The richness and diversity of Brazilian architecture are recognized for works dating from the colonial period, before the beginning of the 19th century. These include 16th century religious sites and military forts, particularly in Salvador, Bahia, the 18th century Barroco Mineiro, and the Baroque style of churches, mansions and townhouses in the state of Minas Gerais. Large architectural ensembles in cities like Ouro Preto and Mariana house the masterpieces of the great sculptor Aleijadinho, recognized as Brazil’s first great architect.
The architecture of independent Brazil is less well known – and it is now the focus of an exhibition of nearly 200 photographs at the India Habitat Center in Delhi. This exhibition, designed especially for India, showcases the diversity and quality of the country’s built environment and hopes to give Indians a sense of Brazil’s society, economy, history and creative thinking. . Cristiano Mascaro’s photographic essay covers neoclassical, eclectic and art deco construction in Brazil from the 1822s to the 1930s. Leonardo Finotti’s images present some of the symbols of modernist and contemporary architecture from the 1930s to the present day, an overview of a Brazil that you can witness today.
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The exhibition, which will travel to Kolkata later this year, covers four phases: the monarchy (1822-1889), the first phase of the republic (1889-1930), the phase of industrialization, urbanization, population and economic growth (1930-84) and the New Republic (since 1985). It offers a unique insight into the quality and diversity of Brazilian culture.
Many do not know that Brazil gained political independence from Portuguese colonial rule in 1822, when Crown Prince Don Pedro of Portugal became Emperor Pedro I of Brazil. He ruled a huge territory – two and a half times larger than India today – with only five million inhabitants. In 1831 Pedro I abdicated and returned to Portugal (to become Pedro IV of Portugal), leaving his young son, Emperor Pedro II, as his successor. The new sovereign reigns over a long period of national maturation and unity is built around the court of Rio de Janeiro.
During almost 70 years of monarchy, the Brazilian emperors reproduced, in their tropical country, the architectural styles found in Europe, starting with neo-classicism. Thus, in the middle of the 19th century, one could easily spot several buildings in the various European styles in Brazil.
When the country became a republic in 1889, it paved the way for the adoption of a new architectural style that reflected the contemporary trend: eclecticism. Many public buildings, such as stations, markets, theaters and gazebos, were imported in large prefabricated pieces of steel and assembled throughout the territory. Today, these works highlight a European industrial architecture also present in India.
Perhaps the first attempt to find a new national style came from art nouveau and art deco in Brazil, in the first decades of the 20th century. The decorative dimension of these styles allowed the incorporation of indigenous elements that gave a particular personality to many buildings, especially in Rio de Janeiro, then still the capital of the country.
The Modernist tradition, built around the metaphorical concept of “anthropophagy” (“eating” all foreign influences, digesting them and creating something new), was developed by intellectuals as part of Modern Art Week (Sao Paulo, February 11-17, 1922). He recognized the Brazilian contradictions and the legitimacy of the search for identity in the country’s cultural mix. From indigenous peoples to Africans, from Portuguese colonizers to Italian and Japanese immigrants, everything is infused in Brazil.
It was only after the revolution of 1930 – when a group of politicians decided to launch a strong industrialization project in Brazil – that the ideals of Brazilian modernism in Modern Art Week gained momentum. significance in architecture. Once again, the architecture became the symbol of a Brazilian political phase. For the first time, however, Brazil became an exporter of architectural ideas. The post-1930 modernists not only developed high quality architecture based on the best knowledge and thought available in the world (especially the principles of Le Corbusier), they also studied and preserved the constructions of previous centuries in Brazil. An architecture adapted to the country’s tropical climate has since flourished, often enriched with historical references from the colonial period.
Brazil is one of the countries that has absorbed the precepts of modern architecture in the most interesting way, which has helped to strengthen the national identity. Unlike other countries, which over the centuries have developed a typical national architecture recognizable – sometimes in a caricatural way – even in other countries, Brazilian architecture is essentially modern, not so much a legacy of the past.
With the complex of Pampulha in Belo Horizonte (1942), and even more with the construction of Brasilia (1957-60), modern Brazilian architecture imposes itself throughout the world. The adventure of relocating the country’s capital to an isolated and remote region aroused enormous interest and its inauguration attracted international media coverage.
Brasilia is a unique example of modernist architecture and town planning materialized in the 20th century. It was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1987 and named “City of Design” by the United Nations in 2017. The visual impact of the official buildings of Brasilia, in particular the beauty and originality of the Congress, of the cathedral and the presidential palaces Alvorada and Planalto — made the architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) phenomenally famous.
Jose de Alencar Theater, Fortaleza
Modern Brazilian architecture is much more varied than one might first imagine, and several others besides Niemeyer have achieved excellence in their work since the 1930s. The list includes Lúcio Costa, Gregori Warchavchik, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Villanova Artigas, Lina Bo Bardi, Lelé (João Figueiras Lima) and Paulo Mendes da Rocha, among many others. Another interesting example is that of Roberto Burle Marx, who was the first landscape artist of the 20th century to consider tropical plants as essential features of important parks and gardens. Thanks to him, the integration of architecture and landscape, with their sinuous and colorful forms, became one of the strongest characteristics of modern Brazilian architecture.
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The new generation explored more contemporary paths, enriching and strengthening the country’s architectural tradition, especially modernism. Also in the field of urban planning, Jaime Lerner has become a central voice in developing solutions for more sustainable cities. The exhibition at the India Habitat Center traces the evolution through the recent works of more than 30 contemporary architects, such as Angelo Bucci, Gustavo Penna, Isay Weinfeld, Arthur Casas, Marcio Kogan, Brasil Arquitetura, Paulo Jacobsen, Thiago Bernardes, Gustavo Utrabo, Andrade Morettin, Alvaro Puntoni and Carla Juaçaba.
By developing a particular way of approaching modernity in architecture, Brazil played a central role in 20th century architecture, sometimes exerting a strong global influence. Because it did not belong to the club of wealthy nations with a long tradition in the history of architecture, Brazilian modern architecture however faced severe resistance, given that it seemed very difficult for some critics to recognize the merits of constructions in a peripheral country. But it makes Brazilian architecture even more relevant today, in the context of the challenge of integrating millions of people in the cities of the developing world.
‘Building Brazil 1822-2022’ is on display at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi until April 24 and will travel to Kolkata later this year. For more details, check out @BrazilEmbassyIN on Twitter and Instagram.
André Aranha Correa do Lago is Brazil’s Ambassador to India. As an architectural critic, he has published books and articles, and curated a series of exhibitions. He is currently a member of the Pritzker Architecture Prize.