The Influence of Brutalist Architecture and the Use of Concrete in Public Space in Brazil: Rio de Janeiro as a playground

An investigation into the diverse history and practice of architecture in Brazil, from Brutalism to socially progressive, locally influenced practices.
by Asia Komarova and Adeline Lepine

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The use of concrete in Brazil is related to a brutalist architectural tendency within the Modern architectural international panorama, during the post-war era of WWII. General characteristics of brutalism are bare and rough exposed concrete surfaces. This technique was initiated in the civil architecture, both as a technological attribute and a search for a greater plastic expressivity.

Standards of living, industrialization, socio-political upheaval and the absence of working class consumerism and the idea of developing of a national identity are found to be limited as explanations of the rise of Modernism, and consequently Brutalism in Brazil. As in Europe, Modernism diffused to Latin America thanks to State Patronage and the professionalization of architects following an engineering model. Modernist architects sought to merge aesthetic innovation with economic rationality by applying a mechanical metaphor to design public buildings, factories, schools, and daily objects. Brazilian architecture produced perhaps the most refined modernists design in the entire world.

The origins of this current were introduced by Russian emigre Gregori Warshavchik in 1920. He defended the figure of the ‘engineer builder’ against that of the ‘architect-decorator’. He stated: ‘Tradition is a subtle poison. Down with absurd decoration and on with logical construction!’ His ‘Casa Modernista’, 1927, was the first one in Latin America. A Brazilian newspaper referred to it as a rational house, comfortable, purely utilitarian, full of air, light and joy. Warshavchik, however, could not implement his most innovative ideas about prefabrication and standardization due to the lack of specialized contractors in Brazil. Moreover, because reinforced concrete was unavailable, he built in brick and then covered with cement.

The arrival of exiled modernist architects from Fascist and Communist Europe contributed to the process. The Latin American modernists, while elitists, shared with their European counterparts a belief in social progress through good design. Latin American architects however did not imitate European developments. They actively sought to incorporate local influences, which in some cases led to the abandonment of key modernist principals. The modernist material per excellence – glass, steal, reinforced concrete – were not widely available in Latin America before WWII.

Le Corbusier, as the pioneer of the movement, was an influence for the movement in Brazil, including urbanism. Lucio Costa defined the ground of modern urbanism and invited him as a collaborator. The diverse and at the same time specifically tropical atmosphere was extremely important and decisive in the formation and maturity of thought of the architect. His visits to the Carioca’s hills, his trip to Paqueta, his relations with the Brazilian modern artists and architects and with the inhabitants of the slums, modeled his work. He took a lot of time to observe the bodies of women, athletes and musicians in order to conceptualize his “objects of poetic reaction”, which were part of his eclectic collection of objects from nature that he used as inspirational material, and improved his understanding of these areas.

The notion of a modern national identity with President Juscelino Kubitschek’s project for a new federal capital Brasilia was declared in 1954. Urban planning for Brasilia was the work of Lúcio Costa, while Oscar Niemeyer was in charged of architecture. The aim was a “tropicalised” international style, notable for its curves, which were introduced to reduce the aggressiveness of the straight line and to soften the final forms in harmony with the surrounding local natural landscape. Lucio Costa’s design for the residential area consisted of communal super-blocks that emphasized communal life rather then private properties and intended to avoid any undo and undesired stratification of society. Brasilia was to be an ‘exemplar, or enclave or beach-head and a blueprint of radiating change which creates a new society on the basis of the value that motivates its design’. Finally, it became five cities in one, four of them not planned, and it failed to install a new level of social habits.

It is understood by forefront the effort to establish a new order. In architecture, the process goes through an appropriation of spaces, for a new debate between public and private. This idea of architecture as an organism adaptable to life was one of Lina Bo Bardi’s main lines as the rescue of living in community. For the MASP – Museum of Art of Sao Paulo, she created a building well known nowadays for its headquarters. A 1968 concrete and glass structure whose main body is supported by two lateral beams over a 742m freestanding space, considered a landmark of the city and a main symbol of modern Brazilian architecture: “Concrete in sight, whitewash, flagstone flooring covering the great Civic Hall, tempered glass, plastic walls. Industrial black rubber flooring covering inner spaces. The belvedere is a ‘square’, with plants and flowers around, paved with parallelepipeds, according to Iberian-Brazilian tradition. There are also water spaces, small water mirrors with aquatic plants. […] I didn’t search for beauty. I’ve searched for freedom”1.

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The need for a fair world was not only an open call by the cultural scene, but also by society in general. Brazil, until present times, remains unable to solve the multi layered problems and wounds of colonialism and therefore cannot guarantee peace to its citizens.

The 1950s were marked by the emergence of a new art movement claiming affinities with the Cannibal Manifesto (Manifesto Antropófago) written in 1928 by Oswald de Andrade, which became the theoretical kernel2. The poets Augusto de Campos and Décio Pignatari were the leading lights of the Concrete Art movement. They propounded the elimination of all lyrical, symbolic and subjective connotations from painting and poetry in favor of simple plastic elements or “verbivocovisual” poetry. In fact, the engineer of João Cabral de Melo Neto plays with the meaning of the word fair, to pay tribute to architecture and urbanism by Le Corbusier. For the poet, Le Corbusier, the engineer uses his work tools to recreate a fair world, accurate, at the same time devoid of veils or ornaments, to become concrete, so to say real.

At the end of the 1950’s, many artists put their signature to the Neo-Concrete Manifesto, which asserted the right to indulge in subjectivity and to break down the distance between the public and the work of art. Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape—amongst others—offered a different kind of cultural cannibalism, involving not only the European avant-garde movements, but also a devouring of popular culture.

Hélio Oiticica’s parangolés and environments are perfect examples of different manners of working on bodies in urban space and architecture. The parangolés are wearable paintings and sculptures in the same time. They were inhabited as a dwelling space for physical exploration and expression. Some of them can be related to tent like constructions and embodied architectural spaces. The fabric also had associations to the nomadic carrying of one’s own belongings. As the wearer danced in the street, he also performed new sensations regarding one’s physical positioning within public space in the context of the dictatorship in Brazil: those capes can be a camouflage, a banner, a habitation. They are also a physical revelation, a way of punctuating public environments with sensory inquiry. Further on, Hélio Oiticica created the Subterranean Tropicalia Project in New York, unfolding the Tropicália complex into a public space where the dialogue with nature and environment were fundamental. Years later, Oiticica focused on the penetrables Magic Squares 1-5, this work gave course to his Environmental Program.

Lygia Pape’s Divisor in 1968 worked with fabric as material and with the notion of penetration. Between installation and performance, it proposed a collective experience within different Carioca communities. As the participants were invited to take place above a white large fabric perforated to fit only their heads, they walked together in the streets as a metaphor of the present “social network”.

Between everyday life, art and poetics, Rio de Janeiro’s urbanism and architecture are suggesting a lot of potential walks, convolutions, experiences and meditations for bodies and spirits. Provoked by the cultural movements, peasants and inhabitants, the city started to intervene in public space using similar language by placing children’s and teenager’s playgrounds and gyms. In Rio de Janeiro, we observed a beautiful combination of State provided and DIY examples. As the case of the Flamengo park, where a playground for small and bigger reminded us of Le Corbusier next to a possible Helio Oititica work.

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And, as the body is never far away from preoccupations, hereunder we were surprised by an encounter with a completely DIY open air gym for mature public concerned with sport, bodybuilding and health, as Lygia Pape dreamt about, intended for different social classes.

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To round up, concrete is being used in the favelas as the preferable construction material. As a paradox the inhabitants of the favelas uses the Warshavchik’s technique to implement their dwellings. Bricks are the inner structure and finally the floor and the walls are being covered by concrete. The housing prototype are unconsciously inspired by Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino. It is, doubtlessly, the most efficient and durable material massively capitalized. On the other hand concrete is the primary contributor to urban heat islands and its production requires an incredible amount of water consumption. We would like to question its efficiency and summon on: What would be the next affordable construction and design material?

1. Lina Bo Bardi, in Oliveira, Fernanda. MASP: sob as linhas da arte, a liberdade. Retrieved on    2007-6-26

2. In the poem, the symbolic eating of the colonists and their culture—after a ritual form of cannibalism practiced by the autochtones Tupi Indians —is advocated as the constitutive principle of Brazilian culture. The process of devouring the aesthetics and the politics of the dominant culture (colonial or European) is not a matter of imitating that culture but rather of assimilating it in order to forge their own version

3. Notes from: Modernism without Modernity by Mauro. F. Guillen

About the author

Asia Komarova and Adeline Lepine

Asia Komarova (1981, Voronezh, Russia).
During the fall of Berlin's Wall, Asia's mother moved with her to Europe, leaving behind what was the USSR. Asia moved on to complete the Liceo Artistico di Brera of Milan specializing in Architecture; Spatial Design at the Escola Massana, Barcelona, and then she obtained a degree at Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. At the moment, the artist is based in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and works in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
She combines her architectural and spatial design knowledge with her artistic practice. Her work has been shown, among others, during the Critical Mass public art project, (Saint Petersburg, 2013) and the Hermitage Museum, (Amsterdam, 2014 ). She has also given lectures at Casco, office for Art, Design and Theory (Utrecht, 2013).

Adeline Lepine (1984, Lyon, France).
After studying Art History and working with children in social centers, Adeline Lepine, French resident of CAPACETE this year, has worked for several Art Centers and Museums in France as person in charge of education, cultural programms and events (especially The Lyon Biennale (2007), the Institut d’art contemporain of Villeurbanne (2008-2012), the macLYON (2014)). Since 2002, she has taken part of Mediation Culturelle Association, a french network for professionals who are interested in programming for a range of cultural and artistic institutions' audiences. She is also a founding member of The Performance Learning Machine’s collective, an artistic and cultural interdisciplinary project related to performance art started in 2012.


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