Brazil Builds presents colonial architecture as a kind of proto-Modernism: austere, site-specific, using local materials and techniques, fit for purpose. Hence-consistent with Costa and Freyre – the enthusiasm for the casa grande, the form most amenable to this Modernist revisionism.
The Fazenda Vassouras, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, is a simple square mass on a huge monumental terrace, barely decorated outside, but housing some spectacularly florid interiors. The Fazenda Colubande, in Sao Goncalo, state of Rio de Janeiro, is an austere, horizontal building, with a grand terrace affording a splendid view – a prototype Grande Hotel. 

The Fazenda Garcia, near Petropolis in the mountains in the state of Rio de Janeiro, is a simple house built into a steep forest hillside, almost inseparable from its forest surroundings. Besides the fazendas, there are discussions of forts and industrial buildings, and a great many colonial churches. Lucio Costa’s Museum of the Missions, in Sao Miguel das Missoes in the far southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, built in 1937 from the ruins of an eighteenth-century church, is represented, notably, within the historic part of the catalogue: a ‘simple, glass-walled building’ that ‘provides a pleasantly non-competitive background for the brilliantly arranged sculpture’. In each case, however, historic buildings are selected to represent the Modernist argument; the colonial is powerfully represented as a prototype Modern, austere, simple, logical and sculptural.

However, Brazil’s historic architecture can only be understood as a precursor of Modernism if it is also primitive. Brazil Builds demands that it be primitive in order to be authentic, drawing on by then well-established models in other areas of the visual arts. In painting and sculpture, primitivism was, by 1943, ubiquitous, and MOMA had played a large part in its propagation. MOMA’S landmark exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art (1936) was the first large-scale attempt to codify abstraction in art, and it did so by referring to so-called primitive art from sub-Saharan Africa. The exhibition catalogue, written by the museum’s young director, Alfred H. Barr, included a famous diagram that showed a direct lineage to ‘primitive’ work. The cult of primitivism is equally well represented in Brazil Builds. Its historic buildings are those that are easily recuperated into a primitivism paradigm: without exception, they are simple, robust and austere, just like the Modernist buildings they supposedly prefigure.

Goodwin’s view is notably inclusive. But it also clearly excludes much from its understanding of Modernism. It disparages most of the contemporary fabric of Brazil’s big cities. It has little to say about Sao Paulo, for example, then overtaking Rio as the country’s largest commercial and cultural capital. It ignores the gargantuan Edificio Martinelli in that city, a skyscraper the equal of anything in New York, built in 1929 in the style of an over-scaled Renaissance palazzo. In Rio, Goodwin can complain only about the modern development along the Avenida Rio Branco, for example, development that turned a small colonial town into a version of Second Empire Paris, complete with the technological infrastructure (the paved roads, the street lighting, the trams, the elevators) that made such a vision of modernity possible. Neither does he say anything about Belo Horizonte, a new city designed from scratch by the planner Aarao Reis between 1893 and 1897, whose vast grid and ambition already strongly recalled Chicago. The extraordinary and now justly celebrated Teatro Amazonas in Manaus is dismissed as ‘academic correctness’ and ‘sterility’; it is not ‘living, breathing architecture’.
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