Nationalist Modernism: “Brasília or Maracangalha*?”

“Continuities can be found if one proceeds along the thread of this review, from the space of the canvas to the space of the territory, from Tarsila’s oeuvre to the works of Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer. Lúcio and Tarsila share a certain fondness for simplicity, linearity and geometry, for sober and synthetic lines. Both cherish the simple and functional lines of the rural colonial house, the distinct horizontal profile of old Brazilian farmhouses.

Another thread of continuity runs through the wide and sinuous curves of Tarsila’s ‘cannibalistic’ style and Niemeyer’s architecture. In both, the choice of curves stands as an emblem of Brazilian visuality, via the references moving from African culture one moment, to the country’s nature the next. The rounded features of Tarsila’s The Negress (1923), which stand out in the foreground against the structure in horizontal bands in the background, foreshadow the preponderance of curves in her ‘cannibalistic’ painting; Pampulha’s curves in turn, in Niemeyer’s design, synthetically encompass the horizons of Minas Gerais.

Beyond this order of similarities, the modernist platforms of all three coincide. In these platforms, the power to modernise includes a civilising and universalising ambition. Modernisation implies the operation on a board on which one plays alone. In this way, the power of the subject and their thinking become unified on the basis of a rational and civilised project. This project enjoys the prerogative of top-down planning, properly dividing the space of the country, of which the symbolic, plastic or architectural field supposedly presents itself as a double or simile. Thus one can see in all of them an echo of the coloniser’s manorial privilege to legislate unilaterally. The building of the Ministry of Education and Health, commissioned in 1936 by Gustavo Capanema, a minister under Getúlio Vargas’s dictatorship, and the Pampulha ensemble (1941) – in short, the milestones of pre-1945 modern architecture in Brazil were born of the commission of the authorities of the so-called ‘Estado Novo’ (‘New State’).** Despite these authorities’ supposed modern and ‘enlightened’ credentials, they were hardly democratic.

In the cycle of economic and political expansion, which begins in the post-war period in 1945, Brazilian architecture develops too. Innovations emerge in the interface between buildings and their natural environment. The ‘Brazilian genius’ distinguishes itself, as art and architecture critic Mário Pedrosa notes, in the invention of new systems of thermal protection, ventilation, natural light, brise-soleil panels, trusses, cloisters and perforated bricks known as cobogós – into the architecture, these incorporate, with remarkable visual imagination, the graphic arts, another landmark of Brazilian excellence at the time. The integration of garden and residence, turning the external space into an extension of the interior, will become another mark of the inventiveness of this architecture.

Burle Marx, a pioneering and exemplary landscape architect, abandons the classic garden beds and short-grass lawns. His art is also innovative in its use of colours. He avoids chromatic divisionism in favour of large spots of colour. As in Tarsila, a synthesis occur between features of European modern art and primitive or anticlassical elements, elevated to national emblems. A collaborator of Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, Burle Marx uses plants from the Amazon rainforest and others, which are found in backyards or at the roadside. Like Tarsila’s colours, these plants constitute elements that are ‘familiar to the ambience of the Brazilian countryside’ and absent from classicising academic art. Architecture and nature combine, each supplementing the other:

‘Burle Marx’s gardens are also a piece of nature, although they still participate in the life of the house and serve as a sort of cadence to its spatial rhythm. Now their function is to expand it, to make it overflow into open spaces.’

The presidential palaces, designed by Niemeyer, also serve to integrate buildings and nature: horizontal constructions, surrounded by large verandas, porches or terraces, according to the architectural tradition of the large plantation owners’ houses. Along these large verandas, the Alvorada and the Planalto palaces also feature a column/sculpture hybrid whose curves not only stylistically update the bulging of Greek columns, but also suggest another national emblem: the full sails of the ‘jangadas’ (‘rafts’). However, in decorating the porches around the palaces, such columns, in addition to the emblematic dimension they have for the external public, play a different role: they frame the ‘Cerrado’ landscape. They function in a similar way to the plantation owners’ houses built at a highest point of the land, proposing the view of the landscape as a patrimonial item. As in Tarsila’s paintings, Niemeyer’s columns, these abstract modern pieces, articulate the abstract operations of modern drawing, with typical Brazilian colours, in this case those of the ‘Cerrado.’ Therefore, while modern, the building presents itself not as an urban element, but as a unit in the landscape, in the manner of the rural colonial house.***

In short, a single kind of relationship binds Brazilian modernist architecture: the integration between architecture and nature, or the rational and evaluative use of nature by the architectural project. However, as Pedrosa notes, this takes place ‘to the possible detriment of a deeper, more articulate spatial logic in the play of volumes and interior spaces.’ 

Therefore, the excellence of this architecture resides in the valorisation of nature rather than in the urban outline, the latter goal being something that would better correspond to the functionalist directrix of modern architectural rationalism. That is to say, the atavistic perspective of Brazilian modern architecture is still that of the civiliser/coloniser, who springs upon the so-called virgin (sic) land to to incorporate it into a so-called civilisation/market. This genetic mark will also be that of the ‘Plano Pilato’ (Pilot Plan) of Brasília. The geometric-modular structure, without an organic or autochthonous background, which populates the plane with communicative and internationalising shapes, in the works of Tarsila, is also that of the logic expressed by the memorial of Lúcio Costa, for the Brasília competition. On page 2 of the original copy of Plano Piloto, the architect-urbanist, in presenting his choice, says frankly, as was his way: ‘It was born of a primary gesture of someone who marks a place or takes possession of it: two axes crossing each other according to a right angle, that is, the very sign of the cross.’

In contrast, there is also the aspect of planning, under which such architecture attempts to distinguish itself from the colonial tradition. Throughout history, the private advance inland has always occurred according to immediate and unilateral interests. That is, since the captaincies, the first form of privatisation in Brazil, to the expeditions of the bandeirantes,^ and later, during the implementation of the agrarian-exporting latifundia of the coffee growers of São Paulo, the march inland from the coastal areas was invariably chaotic and predatory. Modern constructive actions, in turn, have a planned character. And, for Pedrosa, the prime example of planned territorial occupation would be Brasília.

As such, the critic justifies the creation of the new capital city as an example of a new logic, counterposing it precisely to the opening of the coffee farms by the ‘Paulistas’.^^ The devastation caused by the latifundia created a certain kind of city:

‘The land seller quickly has a few streets laid out … and the sale of lots starts right there. The first houses … indicate the future main street, the road itself. There is nothing more practical for the flow of goods … The pioneers are indifferent to the local environment, because they never stop, in their incessant race.’

Brasília, in turn, is ‘an old political idea, ingrained through the generations’, according to Pedrosa. Politics and planning as forms of rationality would thus be counterposed to the chaos of profit.^^^

The fate of Brasília, however, could be (as in fact it was) different from that of the planned and emancipationist utopia, which should amalgamate the projects of the new capital and agrarian reform. In this sense, Pedrosa had already been warning since 1957:

‘It is no accident that there is something contradictory hidden within the extremely modern envelope of its concept … Lúcio Costa’s Brasília is a beautiful utopia, but will it have anything to do with the Brasília that Juscelino Kubistchek wants to build?’

One of the risks particular to Brasília, isolated as it is from other urban areas, would be to become a seedbed for bureaucracy.+ Hence Pedrosa’s praise of Lúcio’s plan, which, unlike the others, ‘brilliantly evaded any type of closed form’, avoiding the vice of ‘bureaucratic centralism … and the administrative omnipotence of one who makes decisions without the resistances of a clear opinion and of nondispersed contrasting forces’.

A second prophetic warning also had a political tone:

‘In spite of his creative imagination … Lúcio Costa tends to yield to anachronisms … Lúcio’s plan envisions the city’s monumental axis above the municipal sector, beyond the ‘automobile parking lots following one beltway and the barracks following the other’ (quoting the architect). (But Pedrosa exclaims:) What barracks are these? According to him, they are really army troop barracks … (And he continues:) First, one asks oneself: Why these barracks within the city? Second, what are the specific functions of these troops when the new capital … is sheltered from sudden enemy landing and can only be reached by air? There is no military justification for detaching land troops … unless these troops were not meant for defense against external enemies, but, at certain moments deemed opportune, for driving their tanks, in the way we know all too well, through the city’s central axis, in order to affect the inhabitants themselves and weigh … upon the deliberations of one or more of the powers of the Republic. But why change, then? Why Brasília? Why dream of utopias?

Hence the subtitle of the text: ‘Brasília or Maracangalha?’ Today we know very well in what respect Pedrosa’s forecasts were right. But returning to the obvious things about Brasília is useful to delimit the historical roots of this pioneering generation of modern architects, as alien to a context of urban reflection. In short, their perspective is just like that of the first modernists, who synthesised modern poetic structures and national elements, previously repressed by academic art. In this symbolic operation, in line with the circumstances and limitations of the historical moment, the national emblems they elaborate suggest an immediate or semi-organic contact with nature.++ That is to say, in this perspective, Brazil is much more myth and nature than city and social formation, brought about by the social division of labour.

In addition to primitive incantations, only the visual languages, generated alongside the social sciences and other forms of knowledge, after the installation of an industrial network in the postwar period, will in fact build other cognitive models on the basis of urban issues and the country seen as a social-historical formation. The problems of Brazilian cities are then posed more clearly for the new architects and artists, in light of democratic demands and mass production. A combination of urban issues, inherent to such patterns, gives rise to new challenges and achievements for architecture: to meet the universalisation of the rights of use of the soil and of the urban environment, to similarly equate the internal/external flows and connections, to propose plural environments, anonymous structures, etc.


*Maracangalha is an imaginary and parodic city mentioned in a song with the same title (1957) by Dorival Caimmy – one of the most important popular songwriters in Brazil. Contemporary to the construction of Brasília, the song ironically alludes to the myth of Brasília as a very modern city, as the singer affirms he would go to Maracangalha, even alone, without his girlfriend, but certainly not without his straw hat. That was the typical condition of the manual workers who migrated from very poor rural regions, mainly in the Northeast of Brazil, to construct Brasília. They lived in slums (actually in huts made of sacks of cement) around the territory of the capital city and, after the inauguration of Brasília in 1961, they gathered in the so-called satellite towns that actually reproduced their poor peasant background, thus very different from the official city of Brasília, limited to the Plano Piloto, designed by Lucio Costa, where the palaces conceived by Oscar Niemeyer were built.

**That was the self-denomination that the authorities gave to the specific form of dictatorial Brazilian state, from 1937 to 1945. The name was possibly borrowed from Portugal, where Salazar’s dictatorship took that name from 1933 onwards, until the 1974 Revolution.

***The priority given to the conception of the building as an isolated unit in the landscape, intended for contemplation, is also revealed in a recent text buy the architect about the project of the Ibirapuera Park auditorium: ‘Architecture… How good to see on the white sheet of paper a palace, a cathedral, a new form emerge, anything that creates the astonishment allowed by reinforced concrete!’

^Colonial pioneers and slave hunters.

^^Paulistas were the landowners from the state of São Paulo. Pedrosa relies on the thesis of the French geographer Pierre Mombeig, Pionniers et planteurs de São Paulo (1952), who links the expansion of the Paulistas inland to Portuguese colonisation, both conjugating ‘continuous displacement’ and a ‘tenacious desire for profit’. Hence the instability of the population, ‘an uninterrupted race’, ‘the destruction of the land’ … ‘the grass barely grows again in the places where planters settle’.

^^^’The spirit that breathes over Brasília … is the spirit of utopia, the spirit of the plan … Brasília is a gesture … of a deep national need: defence of the land, under a continuous and terrible process of destruction … Brasília could hasten the time of liberation from the excessively immediate submission to the prices of the international market. Brasília only could force the pioneering front to settle … The national market’s pace of expansion will be intensified by the creation of true and new regions, in the centre of the country, around the new capital. Besides, it will not be possible to reequip or better equip these lands without the agrarian reform that is more and more talked about in Brazil. In short, Brasília supposes a geographic, social and cultural remodeling of the entire country … The time for the economic renaissance will be the time for planning. The time for planning is the end of the advance of pioneering speculation’.

+In an ‘isolated, artificial climate, moral irresponsibility will flourish luxuriantly as the centralism of a new technocratic bureaucracy – all-powerful as a result of its remoteness from national life proper, along with the tremendous availability of resources.’ 

++For the sake of nuance and precision, it is worth noting the observations of Sérgio Buarque de Holanda that the Portuguese colonial city, unlike those of Hispanic America, does not reflect ‘abstract reason’, since it ‘does not contradict nature’s framework, and its silhouette is linked to the line of the landscape’.”

– Luiz Renato Martins, The Long Roots of Formalism in Brazil, entire section Brasília or Maracangalha, pgs. 17-23


Image: Lúcio Costa’s original plan of Brasília

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