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Architectural culture

The new home of modernism

The “booming” pioneership of Warchavchki reveals tensions from the Brazilian avant-garde

ReproductionHouse in Rua Itápolis, em São Paulo, 1930, seen from the back of the plot of land, a notable example of new architectureReproduction

One day (in 1948), architect Lúcio Costa announced that modern Brazilian architecture had been born in Rio in 1936, the result of the genius of Oscar Niemeyer and his plan for the building of the Ministry of Education and Health. Since then, the history of architecture has relegated the person who was the icon of avant-garde construction to the background: Gregori Warchavchki (1896-1972), even though a decade before the cariocas [the inhabitants of the city of Rio de Janeiro] he had already been preaching a style of architecture in sync with the new times, with pure lines, no useless adornments and suitable for the country. Even Mário de Andrade, who in 1928 had celebrated his pioneership, in the 1930s started attributing the architect’s notoriety merely to his isolation.

“Since Lúcio Costa, the work of Warchavchki had been considered an individual outline, without any decisive role in the constitution of the new architecture; a minor figure who prepared the ground for Niemeyer, the one who was capable of transmuting the international style into something instinctively appropriate to the Brazilian scene,” observes José Lira, a professor in the School of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP) and author of the research that has been made into a book: Warchavchki: fraturas da vanguarda [Warchavchki: fractures of the avant-garde] (Cosac Naify), which was supported by FAPESP. “But his work broke with academic practice and the national version of the neocolonial, inspiring not only a new generation of architects, but Brazilian culture and society into a process of modernization.” For Lira, because he was a pioneer, he passed into the history of architecture like an out-of-place episode, out of time and space, detached and ineffective. In the words of the professor from FAU-USP, Carlos Lemos: “Warchavchki had no proselytes and if it had been up to him modern São Paulo architecture would have withered as soon as it was born.” “For decades he was treated unfairly by Brazilian architects who said he embodied a relative architectural modernity, which only really began with the MEC building, a public building and one that initiated the modernism of our architecture. Even the scale or the private field of his action was regarded as negative,” is the analysis of historian Aracy Amaral, author of Artes plásticas na Semana de 22 [`Plastic Arts in the Week of 22] (Editora 34).

“Although he’s a fundamental link between architecture and modernism, he’s as omnipresent as he is hardly known.” For Lira, he was not the “intruder” linked to the international avant-garde and the refined universe of the salons, nor was he the solitary immigrant who brought the avant-garde from Europe to São Paulo. “He arrived in Brazil in 1923, without any great avant-garde references. It was in the dynamic space of work, culture and sociability that was São Paulo that he outlined his architecture, probably with the help of his wife’s brother-in-law, painter Lasar Segall, who introduced him to the modernists,” says the author. His work for Roberto Simonsen’s company, Companhia Construtora de Santos, was also fundamental. “There he had contact with an innovative business environment, purpose-built construction, and assimilated the reconciliation of eclecticism and modern technology. Paradoxically, it was in an industrially peripheral country that he got to know an avant-garde center committed to reorganizing the capital city’s production,” analyzes Lira. In 1925, as an employee of the company, he wrote an article for a newspaper read by the Italian community entitled “Intorno all’architettura moderna” (republished in Correio da Manhã as “Acerca da arquitetura moderna” [About modern architecture]), the first manifesto of modern architecture in Brazil.

“It was his first text, but its fundamental axioms would remain with him forever: the advocacy of architecture integrated with the modern world and industry; the architect as the lucid interpreter of reality and its economic limitations; a break with the past; and the use of new materials and techniques,” observes Agnaldo Farias, from FAU-USP and author of the research study A arquitetura eclipsada: notas sobre Warchavchki (Unicamp, 1990) [Architecture eclipsed: notes on Warchavchki]. “For him, architecture should reflect the spirit of its time, in a circuit between reason and machines. He would later reveal the political nature of his project: the construction of houses and factories on a large scale, providing maximum comfort at minimum cost, especially for the poorest people.” He was the right man in the right place at the right time. As São Paulo modernism matured he questioned the initial impetus of “destruction and war” in favor of positive action, of “construction.” However, since the start of the movement, ideas about architecture did not keep up with the force of the literary debate. “Between 1920 and 1930, they experienced an impasse between advocacy of the neocolonial style, seen by some as anachronistic, and the ‘foreignized’ modern style. If the former did not meet the demands of industrial society, the latter underestimated Brazil’s cultural past,” analyzes historian Ricardo Forjaz Christiano Souza, author of O debate arquitetônico brasileiro: 1925-1936 [The Brazilian architectural debate: 1925 – 1936] (USP, 2004). “Warchavchki’a harmony with the trends of international architecture awoke the interest of the modernists in him as someone who could provide the architectural complement they lacked and who, metonymically, anticipated the new construction movement of these avant-garde architects,” notes Lira. “His first houses displayed the passage of this break to the dilution of the avant-garde spirit, an overlapping of formal daring and local research, a freedom from academic officialdom and a series of historical repressions, dramatizing the process that had occurred previously in fine arts and in literature.”

Hugo Zanella / FAU-USP collectionThe famous pioneering house of the Russian architect at Rua Santa Cruz, in São PauloHugo Zanella / FAU-USP collection

“Even with the environment of the time that valued national production (such as the neocolonial movement in architecture), associating modern production that had universal pretensions with a national manifestation and trying to adapt it to local conditions is proof of Warchavchki’s pioneership,” analyzes Monica Junqueira de Camargo, coordinator of the Paulista Architectural Culture Reference Center (USP). The architect, however, took a risk when he introduced his models of industrial society in Brazil at a time when architectural renewal was an unknown quantity. A symbol of this was the house he built to live in on Rua Santa Cruz street, seen as the first work of our modern architecture, although it was built from brickwork disguised to look like concrete, had a wood plank floor, a conventional clay tile roof and even a “nostalgic” porch, as Lemos says. “Many people pointed out the discrepancies between the house, with its ‘impure’ character and concessions to the past and the discourse of the architect,” notes Lira. “But it is the most emblematic work of the Brazilian architectural turnaround. Urban and suburban, modern and classical, innovative and conventional, the house represents composition matrices and, at the same time, the denial of all styles. These visual discrepancies, concessions and deviations, instead of being testimony to difference, allude to the concrete possibilities of the modern style on Brazilian soil.”

For the author the tensions of the house reveal the modernization process of Brazilian culture and architecture because of their international commitments, the balance of circumstances and the unresolved episodes. Warchavchki challenged the critics, claiming that the city lacked the suitable labor force and materials, and continued to disclose his ideas in favor of the new architecture, which included an Exhibition of a Modernist House (1930). The effort bore fruit and his projects stopped being limited to select groups, also delighting part of the old São Paulo bourgeoisie. This was when he was accepted by the modernists and rose socially among the families of wealthy immigrants. In these golden years, he met Le Corbusier and was invited by Lúcio Costa (with whom he built several houses) to give lessons at the National School of Fine Arts in Rio. The arrival of the New State in 1937 brought with it, however, the rise of carioca architects, favored with state commissions, the disappearance of his São Paulo clientele and the exacerbation of nationalism, provincialism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, the antithesis of his own thinking. Warchavchki distanced himself from the architectural scene until it was almost a case of ostracism. In the 1950s, his works, which until then had been avant-garde, were accused of being the mere exporting of ideas. The answer was to enter the market. “He even got to the point of copying the architecture of the great house where the heroine in ‘Gone with the Wind’ lived” for a client who was a friend of his,” says Carlos Lemos. “He isolated himself and was effectively isolated. He started planning buildings in the center of the city and loads of houses in Santos and Guarujá, which were to the liking of his new wealthy clientele. “He articulated his return to architecture outside the avant-garde universe, appealing directly to the new capital of the developers and to the elite whose tastes had been colonized by symbolism associated with the modern style. He entered the new economy of urbanization as a civil construction entrepreneur,” says Lira. “But whether or not we like the results, it was companies like his that actually produced our city.”

“As a forerunner, he reaped less than he sowed. The Paulista cycle drove the process of introducing contemporary architecture and lent its teachings to the Rio group, but Warchavchki’s ideas declined in strength, incapable of feeding new architects and ensuring that the modern movement had some tradition,” believes Ricardo Forjaz. However, the beast had not been tamed. “In 1958, he warned that it was necessary to overcome the contradiction between individual works and the reality of the disorganized growth of Brazilian cities, making urban planning the watchword,” says Carlos Ferreira Martins, from FAU-USP. “He was critical of architectural triumphs and of their failture to take part in the transformation of urban centers, stating that they served a social class and made no effort to solve the housing problems of the ordinary man. Today, the situation that he identified has only got worse,” notes Monica.

See also the review on the book “Warchavchik: Fraturas da vanguarda [Fractures of the avant-garde]”