A 200-year odyssey of Brazilian architecture and identity through a photo exhibition

STIR visits the Building Brazil 1822-2022: 200 Years of Independence at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, charting a course through the country’s rich architectural history.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Apr 19, 2022

"We eat from absolutely any kind of influence. So Brazil was the result of cannibalism. We ate each other and produced something out of it,” says André Aranha Corrêa do Lago, Brazil’s Ambassador to India. Drawing from his experience as an architecture critic and Pritzker Prize jury member, he presents this reflection on the origins of the modern movement in Brazil, during a guided walkthrough for STIR of Building Brazil 1822-2022: 200 Years of Independence, an exhibition on view till April 24 at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, India. Structured as a two-part exploration of the country’s architectural canon, the showcase presents the narratives of Brazilian post-colonial, Neoclassical, Eclectic, and Art Deco architecture from 1822-1930, and the subsequent development and evolution of modernism till the present day through a pair of photographic essays by reputed Brazilian photographers Cristiano Mascaro and Leonardo Finotti.

Installation view: Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence | Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence | STIRworld
Installation view: Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence Image: Anmol Ahuja

With the summer sun filtering in through the modular shading assembly of Joseph Allen Stein's monumental central atrium that sets the scene for this showcase, Corrêa do Lago commences with the intriguing origins of the new nation, following the declaration of Brazilian independence in 1822. Baroque had been the dominant architectural style of the colonial period, with the influence of the Portuguese crown having grown with the transfer of the royal court to Rio de Janeiro in 1807.

Casa França-Brasil by Auguste Henri Victor Grandjean de Montigny in Rio de Janeiro | Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence | STIRworld
Casa França-Brasil by Auguste Henri Victor Grandjean de Montigny in Rio de Janeiro Image: Cristiano Mascaro

Amid a retention of monarchical governance, relative stability and prosperity, and an influx of immigrants into the region following independence, the young nation was attempting to define what constituted a feeling of ‘Brazilianness’,  both in its national identity and architecture, while striving to distance itself from prevalent trends in Europe. Corrêa do Lago elaborates on this initial postcolonial phase of the exhibition, "The difference between us and Europe was in somehow trying to bring a more modern aspect to contemporary architecture, which was Neoclassicist at the time. Neoclassicism somehow came to symbolise an independent Brazil and Baroque was relegated to a symbol of colonisation. In a sense, it was like Europe in the tropics.”

Addressing the vast geographical size of Brazil at the time and its relatively low population density, Corrêa do Lago states, “When we became independent, our territory was already two-and-a half times that of India and we had less than five million people. So, unfortunately, due to the limited availability of a native workforce, most of the labour was slave labour because of the demand for sugar and coffee.” On the architectural front, Neoclassicism and evolutions of this style gradually developed in Rio de Janeiro in tandem with the growth of the sovereign state.

While neoclassicism was adopted in cities, farmhouses and rural construction remained linked to colonial influences | Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence | STIRworld
While neoclassicism was adopted in cities, farmhouses and rural construction remained linked to colonial influences Image: Cristiano Mascaro

"The growth of some cities led to the adoption of this new style but farmhouses and simple construction in the countryside remained linked to older styles, retaining more of the traditions of colonial architecture,” shares the ambassador. The abolition of slavery in 1888 and the establishment of the First Brazilian Republic the following year, was accompanied by a transition to a political order dominated by the landholders of São Paulo and Minas Gerais. “Now, one of the symbols of that aristocracy and wealth was the building of theatres. So when the Amazon became one of the richest places in the country because of rubber, you had a number of theatres built there,” notes Corrêa do Lago.

Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, 1896 | Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence | STIRworld
Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, 1896 Image: Cristiano Mascaro

This was followed by spurts in city growth, visible in a number of apartment buildings, clubs, and housing structures, along with other comforts that came from Europe. Art Deco was a major force in these typologies, adapted with a distinctly tropical feel. Corrêa do Lago relays about this phase of the exhibition, “All these elements, I think, put India and Brazil very close together, even more so because of the adoption of eclecticism”. Art Nouveau, with its ornate detailing, reigned supreme across all building typologies as a result. The Theatro José de Alencar, highlighted in the showcase, is a noteworthy example of this confluence of eclecticism and Art Nouveau, with visible adaptations of the style to Brazil’s climate.

  • Theatro José de Alencar in Fortaleza, 1910 | Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence | STIRworld
    Theatro José de Alencar in Fortaleza, 1910 Image: Cristiano Mascaro
  • The Martinelli building in São Paulo, 1929 | Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence | STIRworld
    The Martinelli building in São Paulo, 1929 Image: Cristiano Mascaro

"By the 1920s, Brazil had become extremely wealthy because it was the largest exporter of coffee, as well as a very important producer of sugar and meat, among other commodities,” reveals the ambassador. The period between 1924-1929 was witness to the construction of Latin America's first skyscraper, the Martinelli Building in São Paulo, towards the close of this era of eclecticism. With the collapse of the First Republic following the Revolution of 1930 and the beginning of the Vargas Era and the Second and Third Republics, perspectives on Brazil’s architectural heritage underwent a thorough re-examination following the revolution of 1930, moving towards what intellectuals would term 'anthropophagic' - a confluence of indigenous and migrant influences.

  • Gustavo Capanema Palace in Rio de Janeiro, 1943 | Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence | STIRworld
    Gustavo Capanema Palace in Rio de Janeiro, 1943 Image: Leonardo Finotti
  • The project was coordinated by Lúcio Costa alongside Le Corbusier and five architects including a young Oscar Niemeyer with wall murals by prominent artists | Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence | STIRworld
    The project was coordinated by Lúcio Costa alongside Le Corbusier and five architects including a young Oscar Niemeyer with wall murals by prominent artists Image: Leonardo Finotti

However, the real 'relevance' of Brazilian architecture to the world emerged with the Gustavo Capanema Palace, designed by Lúcio Costa with Le Corbusier as a consultant. According to the ambassador, this could be termed the most important building in Brazil, since it was the first time that something built in Brazil had international influence, as opposed to the other way round. Its significance was further propounded by the hand of Oscar Niemeyer who had worked on the building as an aide of Costa, along with featuring the first gardens by Roberto Burle Marx. The ensuing period saw the rise to prominence of Niemeyer with several distinctive structures, growing into an individual whose name is arguably the most recognisable among the pantheon of influential figures in Brazilian architecture, whose number also included Lina Bo Bardi and Pritzker Prize winner Paulo Mendes da Rocha.

  • National Congress Building by Oscar Niemeyer in São Paulo, 1960 | Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence | STIRworld
    National Congress Building by Oscar Niemeyer in São Paulo, 1960 Image: Leonardo Finotti
  • São Paulo Museum of Art by Lina Bo Bardi in São Paulo, 1968 | Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence | STIRworld
    São Paulo Museum of Art by Lina Bo Bardi in São Paulo, 1968 Image: Leonardo Finotti

The latter among the two above mentioned designers on the Gustavo Capanema Palace project, Roberto Burle Marx, came to be another instrumental figure in Brazilian landscape architecture, with his distinctive integration of foreign and indigenous tropical plants, intricate balances between order and disorder, as well as the inimitable artistic touch seen in his work that stemmed from his training as a painter. A parallel exhibition presently on show at Delhi’s Sunder Nursery dives into greater depth about the late landscape architect's extensive body of work.

Installation View: Roberto Burle Marx at Sunder Nursery | Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence | STIRworld
Installation View: Roberto Burle Marx at Sunder Nursery Image: Anmol Ahuja

Exhibition Overview:

The photographic essay at the India Habitat Centre documenting Brazil's impressive architectural transformation over two centuries boasts a fine curation of temporal monuments in the country’s rather tumultuous history. Framing rare perspectives that will appeal to both architects and the everyman alike, the collection of photographs, by the sheer length of the time period they document, are able to impart an overwhelming sense of a collective course the country's architectural discourse charted.

The country’s move from an incumbent colonial style to the discovery of its own architectural identity rooted in a redefined tropical modernism is visible in a variety of structures photographed for the exhibit, from residential to cultural to institutional. In line with the curve of the country’s economic growth and rise in wealth, this curve bolsters how a nation’s architecture in particular emerges as a response to several socio-economic, cultural, and political factors, carrying over the shift in paradigm from style to typology.

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum by Oscar Niemeyer in Niterói, 1996 | Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence | STIRworld
Niterói Contemporary Art Museum by Oscar Niemeyer in Niterói, 1996 Image: Leonardo Finotti

Appreciably so, the exhibition and its curation doesn't overlook the newer contributions in the building of the nation’s architectural identity in favour of the bigger players, including Niemeyer, Bo Bardi, and da Rocha. Closing with documenting definitive architectural practices influencing the national narrative and identity today, including a number of competition entries and speculative designs, Building Brazil leaves the viewer with a rounded idea of how far Brazil has come, along with an exciting sense of the great things to come from this architecturally rich nation.

Estádio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, Renovated 2013 | Building Brazil 1822 - 2022: 200 Years of Independence | STIRworld
Estádio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, Renovated 2013 Image: Leonardo Finotti

A visit to the exhibition, however, is truly materialised once you look up after being immersed in the panels for a requisite time. Through the filtered sunlight highlighting the panels in predicated alteration, an immense sense of the important parallels between the countries - Brazil and India - overcomes the viewer, speaking to the curation of venues for exhibition along with the matter of the exhibition itself. In a meeting of masters, of kindred spirits in architecture responsible for propelling a certain search for identity, the exhibition finds a strong anchor.

The Building Brazil exhibition will be on view till April 24, 2022 at the the central atrium of the India Habitat Centre in the Indian capital.

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