Brazil: Modern Architectures in History

On our last morning in Montreal, Becky Quintal and I paid a short visit to the Canadian Center for Architecture bookstore just before heading to the airport. Even though we spent a whole week inside CCA’s building, we left a visit to what is one of the best architecture bookstores anywhere to the very last minute – on purpose, as we could only afford so many impulse purchases. I came in allowing myself to leave only with a few postcards, but couldn’t resist picking up Richard J. Williams’ Brazil: Modern Architectures in History. If only all impulse purchases were this gratifying.

For a few minutes, I did try to weigh in some pros and cons. The cons: Brazilian architecture history is of tangential interest to my research; I already have a few books on Brazilian architecture criticism (some of which remain unread, but I’m taking care of that this Summer); I wasn’t too impressed by its design (I do judge a book by its cover, but I’m always willing to change my mind) and photo illustrations; it looked more like a thesis dissertation than an illustrated book (which is not necessarily a bad thing). It cost C$36.95, which made it an indulgence for someone on the very last day of a 6-week trip across North America and with little money left and no room for excess baggage.

But then I succumbed to a very important pro: the writing. After a quick glance into its almost 300 pages, I realized this was not a stuffy account of Brazilian modern architecture, but a rather compelling read.

And compelling it was. In eight thoroughly researched, but highly enjoyable chapters (six of which addressing different “Politics” – of the Past, Eros, Progress, Poverty, Liberation, Spectacle and Public Space) Richard J. Williams takes us, in a heartbeat, from the 1922 Modern Week to Curitiba’s bus network, the private development of Alphaville and “The Rise of Paulo Mendes da Rocha”.

And boy, is Professor Williams critical. No words are spared to give praise where praise is due, but also to critique the most sacred of Brazil’s cows. Above all, Oscar Niemeyer and Brasília (a topic he has written extensively in the past), but also Lúcio Costa, Max Bill (such a treat to read Bill’s views on the MES/Gustavo Capanema building), Vilanova Artigas, Jaime Lerner, Paulo Mendes da Rocha or Ruy Ohtake – I was however puzzled not to find any reference to Isay Weinfeld.

In the book’s sections on Niemeyer’s Memorial da América Latina in São Paulo (1987-89), the Museu de Arte Contemporânea in Niterói (1997) and the Museu Oscar Niemeyer in Curitiba (2002), Williams is particularly ruthless. Relying on his own recent observations and on other contemporary accounts and criticism, Williams exposes these works in their crude, pathetic existence. He describes the latter with nothing else than “a giant glass eye on a stick”, but goes in greater detail about the other two, revealing Niemeyer’s disregard for such “earthbound matters” as construction, finishing and purpose, in exchange for what he calls a Postmodern preoccupation “with the creation of icons that may or may not be related to their supposed functions.”

What I found most rewarding about this book, apart from a certain disenchantment with any kind of ‘grand narrative’ of modernism, was the way it dealt with Brazil as a subject. Unlike so many other non-Brazilian authors writing about the country (and especially the ones writing about its architecture and design, even in the so-called “trade media”), Williams’ knees are not trembling, his pulse isn’t high, his head isn’t light. In case you’re looking for a love letter to Brazilian modernism, its architecture or its heroes, this book isn’t it. And that’s why it’s as significant as it is compelling.

Williams’ restraint is particularly manifest in the book’s conclusion, which includes this quote from a 2001 article on the re-emergence of Brazilian architecture in international architectural discourse, by Brazilian critic Fernando Luiz Lara: “Brazil retains a peculiar, and ultimately peripheral, character: the country is always cited in terms of the ‘exotic, erotic, or chaotic’; the country is always a curiosity rather than something more serious.”

Such words never made more sense than today. It’s about time people writing on Brazil get up from their lounge chairs, sit straight and start treating the country, its people and their work with the diligence and respect they deserve.

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