The extraordinary life of Oscar Niemeyer, who died in 2012 aged 104, ensured that Brazilian architecture was known and admired worldwide. The last of the great modernists, Niemeyer carried on designing buildings in his signature, sculptural style right up to his death. But his achievements were so outstanding that he dominated any discourse outside the country about Brazilian architecture. Dig a little deeper, though, and you could certainly make a strong case that the country’s architecture is among the most vibrant, intelligent, inventive and attractive in the world.
The finest recent addition to São Paulo’s slowly reviving downtown district is Brasil Arquitetura’s remarkable Praça das Artes. Completed in 2012, the complex is a striking series of structures that come together to form a mini-metropolis of dance and music. The approach has been to build what appears to be a group of autonomous towers, blocks and gateways to break up the mass and express the discrete functions of the centre. A microcosmic city rather than a single megablock, the structures frame a central public courtyard that acts as an urban square.
The firm, led by Marcelo Ferraz and Francisco Fanucci (both of whom worked with Lina Bo Bardi, the country’s most influential postwar woman architect), displays a commitment to sculptural, urban-scale raw-concrete construction and a big-hearted generosity of public space. Both worked on Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompéia, a massive factory converted into a popular arts and community centre, which, arguably, became a template for the adaptive reuse of industrial architecture into cultural venues – a trend that has influenced everything from London’s Tate Modern and New York’s High Line to Shanghai’s Power Station of Art.
Long before Brasil Arquitetura was making its name, two other veteran architects, who produce very different buildings but are united by a deeply held belief that structures should have a public use, were challenging the view that the country’s architecture was all about Niemeyer. Paulo Mendes da Rocha, now 85, was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2006. His work is severe, determinedly modernist and has, in its concrete brutalism, a very particular aesthetic – it is as much about the public space around it and its sculptural presence as about its interiors. His Brazilian Museum of Sculpture in São Paulo is a tough, dark piece of urbanism, a concrete bunker that graffiti, skateboarders and partiers have failed to damage; if anything, it just becomes more powerful with each passing year.
Then there is the work of João Filgueiras, also known as Lelé. His designs for the Sarah Hospitals, a nationwide network of rehabilitation centres in operation since the early 1990s, were remarkably prescient, blending modernist motifs with highly advanced sustainable features such as natural ventilation and extensive natural light. (If that doesn’t sound impressive, think of any hospital you’ve been in.) Lelé’s work is a very deliberate continuation of the visionary modernism of Niemeyer. His shapes are sculptural and expressive – there are domes, elevated walkways and wavy roofs, brilliant white surfaces, gleaming metal and dashes of vivid colour.
Lelé’s work departs from that of his Brazilian peers both in its freeform invention and in its adherence to prefabrication and the engineering of mass-produced, cheap-to-manufacture parts as opposed to more labour-intensive in-situ concrete works. His original intention was to produce these buildings, at a fraction of the cost otherwise achievable, by using panels and parts produced in eastern bloc factories but when those began to close in the 1990s the projects became difficult to continue.
Perhaps the most established São Paulo architect today is Isay Weinfeld. Best known for his houses, Weinfeld designs the kind of dream residences that prove irresistible, both to style magazines and to other architects, who envy their freedom and their seemingly endless spatial and formal invention. But my favourite of Weinfeld’s buildings is the exquisite Livraria da Vila bookshop in São Paulo’s genteel Jardim district. The bookshelf/window displays constituting the shopfront pivot so that the store opens up to the street. It is a simple, seductive device, suggesting that books are part of the structure – the building itself opens up like a book.
Weinfeld’s remarkable 360° Building, currently under construction in São Paulo, has caused a ripple in the press. The 20-storey apartment block is composed of what the architect refers to as “62 houses with yards”. Each dwelling is a physically discrete entity expressed as a box in a tower that has been compared to a giant game of Jenga. Even in a city of striking towers, this one stands out.
The other name to reckon with in Brazil is Marcio Kogan. His studio, MK27, like Weinfeld’s, specialises in one-off houses and its designs are, if anything, yet more glamorous, exotic and inventive. Kogan’s characteristically Paulista use of concrete as both structure and surface material frames generous, fluid interiors that meld seamlessly with the landscape outside. Floor planes overshoot interiors to become terraces or flat roofs, creating the modernist dream of continuity between interior and exterior. This is all, of course, made easier by Brazil’s wonderful climate but nevertheless these houses are the image of what seems an impossibly elegant and uncluttered way of life.
All these architects represent a remarkable continuity and a distinct Paulista aesthetic – one that’s recognisable, robust and remarkable. Its characteristics are defined by the bold use of concrete, a respect for the public realm and a use of solid blocks arranged and stacked in constructivist volumes to create a resolutely local modernism. Few cities have achieved this so well, so consistently or for so long.
Finally, a number of younger practices have recently emerged to demonstrate that the extraordinary quality of Brazil’s architectural future is assured. Rizoma’s design for a concrete gallery devoted to artist Lygia Pape in the Inhotim art park is a curious, slightly bunker-like but undeniably powerful volume. Carla Juaçaba’s temporary pavilion erected for the Humanidade 2012 Rio+20 UN event on Copacabana beach, a huge structure of scaffolding, banners and ramps, made a massive impact – with minimal means. And the young practice SuperLimão blends product, interiors and architecture in a tropical mix of real and enjoyable creativity.
Brazil is not alone in its architectural invention. But it is, as ever, the liveliest, the most striking and the most enjoyable.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic.
This article has been amended to reflect that fact that the architect who made the temporary pavilion for the Humanidade 2012 Rio+20 UN event was Carla Juaçaba, not Carlos Juaçaba.
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