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).

For the Modernist critic Mario de Andrade, writing in 1943, the importance of the exhibition could not be overstated:
I believe it is one of the richest gestures the USA has yet made in relation to us, the Brazilians. It gives us confidence, diminishes the disastrous inferiority complex that we have, gives us consciousness of our normality, and makes us realize that we have modern architecture of the most advanced kind in the world.

In terms of its impact, Brazil Builds was a critical event of the same order as the realization of Brasilia. With good reason, the critics of the exhibition, both at the time of its production and subsequently, have tended to emphasize the remarkable new architecture produced by Niemeyer and his circle. This interpretation has tended to overshadow the fact that the exhibition was as much an argument about the past as the new. Specifically, it juxtaposes Brazilian architecture of the early colonial period with the contemporary, making a series of highly rhetorical comparisons through the medium of photography.

It depicts a Modernist water tower in the colonial city of Olinda in the state of Pernambuco, north-eastern Brazil. Now a de facto suburb of the adjoining, much larger, city of Recife, it is of similar historical importance to Ouro Preto, and is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kidder-Smith’s photograph, taken in 1942, depicts the Alto da Se, the town’s central square, which occupies a distinctive site at the highest point of the town. There are spectacular views of Recife and the Atlantic coast from here. The photograph depicts the tower, built in 1937 by the radical young Recife architect Luis Nunes, rising to six storeys above the square. An exceedingly plain building, it is built of camboge or pierced concrete blocks. The ground floor is left open (for dancing, apparently) with the upper storeys raised up on pilotis. Although made of concrete, in image, Kidder-Smith emphasizes its graph-paper-like qualities; its construction notwithstanding, it resembles early Mies buildings in its formal restraint. Kidder-Smith’s photograph has it in bright sunshine, and it has perhaps burnt out slightly too, so any details are removed. The photograph depicts it surrounded by a group of colonial buildings – to the right, the squat, Baroque Igreja da Se, to the left a large house. There is a mature tree on the far right framing the church. The building itself is uncompromising and plain, daringly brutal, as Lauro Cavalcanti has described. It does not seek any ‘structural similarity nor dialectical relation between future and past’. It is a ‘monolith, announcing new times’.

Yet this is not precisely what is communicated by the image. Nunes’s tower is framed picturesquely by the surroundings. It rises above them, but its delicacy and purity mean that it does not dominate them; indeed, the church and the tower have equal billing, more or less. And there is a formal comparison too, the verticals of the church tower emphasized by the water tower, while the white line of the third floor is continued by the projecting cornice of the house. Investigate further and other comparisons begin to suggest themselves. As Goodwin notes – in fact it is the only thing he says about it – the tower is highly illusionistic, its utilitarian appearance disguising the fact that only a part of it is used as a storage tank. And in the image, its scale is quite uncertain. By burning out the details, Kidder-Smith plays up the fact that it could read as a 30-storey slab block. These things suggest a connection with the Baroque, which is illusionistic if nothing else. In other words, the dialectic between past and present is strongly here in the image, whatever the aims of the architect.

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