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Memory of the new

Thesis analyzes concepts of Lúcio Costa's historical heritage

A thesis for a doctorate defended in February at the School of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo (FAU/USP) has replaced definitive and potentially belittling conclusions by references for a reflection on the trajectory of Lúcio Costa. Defended by Marcos José Carrilho, the thesis Lúcio Costa Historical Heritage and Modern Architecture sets off from a hypothesis that is even well-known, that the essence of Brazilian modern architecture resides in the association between vanguard and tradition, to expand the bases for analyzing the legacy of the father of Brazilian modern architecture and historical heritage.

Carrilho was supervised by Professor Nestor Goulart Reis Filho, also from the FAU, and took part in project of Goulart’s with a grant for researching about Lúcio Costa. Having graduated in architecture in Curitiba, Carrilho moved to São Paulo in 1982, after being approved in an entrance exam for the Council for the Defense of the Historical, Archeological, Artistic and Touristic Heritage of the State of São Paulo (Condephaat). It was inevitable that he should come across the figure of Lúcio Costa, a founder of the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Service (now known as Iphan), along with Rodrigo Mello de Franco Andrade, in the 30’s.

“Besides admiration for Lúcio Costa, I always felt a certain identification with him, since, as an architect, I split myself between the constructive proposals of modern architecture and the concern with the historical heritage”, says the researcher. His research addresses everything from the appearance of the Brazilian vanguardist vocation, with the Modern Art Week of 22, up to the expressive apex of modern architecture, with the original sketch that Lúcio Costa did for Brasilia. Carrilho stresses the paradoxical nature of the Brazilian modernists, in which tradition and rupture are mixed together. And he points out the permanence of this paradox in the 30’s and 40’s, when Brazilian intellectual production worked under the tutelage of a conservative State.

According to the researcher, Lúcio Costa’s affinities with the Getúlio Vargas regime led him to analyze vanguards that also drew close to conservative political ideas: Italian Rationalism and the Russian Vanguard. “When we compared ourselves with movements like these, we realized that it was not just Brazilian modernism that worked in the quest for a historical reference”, Carrilho says.

So it was on research into the past that Lúcio Costa based himself to create something so original for his time. Arrilho’s thesis addresses three aspects of the architect’s legacy: theoretical production, historical heritage, and his architectural work strictly speaking. “Lúcio Costa’s work is relatively small and has already been sufficiently analyzed, so I tried to find characteristics that had not yet been noticed”, the researcher explains.If in the theoretical field Lúcio Costa contributes much to the history of Brazilian art, it was in the historical heritage that he left key thoughts for much of what is thought about conservation today. “His interest in heritage was born early. One special moment in this process was in 1926, when he visited Diamantina”, Carrilho says.

“Costa found a completely intact city, and that was very important for the heritage work that he carried out afterwards.”The first architectural projects were also, in their way, based on research into the Brazilian colonial past. “Ever since he graduated from the National School of Fine Arts, in Rio, Costa carried out several projects with a historicist bent, particularly neocolonial ones. It was the way he found for doing research”, he says. “Some went so far as to win awards, like the one from the Argentinean Embassy.”

The moment of transforming all this redeemed from the past into what was to be called Brazilian modern architecture, in the researcher’s opinion, can be attributed, in the field of ideas, to the period in which Lúcio Costa was a director of the National School of Fine Arts, the same from which he had graduated. “Costa promoted profound alterations in the school’s orientation, emphasizing the technical and scientific focus”, he says. “For him, artistic teaching ought to strengthen harmony between design and construction. The history of architecture ought to be studied critically, instead of being applied directly to design.”

In the field of construction, the same watershed can be attributed to the Gustavo Capanema Palace, the seat of the former Ministry of Education and Public Health, in Rio, which may shortly be the first Brazilian building to be given the title of World Heritage by Unesco. Costa encouraged the Brazilian government to bring Le Corbusier to develop the project. Although the Franco-Swiss master made the first sketch map, the authorship of the project that was carried out belongs to a Brazilian team, which included Costa and Oscar Niemeyer.

For Marcos Carrilho, the Ministry of Education was the most mature synthesis of Lúcio Costa’s conceptions, which had already been expressed in projects like the Vila Monlevade one, of 1934. In this project, drawn up for a competition sponsored by Companhia Belgo-Mineira, but never constructed, Lúcio Costa formulated one of his most daring proposals, associating traditional building procedures with the formulas of modern architecture: the construction of a wattle and daub house (inherited from our colonial and inland past) on top of a reinforced concrete platform.

“The project speaks for itself, but a more attentive analysis of its description made me realize that the tradition/rupture equation was not so simple as everyone has always claimed: Lúcio Costa influenced by Le Corbusier and redeeming the Brazilian colonial past”, says Carrilho. “There are mentions of architects of Anglo-Saxon origin, which shows a very rich repertoire”, the researcher explains.

The complexity of Lúcio Costa’s constructive work is also seen in the Museum of São Miguel das Missões, in which the eclectic work of the architect-cum-professional of historical heritage materialized in the construction of columns over the remnants of the ancient missions in Rio Grande do Sul. Linked by glass walls, they suggest the construction of a museum that at the same time conserves and shelters the memory of the site, and does not impose itself as an invasive element in the history of the missions.

“Furthermore, the museum was built in a place that makes it possible for those who are inside it to reconstruct, in their imagination, the urbanistic plan of the original buildings”, says Carrilho. “Lúcio Costa is an architect who manages, with a project, to suggest the urbanistic outline of the environs.” This was how, in the 40s, he was called by the heirs of Eduardo Guinle to build, in Rio, a group of buildings around the old mansion, without taking away its character.

Carrilho’s analysis suggests several evocations of the national past in the work of Lúcio Costa. “Even the outline of Brasilia, possibly his most famous design, can be interpreted as being a reference to the first mass of the Portuguese on Brazilian soil, as the design is in the form of a cross.”

The Project
Lúcio Costa and the Origins of Modern Architecture and the Historical Heritage (nº 01/06206-2); Modality Regular line of research grants; Coordinator Nestor Goulart Reis Filho – FAU/USP; Investment R$ 1,507.80