Brazil is known for its coffee, samba, futebol and the scantily clad garrotas de Ipanema, as attested to by the likes of Sergio Mendes, Frank Sinatra, Astrud Gilberto and the inimitable Carlos Jobim, but in addition to such stellar names and iconic symbols there is much, much more to this giant of South America.
At the end of World War Two Brazil was a prosperous country of the future, bristling with positive energy and possibilities. With a population (then) of over 80 million and an area almost the size of the US, this agricultural and industrial giant looked at the future with a confidence and anticipation that is reflected in its great contribution to modern architecture: Brazilian Modernism.
Marked by their interplay of straight and rounded white lines cutting sharply against blue Brazilian skies, the modernist buildings that sprang up all over the country in the 1940’s and 50’s also speak through their imposing scale and dramatic effect. Theirs is the shape of an age that looked forwards and embraced technology and industry with gusto, adding artistic flair and form to the functional requirements of a technocratic era.
The ultimate expression of the nation’s buoyancy and confidence, and indeed the greatest showcase of Brazilian Modernism, is Brasilia, the purpose-built capital in the heart of a giant land. The brainchild of President Juscelino Kubitschek, it was meant to replace Rio de Janeiro as an all-purpose capital whose architectural splendour and triumph over the elements would be a soundboard of Brazil’s newfound spirit.
For this immense project, literally hundreds of kilometres removed from the country’s main population centres, the president enlisted Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, two of the nation’s greatest architects and leading exponents of its progressive modernist style. Following in the footsteps of the great Le Corbusier, the duo had already been creating grand edifices of modernity since the 1930’s, adding to their skyscrapers, conference centres, hotels, villas and auditoriums distinctly Brazilian touches such as local hardwoods, Portuguese azuleijos and tropical flora – not to mention a tendency for scale concomitant with the country’s size.
Conceived in 1956, Brasilia became not just Brazil’s official capital in 1960, but also an icon of the planned, modern city, replete with broad avenues, grassy plains and almost Arcadian architecture. Today, it is a city of around one million, perhaps not the utopia once envisaged but striking all the same. An open-air museum of Brazilian Modernism, Brasilia’s hyperboloid cathedral, its functionalist National Congress and its National Museum are mesmerising examples of an era of hope, creativity and above all, confidence.
Brazil’s Modern Architecture is published by Phaidon.