Brazil A Modernist Tale
The groundbreaking architecture, gardens and furniture of post-war Brazil are being brought back to life for a new generation of global design lovers. Laura Hodgson salutes the couple at the heart of a bold flowering of creativity.
Published on 18 May 2017
“I wasn’t born here, I chose to live in this place. That’s why Brazil is my country twice over.”
Quote: Lina Bo Bardi. Expansive, intelligent, fiercely independent and profoundly resilient – Bo Bardi found the perfect home in Brazil. Her story is also the story of Brazilian modernism, that flowering of bold, mid-century creativity that came into its own in this most sophisticated of South American nations in the years following the Second World War.
While Europe and the US struggled to recover from the ravages of wartime, many of those nations’ most ambitious designers and artists chose to make their way to the flourishing New World where rich opportunities awaited, to create the buildings, gardens and objects of which they could only dream at home. Brazil was booming, and this generation of explosive talent made the most of it. The result is a creative legacy of architecture, furniture and design that resonates and inspires to this day.
Born Achillina Bo at the outbreak of the First World War, Lina trained as an architect but found herself unable to work in an Italy torn apart by the destruction of the Second World War. So she started designing and writing for the design and interiors magazine Domus, then run by architect Gio Ponti. In Rome, researching a feature for the magazine, she met Pietro Maria Bardi, a journalist and art dealer. He enthused about Brazil to Lina, having visited São Paulo in 1934. Hungry for the opportunity to build a new life, Pietro Maria and Lina set sail one month after they married, in 1946.
On arrival in Rio, Pietra Maria Bardi organised a series of exhibitions and orchestrated an introduction to Brazilian press magnate Assis Chateaubriand, owner of Diários Associados (Associated Daily Press). Inspired by his mentor Nelson Rockefeller to build a museum, Chateaubriand saw in Bardi the expertise and boldness needed for this project and invited him to curate the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP). The museum was initially housed on the first floor of the Diários Associados headquarters with Chateaubriand commissioning Lina Bo Bardi to convert the space into a museum. A power art and design couple was born.
São Paulo at the time was one of the most exciting cities in the world, a thriving modern metropolis of glamour and buzz. From the silky sounds of bossa nova to abstract art and radical architecture, Brazil was influencing the world.
Bo Bardi was part of a school of legendary Brazilian modernists that included architects Lucio Costa, Paulo Mendes da Rocha and Oscar Niemeyer, landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, and furniture designers Joaquim Tenreiro, Sergio Rodrigues and Jorge Zalszupin. Growing up with ideas of European modernism, they evolved their style in the context of the Brazilian landscape, the tropical materials available and the rich culture.
Lina also started work on her first building. Initially conceived as a live-work studio for an artist, the house became the couple’s home. The new neighbourhood of Morumbi in the Mata Atlantica, the original rainforest surrounding São Paulo, provided the setting. The house, a glass box built on 10 stilts, was constructed with an astonishing view of the river valley that leaves the steep slopes of the forest below uninterrupted – what Bo Bardi described as “an attempt to achieve a communion between nature and the natural order of things”. This “Glass House” is almost entirely open with zones used to allocate different functions: a dining room, a library and a living area. She filled the space with her own designs – most famously the gorgeous Bowl Chair.
As his art collection grew, Chateaubriand started to look for a site in São Paulo to build a more substantial museum and invited Bo Bardi to design the new MASP. The mayor offered the site of the Belvedere Trianon on Avenida Paulista with the condition that any building constructed could not spoil the view over São Paulo. The choice was to build up or go underground – boldly Bo Bardi chose to do both. The building, with its striking red piers, was completed in 1968 and remains one of the city’s most eye-catching landmarks.
Key to the building was Bo Bardi’s collaboration with the architect Pier Luigi Nervi, whose innovative use of concrete became central to much of Brazil’s modernist architecture. Nervi had previously used this skill to construct the dome of the Ranch Tangará, the house he built for Francisco Pignatari – and the site of the Oetker Collection’s Palácio Tangará. “Baby” Pignatari was the glamour-boy of midcentury Brazil, a much-married playboy and industrialist, who could afford the best of the best. He commissioned Oscar Niemayer and Roberto Burle Marx to create the gardens, incomplete at the time. Eventually these designs became the lush, tropical Burle Marx Park, beside which Palácio Tangará sits.
MASP’s display system was as original as the building. The paintings were hung on transparent tempered glass balanced in a block of concrete. Mounted on glass easels, it is as if the paintings float in air. Just as the easels offered a new way of seeing the permanent display, Bo Bardi’s inaugural show invited the visitor to look with new eyes at every day art. In The Hand of the Brazilian People she displayed thousands of objects – a toy, a painting, a hoe, a sculpture, a carnival costume – and all were celebrated. The show was a huge hit.
Bo Bardi’s choice of projects was just as eclectic as the objects in that exhibition. From designing jewellery and curating exhibitions to working on experimental theatre productions, she gave all of them equal value. As an architect she worked across the country. Her projects in São Paulo include a small chapel on the outskirts of the city and the vast cultural centre SESC Pompeia, which was created from disused industrial warehouses.
As interest in Brazilian mid-century modernism grows, so Lina Bo Bardi is back in the spotlight. Her inaugural show, The Hand of the Brazilian People, was recreated last year and her easels, which were consigned to storage, have also been recreated and are finally back in the gallery.
Palácio Tangará can arrange tours of The Glass House and MASP. Contact email@example.com