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Hard Poetry

The São Paulo Brutalist group questioned architecture, after international triumph

MIGUEL BOYAYANPast encounters future: intervention by Mendes da Rocha in the Pinacoteca (Art Museum) of São PauloMIGUEL BOYAYAN

If in 1978 the singer Caetano Veloso had complained of “hard concrete poetry” on the streets of São Paulo, one can then image the size of the audacity of a group of São Paulo architects, within the era of the Golden Years, to reject the light elegance of national and international architectonic frisson, Brasilia, the Bossa-Nova capital, hailed by song writers Vinicius and Tom Jobim, in their Sinfonia da Alvorada (Symphony of the Dawn) , as the “white and pure city” built in the middle of a desert wilderness. In direct opposition to the rationalism of the Rio de Janeiro trait and the floating forms of the laborer fad, they proposed boxes of concrete, of absolute austerity, in which all of the functional equipment, especially piping, always hidden from bourgeois’ eyes, appeared with unsettling sincerity, proud of its function.

The Brazil of the Girl from Ipanema was transforming itself into a nation of consumers, with the ascension of the middle and upper classes, which would be reinforced with the arrival of the military dictatorship in 1964. Good taste and money don’t always go hand in hand, especially during times in which the major intermediary between the happy house owner and its construction were decoration magazines. But in the architecture schools, a generation was being developed who wanted to change the country, to build for the people, “without separation between art, society and individual action, which must always reflect upon the taking of a philosophical position in useful terms within the practical plan”, as the mentor of this new architecture, Vilanova Artigas, liked to explain. In 1950, when Le Corbusier and Gropius were seen as the Gods of Design, Artigas published angry articles against them, accusing them of being “bourgeois, having sold out to the interests of the American imperialists”. With the military takeover and political persecutions, many architects believed the comfort of the drawing board to be little and went on to denounce the relationships of capitalist production in construction, refusing to place their knowledge at the service of these relationships. The new ideal is the revelation of what was hidden behind the ornaments, the architectonic “truth”, which shows the marks of work in the bourgeois’ houses and what they hide.

Not without reason, Artigas would be considered the leader of a group of young architects whose innovations would be baptized as “São Paulo Brutalism” (an epithet which was hated  by almost all of them), in truth a love of materials without coatings, of the Draconian austerity of exposed concrete, which gave, in its  simplicity, a monumentality to the constructions, managing, in a curious paradox, that the rigid geometric forms and brutal, nude  structures, surpassed the dream that Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa had attempted to attain, without success, in Brasilia: an architecture that  facilitated human contact, privileged the community spirit.

It’s enough to look in the streets of the capital to perceive that it’s not there. Even at that, the São Paulo group admired, to the horror of their colleagues on the left wing, the creator of Pampulha: “Oscar and I have the same concerns and we’ve found the same problems. But, whilst he always makes an effort to resolve the contradictions in harmonic synthesis, I clearly expose them. In my opinion the role of the architect doesn’t consist in an accommodation; one must not cover up with an elegant mask the existent fights. One needs to reveal them without fear”. Poetic Brutality.

Artigas’ influence came to fruition in the building that he projected for the Architecture and Urbanism College  (FAU-USP) and in the concentration of a group of  disciples with his ideas. One of the first was Joaquim Guedes, an architect from FAU who was also studying at the Sociology and Politics School. His projects brought together the São Paulo Brutalism with the lightness of “modern” Brazilian architecture, in which the bare cement enters as a guest worthy of the home, an element of sophistication, in spite of its primitive crudeness. His colleague, Carlos Millan, a severe follower of Artigas’ severity, not making concessions for the pure plasticity, of total sincerity, was an honorable “Brutalist”. Without having been a student of Artigas, Paulo Mendes da Rocha trailed along the same pathway. “The architect Vilanova Artigas bequeathed this critical vision to me. My architecture was always inspired by ideas, doesn’t  evoke models of castles or palaces, but the ability of man to transform the place that he inhabits, with fundamental social interest, by way of an open vision, directed towards the future”, wrote Mendes da Rocha. The houses that he designed and built in the decade of the 1960’s are of extreme rigor, where the cement facades are thrust into the face of passer-byes to the point of provoking a bad feeling  for its São Paulo city atmosphere of the city of concrete. His house, almost like the music of Vinicius, “had no door, had no wall”: the rooms were not isolated and the architect, observes the historian Yves Bruand, “imposes his ideal of community life, impeding whatever inhabitant of this house to escape from it, a fact that made Flávio Motta describe it as ‘a rationalized favela (slum)’. But Artigas had never gone so far”. Like him, others would come.

Sérgio Ferro, Ruy Ohtake, Cândido Campos, among others, each one in his time and manner, were going to adopt such Brutalism, seen by Bruand as “the first questioning of architecture by Brazilians after the international triumph of post World War II, and merits respect by reason of its basic honesty”. Still, according to the author of Arquitetura contemporânea no Brasil [Contemporary architecture in Brazil], the movement dealt with “a return to the principles of strict functionalism, of an essence decidedly technical and aspiring towards the industrialization of construction, even when it expresses itself through the artisan pathway, and of a esthetics that values force, mass and weight, loving the violent contrasts and shock psychology”. Curiously enough, Artigas and his followers covered the inverse path to that of Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa without, however, returning to the rationalist starting point of the heavy mechanical sameness of the  architectonic 1930’s designs, so criticized by the duo who created the “white and pure city”. The Brutalists, worthy or not of their name, were the face of the metropolis where they lived, the inside out, of the inside out, of the inside out. Even at that, as Caetano Veloso proved, capable of provoking the imagination and ‘creating beautiful things’. “Architecture is a poetic vision about form, which overtakes, in its human dimension, the strict necessity. Architecture doesn’t want to be functional, but opportune”, in the words of  Mendes da Rocha. The imagination of concrete.