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How Brazil’s architecture reflects its identity

‘Building Brazil 1822-2022’, a photography exhibition in Delhi, puts the architecture of independent Brazil in focus 

Museum of Contemporary Art, Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro
Museum of Contemporary Art, Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro

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The richness and diversity of Brazilian architecture is recognised for works dating to the colonial period, before the early 19th century. These include religious sites and military forts of the 16th century, 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 host masterpieces of the great sculptor, Aleijadinho, recognised as Brazil’s first major architect.

Lesser known is the architecture of independent Brazil—and this is now in focus at an exhibition of nearly 200 photographs at the India Habitat Centre 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. The photographic essay by Cristiano Mascaro covers neoclassical, eclectic and art deco construction in Brazil from 1822-1930s. Leonardo Finotti’s pictures showcase some of the symbols of modernist and contemporary architecture from the 1930s to the present day, a glimpse of a Brazil you can witness today.

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The exhibition, which will travel to Kolkata later in the year, covers four phases: Monarchy (1822-89), the first phase of the republic (1889-1930s), the industrialisation, urbanisation, strong population and economic growth phase (1930s-84) and the New Republic (since 1985). It provides a unique insight into the quality and diversity of Brazilian culture.

Many do not know that Brazil achieved 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 bigger 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 ruled over a long period of national maturation, and unity was built around the court in Rio de Janeiro.

Through almost 70 years of monarchy, Brazilian emperors replicated, in their tropical country, the architectural styles found in Europe, starting with neo-classicism. Thus, in the mid-19th century, one could easily spot several buildings in the diverse 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 train stations, markets, theatres and gazebos, were imported in large prefabricated steel parts and assembled across the territory. Today, these works showcase a European industrial architecture that is also present in India.

King House, São Paulo
King House, São Paulo

Perhaps the first attempt to find a new national style comes from art nouveau and art deco in Brazil, in the first decades of the 20th century. The decorative dimension of these styles allowed for the incorporation of indigenous elements that gave a particular personality to many buildings, especially in Rio de Janeiro, then still the country’s capital.

The modernist tradition, built around the metaphoric concept of “anthropophagy” (“eat” all foreign influences, digest them and create something new), was developed by intellectuals in the context of the Modern Art Week (São Paulo, 11-17 February 1922). It recognised Brazilian contradictions and the legitimacy of searching for identity in the country’s cultural mix. From indigenous peoples to Africans, from the Portuguese colonisers to Italian and Japanese immigrants, everything is infused in Brazil.

Only after the 1930 revolution—when a group of politicians decided to start a strong industrialisation project in Brazil—did the ideals of Brazilian modernism from the Modern Art Week gain prominence in architecture. Once again, architecture became a symbol of a Brazilian political phase. For the first time, however, Brazil became an exporter of architectural ideas. Modernists post-1930 have not only developed high-quality architecture based on the best knowledge and thought available in the world (in particular Le Corbusier’s principles), they have also studied and preserved the constructions of the 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 absorbed the precepts of modern architecture in the most interesting ways—and this helped strengthen the national identity. Unlike other countries, which, over the centuries, developed a typical national architecture recognisable—sometimes in a caricatured way—even in other countries, Brazilian architecture is essentially modern, not so much a legacy of the past.

With the Pampulha complex in Belo Horizonte (1942), and even more so with the construction of Brasília (1957-60), modern Brazilian architecture gained recognition around the world. The adventure of relocating the country’s capital to a secluded and far-off region became a subject of enormous interest and its inauguration attracted international press coverage.

Brasília is a unique example of modernist architecture and urban planning brought to fruition 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 Brasília’s official buildings—especially the beauty and originality of the Congress, the Cathedral and the Alvorada and Planalto Presidential Palaces—made architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) phenomenally famous.

Theatre José de Alencar, Fortaleza
Theatre José de Alencar, Fortaleza

Modern Brazilian architecture is much more varied than one would imagine at first, and several others apart from 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 Roberto Burle Marx, who was the first garden designer in the 20th century to value tropical plants as essential features of important parks and gardens. Thanks to him, the integration of architecture and landscape design, with their sinuous and coloured forms, has become one of the strongest characteristics of modern Brazilian architecture.

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The new generation has been exploring more contemporary paths, enriching and strengthening the country’s architectural tradition, especially modernism. In urbanism, too, Jaime Lerner became a central voice in shaping solutions for more sustainable cities. The exhibition at India Habitat Centre 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 worldwide influence. Because it did not belong to the club of wealthy nations with a long tradition in the history of architecture, however, Brazilian modern architecture faced severe resistance, given that it seemed very difficult for some critics to recognise the merits of constructions in a peripheral country. But that makes Brazilian architecture even more relevant today, in the context of the challenge of integrating millions of people in cities in the developing world.

‘Building Brazil 1822-2022’ is on display at India Habitat Centre, Delhi, till 24 April and will travel to Kolkata later in the year. For details, check @BrazilEmbassyIN on Twitter and Instagram.

André Aranha Correa do Lago is the Brazilian ambassador to India. As an architecture critic, he has published books and articles, and has been the curator of a series of exhibitions. He is at present one of the members of the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

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