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.

Translated as The Masters and the Slaves, the book describes a social system and a mode of development based on a rural plantation economy dedicated to the production of sugar and coffee. The central architectural figure of this way of life is the casa grande (big house). The casa grande is the centre of everything:

an entire economic, social and political system; a system of labour; a system of transport; a system of religion; a system of sexual and family life; a system of bodily and household hygiene; and a system of politics . . . a fortress, a bank, a cemetery, a hospital, a school and a house of charity giving shelter to the aged, the widow and the orphan.

The casa grande was ‘the complete and sincere expression of the absorptive patriarchalism of colonial times’. It had a particular form: a long, low building, often built into the side of a hill to provide shelter from the wind. There was invariably a long veranda at first-floor level, which defines the public face of the building. From here, the planter and his family had a clear and powerful view of the land under their control. Inside there was a clear hierarchy of rooms, with private functions well hidden: unmarried daughters would be kept at the centre of the complex, almost entirely shielded from public view. Meanwhile, public rooms were built on an enormous, and sometimes opulent, scale. There would invariably be vast dining rooms and kitchens, rooms that, in the same way as the dining halls of the English country house, supposed a big passing population, an ever-present crowd beyond the immediate family of the planter and their staff.

The casa grande is in a basic sense Portuguese, but becomes powerfully identified with the new nation, ultimately as ‘Brazilian as a jungle plant’. It is also, as Freyre argues, representative of a powerful and successful form of civilization. It is the image of nothing less than ‘the most stable type of civilization to be found in Hispanic America’. This was (quite unlike the situation found in Spanish-speaking America) a society identified by essentially rural values, a situation that persisted until well into the twentieth century. It was the casa grande presiding over the plantation that represented Brazil, not the church watching over the city. As Freyre notes, in architectural terms, the casa grande in many ways ‘supplants’ the church. Not only was it socially and structurally more important, but it also provided an architectural vocabulary for it; in the north-east, the church takes on the form of the casa grande, appropriating its terraces and verandas, suppressing its more obviously ecclesiastical features. The ‘arrogant solidity of form’ that Freyre describes in the casa grande is the expression of a society profoundly at ease with itself and its hierarchies. This just happens to be a feudal and rural one.

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