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.

One of the few architects to recognize the difficulty was Henrique Mindlin (1911–1971). For him, colonial architecture was severe, solid, unadorned. It expressed the severe and clear-cut social structure: the supremacy of man, the almost oriental segregation of woman, and the whole system of the exploitation of the Negro and the Indian. Mindlin’s own work, especially the ABI, has something of this colonial character. 

Francisco Marcelino de Sousa Aguiar, 
Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, 1905–10.

The austerity and whiteness of its facade, the way (unlike its near neighbor, the MES) it affirms the existing street grid, its clearly hierarchical internal organization and its clear demarcation of private and public spaces mark it out as a building that confirms the past rather than wishes to sweep it away. And yet Mindlin’s remarks, made in 1956, twenty years after the completion of the ABI, indicate a residual uneasiness about this relation with the past, a sense that affirming the colonial past in terms of architecture amounted to affirming a way of life that could not and  should not persist. Mindlin did not resolve this, and neither did Costa or Niemeyer, the other significant figures in this post. The contradiction did not get addressed properly until the work of the Paulista School – for more on that see the next posts.

Cândido Portinari, tiles on Pampulha church, Belo Horizonte, 1943.

The accommodation of the past is manifest in a wide range of modern buildings in Brazil. It informed the use of such details as azulejos on the MES and Niemeyer’s church at Pampulha by Candido Portinari. It is manifest on the content and imagery of these works, heavy on Old Testament subject matter and informed as much by El Greco as they were by the latest developments in Paris.

Eclectic style villa, Avenida Paulista, São Paulo, c. 1905.
In the background is Ohtake’s Berrini 500 building, under construction.

The techniques used to shade and ventilate such buildings also derive from historical – especially colonial – practice. It informs a huge number of private houses. But most significantly here, it results in some unusually sophisticated Modernist buildings by Costa and his circle that, although small in number and small in scale, were disproportionately important in articulating an idea of what it meant to be modern in Brazil.

Occupying sensitive natural or historical sites, and making use of traditional materials and technologies, they prefigure what Kenneth Frampton would call, half a century later, ‘critical regionalism’: a modern architecture sensitive to place and context, tough, pragmatic and local, resistant to both capital and internationalism. It is by any standards prescient work.
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