Four magic walls

A book brings together texts by Sérgio Ferro, passionate criticisms of architecture

In an amusing paradox, after the fall of the Berlin Wall (which, in spite of being horrendous, was an architectonic construction), architects are among the few and last to continue, with utopian courage, defending Marxist libertarian ideas, which many today prefer to see as an inconvenient authoritarian pile of rubbish from the past. Herein lies Oscar Niemeyer, a convinced and suave communist like the stilts of Brasilia, and, on the other extreme, Sérgio Ferro, from the city of Curitiba, who, at nearly seventy, continues to be the same professor, architect, theoretician and engaged painter, (hired for specific works), who, during the military dictatorship joined up with the National Liberty Alliance, of Marighela, and, in 1968, placed a bomb in the parking lot of the Conjunto Nacional building, in São Paulo, where the American consulate was operating. The explosion amputated the leg of a passerby.

The search for the pathway of violence and its act marked the apex of his despondency with the profession, which before had been a source of enthusiasm for young Sérgio, for whom architecture was an instrument capable of transforming society. The group formed by him, Rodrigo Lefèvre and Flávio Império shortly after perceived that “there was human impossibility in supporting the contradiction between the discourse full of good intention of architects and the fall of these intentions into a reality of the most difficult kind, the construction worksite, a privileged place of exploration and violence”, in the words of Ferro himself. Readings of Kant, Marx, Hegel have transformed the ‘man of designs’ into the critic of words that abominated that which capitalism had done  to his beloved art: “Our laborers falling down from the scaffolding that supports the robot crowded production lines. Our architectural design continues to be an instrument of extraction of surplus value in the construction worksite, of surplus value that migrates to feed profits of the ‘advanced’ sectors”, he criticizes revealing, in his anger, an undisguised love for his profession, ‘violated’ by capital.

Thus, it is not enough look at architect Sérgio Ferro, his experimental houses, endowed with ‘poetic economy’, with his domes and his accessible and Brazilian materials. As well, one needs to read his written theories, now brought together in Sérgio Ferro: 40 anos de produção [Sergio Ferro: 40 years of production]  (published by Cosac Naify, 456 pages, R$ 65.00), 19 articles (as well as seminars and interviews) written between 1963 and 2003, with all of his critical production, idealized in Brazil and in France. Among them, one can highlight the classics: ‘O canteiro e o desenho‘ [Construction workplace and the design], the focal point of his thinking about the question of dwellings; ‘Arquitetura nova‘ [New architecture], from 1964, in which he dissects the disfiguration to which modern national architecture was submitted, placed at the service of bourgeois developmentism of the military; and, among so many others, devastating analyses of icons such as Niemeyer, Le Corbusier and Brasilia, whose construction architect Ferro accompanied at close hand and was the epigraph for transforming the artist into a militant and critical thinker.

“Between 1958 and 1961 I went frequently to Brasilia and watched  a little of the capital’s birth. We had to modify Brazil, all with a very beautiful social perspective. But, on arriving there, I saw those beautiful sketches by Niemeyer, whites, purest of pure, but a mass of people highly miserable, highly exploited, building that. It was an enormous contrast to see how architecture was produced: our design, theoretically charged with the best of intentions, was carried out under the worst imaginable conditions. This had broken our dream of architecture”, confesses Ferro. But the disenchantment led to creation. “In this atmosphere of confidence in the future and in the rationalizing and sanitizing force of industrialization, Sérgio, Rodrigo and Flávio took a surprising step: since industrialization and its blessings were going to be delayed, they looked for a solution for the popular home that would be for then, cheap, easy to build and pre-industrial”, notes Roberto Schwarz in the book’s postface. With a spirit close to that of  the ‘esthetic hunger’ of Glauber Rocha, the architects went on to search for democratization of technique, an alliance between technicians and workers. Hence the houses with domes, made of cheap material, of simple construction principles, easy to learn and to teach how to build. “A shelter, an Indian type dwelling, which acquired the metaphoric stature of a prototype for a new alliance of class, for a productive alliance between intellectuality and popular life, in the search for a non-bourgeois redefinition of culture”, noted Schwarz.

This ‘poetic economy’ placed Ferro face to face with his métier, obliging him to reject that which, one day, alongside his mentor, the architect Vilanova Artigas, he had  idolized. New Architecture was one of his first petards. “Sérgio investigated why, after 1964, the celebrated Brazilian modern architecture did not only disfigured itself, but also conformed to a new situation. He verified the discomfort in an architecture that, during that adverse moment (military dictatorship) still persisted in conferring an appearance of rational order to an  object (the bourgeois residence) of recognized insignificance, as well as the irrationality of the individual commission, when confronted with the mass solutions  which were really necessary”, observes Pedro Arantes, the organizer of architect Ferro’s complete theory texts. More and more, the dissociation between technical progress and any promise of material progress had become patent and Sérgio began to pour out a political economy of the architecture. In ‘The production of the house in Brazil‘, he reveals how, given the abundance of the workforce, the entrepreneurs were in maintaining the civil construction sector  at primitive levels, with lots of people and little technique and machinery, a vision that would make of the construction site a fertile field for the production of surplus value, appropriate in the industry.

The next step was the composition of  ‘O canteiro e o desenho‘ [Construction worksite and the design], whose central theme comes from Marx, or that is, of how everything about capital, including architecture, is merchandize that serves it and, as such, aims surplus value that feeds profit. ‘The architect’s ideology is of little importance: he serves capital. From there stems: the irrationality of the project (the simplicity of the construction demands injections of good doses of mystification in order to justify the ‘necessity’ of domination; the disappearance of any vestige of art (an exclusive fruit of free work); and, in the construction worker sector, misery, disqualification etc.” As in the production line, the construction worker is alienated from the total process, centralized in the hands and in the technical designs of the architect, whose figure gains artistic and superior airs. For architect Ferro, segregated from all, the worker ‘becomes an idiot’, buried in the supposed technical neutrality of the ‘master’.

This was a historical process and concurrent with the development of capitalism. Sérgio recalls the figure of Brunelleschi, at the end of Italian Gothic, and the workmanship of the dome of the Santa Maria de Fiori Church, in Florence. “He  had magnificent workers, artisans of grand capacity who had made, practically without an architect, the Romanic and Gothic churches. Brunelleschi looked for a language of the past that was not that of the construction workers who were there: put in a small column, put in a chapiter, put in a Greek column. The new design is no longer that of the workers, is not at the disposition of their knowledge. Thus, on the one side there is the massive structure of bricks that sustain the building and, at the front, columns, gables etc.” For Ferro, at this moment, architecture transforms itself into ‘the art of transvestitism’, into the need to blot out any trace of construction simplicity made by the construction workers, hidden under the ornaments, under the decoration. Thus, covering up all that which, he considers to be the true language, the true constructive practice, blotting out the ‘traces’ of work.

“So that the exploration can install itself without excess of daily coercion, one needs to place wedges, a fissure,  to complicate, to shadow simplicity. Right from the start of the penetration of capital into the civil construction area in the 12th century, architect’s orders have pushed aside normality of construction. The result is that the patterns left by the process of the work have gone on to be non-pertinent”, he analyzes. From there comes  the architecture that he, Rodrigo and Império went on to defend, fitted out in simplicity and to serve the dwellings of the large popular masses. For him, it was possible that civil construction worksites would transform themselves into the fertile ground of free work, of an exchange of knowledge, a moment in which architecture would return to its reason for being art, as in the words of William Morris, cited by Ferro, in the sense that ‘art is happiness in work’. “I attempted to carry out a history of architecture that would be upside down, looking at architecture from bottom to top, from the civil construction worksite to the design, and not the contrary.”

The designer of the works transmutes himself into a humanist. “Sérgio considers that work and emancipation go hand in hand, or that’s to say, the liberation of the subject will not be given through the conquest of free time, in idleness, in intellectual abstraction, but in the re-signification of manual labor”, evaluated organizer Arantes. “The negation of abstract work will not be its automation, the non-work, but the return to concrete useful work, simultaneously intellectual and manual, and to its poetic expression, the ornament.” For  Ferro, between the hand that does and its objective, one can unquestionably insert  the design of the designer, whose mission would be to separate this hand from its objective, the doing of the deed. Instead of modern lucubrations, at the service of a few, Sérgio opted for the simplicity that would reach many and which would reveal, without shame, the marks of human deeds. “Only architecture of free work (including the architect’s work) will merit  respect”, says Ferro.