was the sociologist Gilberto Freyre. As Cavalcanti notes, Freyre’s work was integral to the development of a concept of a modern Brazilian identity. His great idea was racial democracy: that is, Brazil as a racial democracy at a time of ubiquitous racism. Brazil’s race relations, he argued, were uniquely liberal, in spite of, or in some ways because of, its long history of slavery. The crucial work in Freyre’s oeuvre, and the best known outside Brazil, is Casa Grande e Senzala.

The argument is principally that architectural tradition is not invested in surfaces, but rather in traditions of building, wherever they may be found. He had not realized, he wrote later, that ‘the real tradition was right there, two steps away, with our contemporary master-builders . . . it is enough to make up all that lost time by extending a hand to the master- builders, always so scorned, to the old portuga of 1910 because, say what you like, it was he, alone, who was guarding tradition’. Benzaquen de Araujo uses Costa’s term ‘saude plastica’ to indicate an ideal relation between past and present. This concept, ‘plastic health’ loosely translated, indicates a way of thinking that describes a close, and essentially Modernist, relation between form and function; aesthetics cannot exist alone, but must be accompanied by an interest in the ‘primordial’ activity of construction.

But first we should look more closely at the intellectual context that makes possible this sophisticated and nuanced engagement with the past. One figure in particular stands out, Lucio Costa (1902–1998), born in Toulon (France) and educated in Newcastle, Montreux and finally Rio de Janeiro, where he graduated as an architect in 1924 from the Escola de Belas Artes. Costa soon established a partnership with Warchavchik, and in 1930, only six years after graduating, became the director of the Escola de Belas Artes. His reign there was controversial, and he was forced to resign after only a year.

Charles Henry Driver, Luz railway station, São Paulo, 1897–1900.
Big Ben meets Portuguese Baroque.

The richness of early twentieth-century architecture in Brazil has been consistently devalued in favour of that of the colonial period. This is both a problem and a paradox. Many of the most admired structures of the colonial period were openly a means of maintaining a feudal slave society, yet their advocates were in most other respects politically progressive.

Francisco de Paula Ramos de Azevedo, Teatro Municipal, São Paulo, 1903–11.
A Second Empire public building in São Paulo, contemporary with similar exercises
in Rio and Manaus.

This unmistakable piece of Haussmannization was accompanied by some flamboyant public buildings built in Rio in the Second Empire style, including the Biblioteca Nacional (1910) and the Museo Nacional de Belas Artes (1908). However, the Teatro Municipal (Francisco de Oliveira Passos, 1909) stands out, an extraordinary confection of marble, onyx, bronze and mirrors, based on Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera, with all materials imported from Europe.

There is a history of pre-colonial indigenous building that is rarely part of any architectural discourse. And there were other European presences besides the Portuguese. In 1816 the Portuguese emperor Joao VI brought a number of significant French artists to Brazil, including the architect Grandjean de Montigny, who designed the first significant French-style building in Brazil, the Escola de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro – thus began a significant period of French influence.

However, as at the Architectural Review in England, SPHAN served up a highly idiosyncratic version of the past. SPHAN, much influenced by Costa, has always emphasized the architecture of the Portuguese colonial period, representing it as the one true historical architecture. Its principal sites of the Baroque, now protected under the aegis of IPHAN (Instituto do Patrimonio Historico e Artistico Nacional, the successor to SPHAN) or UNESCO, or both, include the colonial hutches of Rio de Janeiro; most of the former capital of Minas Gerais, Ouro Preto; the historic centre of Salvador da Bahia in the north-east; the eighteenth-century centre of Olinda in the state of Pernambuco; and the missionary towns of the far south-east of Brazil.

An early example of this tendency is the house that Gregori Warchav chik built for himself and his wife (1927–8, cited before). As much as this house broke with tradition, it also made explicit reference to the local context: its tiled roof, whitewashed facade and extensive veranda clearly refer to the vernacular architecture of the casa grande, of which more later. But Warchavchik is an isolated case. The crucial ideas in this context come from an institution, SPHAN (Sociedade do Patrimonio Historico e Artistico Nacional, or Society of National Historical and Artistic Heritage), created in 1937, and in which Lucio Costa was closely involved at the same time as designing the sensational MES. SPHAN was an organization that understood the codification and protection of the past as integral to the Modernist project.

As I described before, Brazil’s Modernism is polyvalent, plural and often frankly contradictory. Nowhere are these qualities more apparent than in the relationship of Modernism to the past. Brazil’s official view of itself is, to appropriate Stefan Zweig’s description, ‘the land of the future’. It has been the land of the future for the best part of a century, and this idea has become something like an article of faith.