A thinker and activist in the fields of education, public policy, and urban planning, João Batista Vilanova Artigas (1915-1985) was constantly under the sway of architecture when carrying out his work. For the organizers planning the events to commemorate his Centennial, one of the challenges will be assessing his multifaceted legacy. According to Rosa Artigas, the architect’s daughter and one of the curators of the Ocupação Vilanova Artigas exhibition (opening June 23, his birthday, at Itaú Cultural Center in São Paulo), her task is to “talk about the man, not the myth.” On the next day, theaters will present Vilanova Artigas: o arquiteto e a luz (Vilanova Artigas: the Architect and the Light), a documentary directed by Pedro Gorski and Artigas’ granddaughter, Laura Artigas. This year also marks the publication of a yet untitled historical survey of the architect’s work, as well as A mão livre do vovô (Grandpa’s Freehand), a children’s book inspired by the architect’s drawings that illustrate the very stories he used to tell his grandchildren. Both works will be published by Terceiro Nome.
In the academic world, Artigas scholars discuss his work critically, using a number of approaches. Although their views diverge at times, everyone who was interviewed agrees on one point: the urgent need to bring back the architecture that Artigas practiced—an architecture that addresses cultural and urban issues. “This is possibly the most important part of Artigas’ legacy: imagining the city in terms of its social and political implications, and not just as the subject of design,” says Professor Leandro Medrano of the University of São Paulo School of Architecture and Urban Studies (FAU-USP) and co-author, with Luiz Recamán, of Vilanova Artigas – Habitação e a cidade na modernização brasileira (Vilanova Artigas: Housing and the City in the Modernization of Brazil) published by Unicamp, exploring the architect’s concept of the ideal city in his work from the 1940s to the 1970s.
Artigas, a native of the state of Paraná, is regarded as the first exponent of what is known as the “Paulista” school of architecture. Notwithstanding some Artigas experts’ rejection of this classification, none disagrees that the transformation of the city of São Paulo—its urban center, surrounding neighborhoods and industrial areas—had a fundamental effect on his vision of architecture and urbanism. Among his most emblematic works are landmarks such as the Cícero Pompeu de Toledo (Morumbi) stadium, the Zezinho Magalhães Prado housing complex (also known as Cecap Park) in Guarulhos, the Louveira residential tower in the Higienópolis neighborhood, the Jaú highway in São Paulo, and, what is regarded as his masterpiece, the FAU-USP building on the university’s main campus.
A member of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) since 1945, Artigas’ militancy gave rise to his overriding concern about the collective. In a film of one of his classroom lectures, Artigas is shown explaining the architect’s role as that of “intermediary between aspects of social will and his own understanding of the cultural value of architecture.” Furthermore, Artigas was an “architect of the trade” in the words of Felipe Contier, a doctoral candidate in architectural history at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies (IAU) of the University of São Paulo in São Carlos, and whose dissertation is on the FAU building. The expression not only refers to Artigas’ militant approach to the teaching of architecture and the establishment of institutions associated with the profession, but also to the fact that he is an engineering graduate from the Polytechnic School at USP before there even was a FAU he would help found.
Although Artigas and Oscar Niemeyer were friends and fellow members of the PCB, the history of Brazilian architecture usually considers Artigas responsible for having broken ranks with the generation that created Brasilia (Niemeyer and Lucio Costa) and whom some call the Carioca School. “Artigas came to adopt a working technique that reflected his idea of the nation while projecting a different image of the identity of modern Brazil,” says Professor Renato Anelli of IAU-USP, adding that “compared to Niemeyer’s work, Artigas pushes the limits of structure, simplifying the process of design and construction. He uses open space, and interprets social questions through the medium of an architecture that is free of obstructions and doors, but not excessively under the spell of the freeform and that quality of exhibitionism that marks the Carioca School.”
If, in these aspects of Artigas’ architecture, Anelli sees an attempt to “anticipate a completely free society” in line with his political beliefs, the published research of Medrano and Recamán interprets the architect’s housing projects (and even the FAU building) as manifestations of the disjuncture of this ideal of “complete freedom” in the context of São Paulo’s expansion under the controlling influence of market interests and their segregationist schemes. It follows that he and Recamán find in Artigas’ work buildings designed with a focus on their interior spaces, and in which, indeed, the utopia of unrestricted coexistence is evident. “These buildings accept their condition—the isolation of their lots—and devise free-flowing and open functions in relation to the capital city,” says Medrano, adding that “this would not make sense today.”
The researcher believes that present-day São Paulo is trying to better understand the values that are inherent to cities, such as coexistence and social interaction in public spaces. Artigas’ concerns, however, remain current. They are, in essence, “placing architecture at the service of certain political and social demands;” and he would see his ambitions realized through the methods and theories intrinsic to this complex discipline. Medrano recalls that the questions faced by the cities where Artigas chose to intervene remain evident and unresolved: public housing, coexistence and segregation, green spaces, and mobility.
Though not nearly as recognized around the world as Niemeyer, Artigas, unlike Niemeyer, founded a true architectural movement—reinvigorated and in its third or fourth generation, according to Medrano. Besides being “Paulista,” this movement is also known under the classifications of “Brutalism” or “Artigism”—all with their advocates and critics. In the past two years, international exhibitions in venues such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Venice Biennale have celebrated the work of Artigas. But as Anelli points out, this interest only came about when the work of the architect’s disciples—Paulo Mendes da Rocha—came to the fore.
“Brutalism” refers to a worldwide movement (not exclusively architectural) whose most obvious characteristics are the use of reinforced concrete—usually exposed—and basic lines, free of ornamentation. Artigas is recognized for having used color as a device to soften these features. After comparing Artigas’ work with that of Brutalists worldwide, Anelli concludes in his recent research that, should Artigas’ programmatic vision of society bear many similarities to the movement outside Brazil, his work nonetheless “sprang from its own roots.” Furthermore, there is one fundamental difference: Artigas worked on the basis of the continuity of spaces—the Brutalists on their fragmentation.
In Brazil, Brutalism emerged from the ideas of progressive thinkers preoccupied with the collective, but who, says Contier, eventually dissociated all visible reinforced-concrete architecture from its founding ideals, relegating it to the structural form itself. Contier points out that aesthetic expression in general was incorporated by the military regime in public works projects—among other purposes and at least in theory—in order to erect less-costly, low-maintenance and more stylistically austere buildings. By displaying a certain degree of monumentality, these buildings helped usurp the original meaning of the Artigist movement. Banned from the classroom by the regime, Artigas still signed off on a number of public works projects during the period of military dictatorship.
Beyond questions touching on architecture and academic studies, among those who associated with Artigas and who are now responsible for the exhibition and the biographical film, there emerges an architect and educator who has always been part of Artigas’ work—in classrooms, through the Institute of Architects, and in the homes she built for her family. Laura Artigas, who was four years old when the grandfather she does not remember died, reflects on the documentary she directed: “a heart-felt graduate program,” she calls it, adding that “the testimony we gathered points to a restless mind that made others think about what they hadn’t imagined before.” Artigas goes on to say that “to be able to put into practice something in which he really believed—the power of social coexistence—is a compelling achievement that the film succeeds in showing.”
1. The production of the building of the School of Architecture and Urban Studies of the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP) at the Armando Salles de Oliveira Campus (1961-1969) (No. 2013/03331-8); Grant mechanism: Scholarships in Brazil – Doctorate; Principal investigator: Renato Anelli (IAU-USP); Grant recipient: Felipe de Araújo Contier (IAU-USP); Investment: R$81,574. 34 (FAPESP).
2. Vilanova Artigas: housing and urban spaces in Brazilian modernization (No. 2013/25319-0); Grant Mechanism: Support for Research Publications; Principal investigator: Leandro Medrano (FAU-USP); Investment: R$3,500.00 (FAPESP).