Spring 2002

How to Read Two Monoliths

Brazilian modernism, modern Brazil

Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss and Sabine von Fischer

What to do with all the Modernist monoliths scattered in every country where Modernism took hold? Like strange beasts stranded on foreign shores, these structures seem to have many stories to tell. Their stories are ambiguous and at times speak of failure or loss. Could historical distance be the simple explanation for this, or is it that they appear like monoliths because of the classifications through which we read the entire Modernist repository?

The mono-story resulting from these classifications is commonplace. According to this story, architects in Europe and the US gradually lost faith in the possibility of social change through new architecture some time after World War II, while similar ambitions were debased in former communist countries after mass dissatisfaction with projects for collective and social housing. This reading understands social exclusively as socialist, communal as communist. It claims that new societies can no longer be created through new architecture and declares as anachronistic any architecture that tries to construct an entire society anew.

What is lost in this mono-story is the complexity of Modernist visions of future society. For those of us already in their future, many Modernist forms look like monoliths only because we persist in filtering out the diversity of social dreams that lay behind them. More than any European example, it is in so-called peripheral regions like Brazil that Modernist relics are transparent to their origins; especially so because the dream of modernity did not die slowly in Brazil as it did in Europe, but came to an abrupt end with the dictatorial regime that took power in 1964.

In Brazil during the period of its post-war leftist governments (1945–1964), architectural experiments were initiated by the state as part of a larger political reform. What we see today as monolithic forms were the product of an almost naïve license given to architects to incubate a new society of the future. Unlike Russia or Yugoslavia, no political party interfered with the agenda set by the architects. The most prominent example of this period is, of course, Brasilia, built at breakneck speed in the four years while Juscelino Kubitschek held the presidency. Heavily criticized, Brasilia still struggles with the perception that it is more of a cross to bear than a form capable of any real social promise.

Two Brazilian examples that bypassed all such allegations are the Pedregulho Housing Complex in Rio de Janeiro, completed by Affonso Reidy in 1951, and the FAU, the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism in São Paulo, designed by Vilanova Artigas in 1961 and completed by 1969. The former was the culmination of the Purist phase in Modernist architecture and may have already anticipated its end. The latter belongs to “Second Modernism” from the 1960s—a revival of the original movement albeit injected with a new set of ethical concerns.[1] Together, the two buildings also mark the differences among leftist positions in Brazil as to what kind of architecture could generate a new social condition; one that offered an image of social equilibrium, or one that unmasked and displayed fundamental social antagonisms.

Built on the outskirts of Rio between 1949 and 1951, the Pedregulho project was initiated by Carmen Portinho, the creator and director of the Popular Housing Department in Rio. She appointed Affonso Reidy, her husband, as the head architect of the department where he made the designs for the Pedregulho project. Pedregulho was meant to be a new model dwelling for employees whose salaries were not high enough to buy or rent an apartment in the city. As an incentive to join the municipal administration, the criterion for landing an apartment in the building was to work for the municipality, which deducted the rent directly from paychecks.

Located in the outskirts of Rio, where most of the city’s factories were, the Pedregulho development covers an area of 50,000 m2, comprising four apartment blocks, an elementary school, a gymnasium, a swimming pool with dressing rooms, a health center, playgrounds, and a day care center. This mix of social amenities was placed in several building slabs: three rectilinear, one folded, one domed, and one curvilinear. The most prominent slab, with 272 apartments, is a 260-meter-long serpentine building that sits on a hill overlooking the rest of the complex and follows an existing curve in topography. The two additional apartment slabs, both 80 meters long, are below. The fourth slab was never built.

Even before the building was complete, a cannonade of enthusiastic approval greeted it from war-devastated Europe. Max Bill, the Swiss artist and architect already known in Brazil for his “Concrete” movement in the arts, said outright that he himself would like to live in one of Pedregulho’s apartments.[2] Walter Gropius, according to his wife’s notes, was “in love” with the building and said that it is “a model not only for Brazil but for the world.”[3] Siegfried Giedion made Pedregulho the winner of the 1st International Biennial of São Paulo in 1953, writing that it was a simple example of how every city should be built.

Reidy and Portinho were not interested in exposing social antagonisms. On the contrary, they were striving to level them. Pedregulho is at once smooth, gentle, pure, and undecorated, although also strong in its sheer appearance. It was meant to be a social intervention not unlike European models of post-war reconstruction.[4] But Pedregulho was also to represent to the outside world the direction of current Brazilian social reform. Therefore, families who were to represent this new society had to be checked for medical diseases before moving in. A criterion for these hand-picked tenants was their willingness to uphold the pure, white aesthetic of the architecture. Additionally, they had to agree to frequent inspections by the authorities. Employees from the Popular Housing Department had the power to periodically access the apartments and request that tenants abide by the regulations.

The inhabitants had to remain clean. Of special importance was a communal laundry room with washing machines. To encourage its use, each tenant was given 2 kg of detergent annually as a gift from the city. The laundry room and representative tenants were part of the regular tour given to VIPs, such as Aloisio de Paula, then director of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio.

Pedregulho is a dual project: the form purified down to slabs and a dominating sinuous serpentine, and the content (i.e., the inhabitants) examined for any illnesses. This included moral defects: Tenants could be evicted for lying to the authorities and social assistants regularly verified information provided by the tenants.

If Pedregulho’s success was equivalent to the health of the government, this principle also works in reverse. When the government is perceived to be corrupt, as it is today, Pedregulho is seen as the official locus of corruption. What had been a favorite example of some of the world’s most exacting critics—a pure, clean spot on the horizon of international Modernism—could suddenly be seen as the breeding ground of state-organized crime. In Central Station, the Brazilian movie recently nominated for two Academy Awards, Pedregulho’s apartments are the scenes of government-tolerated crime, specifically to extract organs from abandoned children. All that remains in Pedregulho of this failed social experiment is a form, a beautiful serpentine of apartments and open passages lingering beyond its social promise. All that remains for us is a baffling monolith.

• • •

Interior space of FAU, probably from 1969.

At first, the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU) at São Paulo University resembles a space ship stranded on the vast university campus, several kilometers from the center of Brazil’s largest and most congested city. The enormous block of exposed concrete holds mostly open space through which outside air circulates freely. To enter, one slips from the street under the library into the big hall without ever opening a door. The only threshold is the overhang of the library above. Only protected from the rain by a roof of skylights, the big hall is primarily a void which serves as lobby, communication area, meeting place, auditorium, concert hall, and at times a soccer field. All the school’s spaces open into the big hall. The six ramps on the short sides of this central void connect the split-level floors above into a continuous folded surface. One shifts upwards from level to level on the ramps, passing the museum floor, the library, the interdepartmental section, the studio space, and the seminar rooms in a never-ending zigzag.

If the Pedregulho housing complex in Rio de Janeiro is a social laundromat, the architecture school of the University of São Paulo is a dirt detector. The ideological changes of the 1960s affected the form in concrete ways; while Niemeyer and the architects around him, like Reidy, believed in “harmonious synthesis,” the younger generation in São Paulo, among them Artigas, aimed towards exposing the contradictions. Furthermore, the conditions of the city, as well as the architecture of São Paulo, were never as gentle, elegant, and light as in Rio, nor did its architects share the same obsession with beauty. A new movement was created: Brutalist architecture that opposed the elegance and mannerisms of the Rio school influenced by Le Corbusier. Artigas, one of the foremost practitioners of São Paulo Brutalism, expressed his position thus: “Oscar [Niemeyer] and I have the same preoccupations and we encounter the same problems. However, while he always works towards resolving the contradictions into a harmonious synthesis, I expose them clearly.”[5]Artigas did not care for beauty per se. His was a direct message to students of architecture that the contribution of architecture to society lies in exposing society’s antagonistic nature. In 1961, Artigas designed both the building and a new curriculum for the architecture department at São Paulo University. His reforms were abolished in 1964 when a new dictatorial regime imposed censorship on all levels of cultural activity. According to an anecdote told by Artigas, one of the modifications he was forced to make during the years of planning was especially symptomatic of the times: The darkroom had to be repositioned so that the students using it could be supervised from the director’s office. (Even under a military regime, this restriction seems relatively respectful insofar as it did not affect the overall design.) The new school building was inaugurated in 1969. A little over a month after the inauguration, Artigas was one of several faculty members dismissed from the university for “subversive” positions, as were a wide number of other intellectuals and artists.

Like a test laboratory for investigating continuous space, the FAU interweaves movement between areas dedicated to different functions into one space-stream. Within this blurring of boundaries, disciplines become activities, and leisure becomes work. Artigas imagined the architecture school as an incubator where movement is mandatory. Movement was forced by the ramps whose slanted surfaces offset the center of gravity and set the body in motion. According to the French philosopher-architect team of Paul Virilio and Claude Parent, this oblique condition encourages a new social awareness.[6] Their “theory of the oblique” from 1966 was intended as a critique of the right angle. Based on the observation of children playing on the inclined surfaces of World War II bunkers in Normandy, they investigated the “unstable,” tilted position as a “third spatial possibility of architecture” after the horizontal and the vertical.

Shifting between the floors of the FAU is a borderless movement nevertheless contained within the hermetic pedagogic system of the school. No picturesque views of the landscape or the city beyond are permitted. In the FAU, the concrete walls, ramps, and skylights embrace a void whose function is to expose present social conditions. In 1961, one year after the inauguration of Brasilia, Artigas imagined the FAU as a “a spatialization of democracy, in dignified spaces, without front door ... where all activities are valid.”[7]

This included political assemblies that extended beyond the official curriculum. In a programmatic photograph of a gathering in the large hall of the FAU, probably dating from 1969, crowds of students not only cover the floor of the main hall, but also the ramps. The continuous surface of the FAU is doubled by a layer of occupants—to the extent that the features of the architecture disappear. In Artigas’s vision, it is the individual user who will temporarily assign the building’s program. This unlimited interplay creates a paradox, however, insofar as the openness also allows for total control; the building is “a spatialization of democracy” and a panopticon at the same time.[8]

While many architects during the 1960s proclaimed the crisis of Functionalism (a subset of Modernism), Artigas believed that this crisis was the permanent but productive mode for an architecture that placed itself in the service of society. In an essay entitled “A False Crisis,” Artigas writes, “Functionalism had a project, a trajectory to set architecture in the service of its own “disalienation,” as well as in the service of culture at large, to transform the world in the service of mankind. It could not and will never be able to completely fulfill this. Tying to fulfill this, however, led to a better understanding of the nature of the obstacles to overcome.”[9]

Both in Pedregulho and FAU, the dream of controlling spatial and social dynamics was ambitious to the degree that partial defeat was inevitable. The change of inhabitants and the impossibility of continuing to supervise habits subverted Pedregulho’s dream. Pedregulho is in fact a timeless monument to an untimely society. Learning from that, the big void of FAU was a generous host to the heterogeneous conditions of its occupants. Designed to prevent the intrusion of the imminent Brazilian political dystopia, the FAU is armored in concrete­.­

  1. The most referenced example of “First Modernism” in Brazil was the Ministry of Health and Education built by Le Corbusier, Lucio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, and Affonso Reidy in 1933.
  2. Max Bill, “Report on Brazil: 4,” in Architectural Review (October 1954), pp. 238–239.
  3. Walter Gropius, “Report on Brazil: 2,” in Architectural Review, op. cit. pp. 236-237.
  4. Portinho herelf had worked with British reconstruction teams after WWII. Quoted in Nabil Bonduki, ed., Affonso Eduardo Reidy (São Paulo: Editorial Blau & Instituto Lina Bo e P. M. Bardi, 2000), p. 82.
  5. Artigas quoted in Yves Bruand, Arquitetura contemporanea no Brasil (São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva S.A., 1997), p. 302.
  6. An excerpt from Virilio and Parent’s manifesto “The Oblique Function” is in Joan Ockman, ed., Architecture Culture 1943–1968 (New York: Columbia University & Rizzoli Publications, 1993), pp. 408–411.
  7. Vilanova Artigas, Vilanova Artigas (São Paulo: Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi & Fundação Vilanova Artigas, 1997), p. 101.
  8. The parallel to the panopticon is from a conversation with São Paulo architecture critic Ruth Verde Zein.
  9. Vilanova Artigas, “Uma falsa crise,” in Vilanova Artigas, Caminhos da arquitetura (São Paulo: Cosac & Naify Edições, 1999), p. 61.

Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss is a founding partner of Normal Group for Architecture. He is also a contributing editor of Cabinet and one of the authors of the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, a book on the contemporary city published by Taschen.

Sabine von Fischer is a founding partner of Normal Group for Architecture. She is also a freelance writer for newspapers and architectural journals and she was recently awarded a prize for short fiction.

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