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.

The building of the new capital, Brasilia, is its principal material manifestation, but at first sight almost all the built environment of Brazil seems to be modern. Unlike the United States, or Britain, or even much of continental Europe, there is seemingly little appetite for architecture of historical pastiche; neo-colonial styles are relatively rare. Commenting on this peculiar attitude to the modern, the architectural historian Adrian Forty has described a country in which ‘the old does not exist . . . newness of things is valued, and “oldness” is not easily distinguished from dilapidation’.

Forty’s remarks here recall Claude Levi-Strauss’s account of 1930s Sao Paulo, in which the French anthropologist describes a city maniacally building the future, but leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. Things are either brand new or in a state of ruin. The ‘old’, that category so familiar and so vital in Europe, seemingly has no place.

This is a familiar idea – in fact, in the Anglophone literature about Brazilian architecture, it is more or less the only idea available to describe the country’s relation with its past. However, it is not quite right. The ‘land of the future’ certainly continues to exist, but equally there are, and have always been, vitally important discourses of architecture that stress a remarkable degree of continuity between Modernism and the past. In these discourses, the architectures of the past and of the future are thought to exist in a condition of mutual reinforcement, the past (for example) nourishing the present, or providing it with an agreeable context.
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