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.

Costa argues therefore that ‘popular’ architecture is more interesting than ‘erudite’; it is not affected or pretentious; it wears no make-up; it is primarily communicated through the skills of craftsmen without formal education. This ‘honest’ and ‘sober’ architecture survived a long time in Brazil, he argues, right up until the middle of the nineteenth century. This architecture describes a ‘saude plastica perfeita’. This perfect historic architecture is manifest in certain specific kinds of construction: pau-a-pique (wattle and daub), whitewashed walls, tiled roofs, azulejos, and local stone, local wood. Costa rejects an architecture of surfaces, an impractical architecture where things will not work: ‘conservatory neo-colonial, with verandas where a chair won’t fit, lanterns that won’t light, roofs won’t cover anything, flower-stands in inaccessible places, props that won’t hold up any floor . . . everything in architecture must have a reason to exist, and exercise a function’.

All this leads Costa to a surprising re-evaluation of Portuguese Baroque, an architecture that by contrast to its Italian or Austrian counterparts is remarkably little concerned with surface. The surprise is not about form, in this case, but the fact that it is a form irrevocably linked with the colonial period. The intellectual context, whether Freyre or Sergio Buarque de Holanda, is preoccupied with post-colonial values. Yet the valuation of the Baroque is a crucial element in Costa’s architectural theory. He drags it into the orbit of the modern, praising some surprising things. It has, he declares, ‘composure, even dignity’, even in its most ‘delirious’ moments.

Costa’s worldview was articulated through the government agency SPHAN. Its creation in 1937 was an act of the minister of culture Gustavo Capanema, who was anxious that Brazil’s history was being lost. He charged Rodrigo Melo de Andrade to set it up at precisely the same moment as he was developing the radical new building to house his department. On SPHAN’S legal creation in November, it was charged with identifying and preserving historic monuments, giving them legal protection by inscribing them in one of four livros de tombo. As Lauro Cavalcanti has described, it was ‘integral to the project of modernization’ and was charged with the ‘construction of symbolic national capital’. Under the directorship of Andrade, the architectural nucleus of SPHAN in the late 1930s was Costa, Niemeyer and Carlos Leao, all of whom were simultaneously involved in the construction of MES. SPHAN became crucial in facilitating, but also controlling, the relationship between modern buildings and historic sites. SPHAN, dominated by Modernists, could establish the relation with the site and the appropriate form of the new building without capitulating to archaic forms of architecture. From the beginning, however, it identified Portuguese colonial as the only historic architecture worth preserving, an attitude that has led to the destruction or abandonment of vast numbers of buildings by Italian, German and other immigrants. SPHAN’S view of the past was therefore highly selective.
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