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Brazil's hard-earned political stability and continuing economic growth have ushered in a new era of construction in the country, giving young architects the unique chance to build extensively and to build big. An exhibition at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt surveys this new crop of promising designers and shows what they're making of the opportunity.
Last December, ten days short of his 105th birthday, Oscar Niemeyer died in his hometown of Rio de Janeiro. For over seven decades, the celebrated architect had churned out iconic designs at a prolific clip, amassing a body of work that has become virtually synonymous with his country’s particular brand of architectural modernism. After such a prodigious career, Niemeyer’s passing inevitably posed the question: what will Brazilian architecture come to look like in his wake?
An exhibition at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt hazards the first provisional answers to this question. Nove Novos – Neun Neue: Emerging Architects from Brazil presents recent work by nine young firms that, as the exhibition materials would have it, stand to make the greatest impact on the country since the late Niemeyer. Apparently, it’s a good time to be an architect in Brazil. The country’s hard-earned political stability, coupled with its steady economic growth, has ushered in a new era of construction, giving young architects the unique chance to build extensively and to build big. Projects featured include a courthouse complex (Corsi Hirano Arquitetos), a sports center (BCMF Arquitetos), and a museum for a chocolate manufacturer (Metro Arquitetos Associados), designed by architects ranging in age from their mid-20s to their mid-40s.
So, what’ve Brazil’s promising young architects taken from their most celebrated predecessor? Based on the small survey on display in this show, the answer seems to be: none of the signature stuff. All of the basic modernist innovations are there (reinforced concrete, curtain walls, the occasional brise soleil), but gone are the flowing lines, gone are the bright, whitewashed facades, gone are the pilotis and the other reworked trappings of the International Style that defined Niemeyer’s work. Instead, the architects featured in Nove Novos seem to have a lot more in common with the Paulista School, that loose network of São Paulo-based architects that began to challenge Niemeyer’s sensuous functionalism with the blunt language of brutalism in the mid-50s. While none of the works on display are as stark or confrontational as those of the Paulistas, the prevalence of raw materials (especially unfinished concrete), the largely muted color palette, and the almost uniform reliance on straight lines and cubic volumes all contribute to a harder aesthetic that shares more with the likes of João Batista Vilanova Artigas and Paulo Mendes da Rocha than with their forbearers.
Take the Lygia Pape Gallery, an exhibition space designed by the firm Rizoma for an idyllic site in Inhotim, a contemporary art center near Belo Horizonte. The building, which houses an installation by the late Brazilian artist Pape, consists of a single cube of unfinished concrete with one door and no windows. To this austere concept, Rizoma introduced one small measure of complexity: the roof of the building lies slightly off the axis of the gallery floor, leaving the structure in a state of contortion. A shallow crease runs diagonally across each of the outer walls, resolving the discrepancy and giving the composition just the slightest feeling of centripetal motion, as if the building was slowly revolving around Pape’s artwork inside.
But while projects like Rizoma’s might profess a certain formal kinship with the concrete slabs of Artigas and company, none of them seem to share the social or political ambitions that motivated the work of many of the Paulistas. Taken as a whole, DAM’s exhibition is surprising in just how thoroughly apolitical it remains. None of the projects selected address the country’s deep-seated divisions, which have become perhaps the truest characteristic of Brazil’s built environment, where favelas sprawl out beyond the gates of luxury condominiums. The exhibition catalog does mention the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, both of which are set to take place in Rio, but it doesn’t spare a word on the massive demonstrations that fanned out across the country this summer, partially in protest of those events. And the intractable poverty of the country, its pervasive violence (Brazil’s murder count was second only to India’s last year), its inequality—all of that goes unmentioned. Of course, architectural discourse doesn’t always have to tread on ideological ground, and many of the projects on display are commendable in their own right, but with a country as fraught and as complex as this one, some small gesture of acknowledgement would have been in order.
The one selection that verges on something like a political consciousness is, incidentally, also one of the show’s strongest. In conjunction with the Rio+20 United Nation Conference in 2012, the architect Carla Juaçaba designed a large temporary pavilion for a prominent waterfront site near the Copacabana in Rio. For ten days, the pavilion hosted workshops, seminars, and a variety of other events devoted primarily to climate change. To accommodate this complex program, Juaçaba designed a cruise-ship-sized structure that consisted mainly of construction scaffolding. Long, straight ramps wove throughout, connecting boxy interior spaces that seemed to hang suspended in the web of metal rods. The scaffolding functioned well on a number of levels, smartly emphasizing the ephemerality of the pavilion and underscoring the productive aspirations of the events taking place inside. It also served as a subtle critique of the ground-up prestige projects that usually get the most attention in architecture, like say the new Olympic stadiums that are rising at great expense only a few kilometers away from the pavilion site. This sort of thoughtful engagement with the broader themes surrounding a building makes for the most compelling architecture, and suggests an approach to architectural production that might actually give Niemeyer a run for his money.
Nove Novos - Neun Neue
Emerging Architects from Brazil
20. September 2013 – 19. Januar 2014
60596 Frankfurt am Main
Eine deutschsprachige Version dieser Rezension wird im Dezember 2013 in ARCH+ 214 erscheinen.