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Subtle Substances - The Architecture of Lina Bo Bardi (Anglais) Relié – 1 décembre 2006

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Text from the introduction:


This book is based on my doctoral thesis of the same name, presented at the Escola Tècnica Superior d’Arquitectura of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in September 2000. It is a synthesis of that analysis of Lina Bo Bardi’s work, plus what I have come to understand since then. Due to space restrictions some parts have been removed or edited, particularly the section covering the period when Lina Bo Bardi worked in Salvador, between 1958 and 1964. For this shorter text I have altered the non-linear and musical structure adopted for the thesis -while retaining ‘simultaneity’, an idea that is fundamental in Lina Bo Bardi’s work. The various parts of this book are not arranged into before and after -rather I have set down the notes of a single movement to be played in harmony.

I approach Lina Bo Bardi’s output as a whole, understood not as a series of completed buildings but as data, materials, remnants, debris and unintentional details about a building’s design. We continue to put together this collection from our memories. Therefore Lina’s numerous writings are fundamental to this study, and I treat them as building materials which she used for her architecture.

In the first movement the Chame-Chame House is contrasted with the Glass House -early works that are two of the only three houses Lina Bo Bardi built (the other is the Valéria Cirell House). The dialogue between these two houses, apparent opposites, allows us to penetrate a world divided between natural and artificial, feminine and masculine, public and private, ancient and modern, popular and scholarly, curvaceous and rectilinear, ordered and casual, airborne and grounded, clear and opaque, real and imaginary. We come to understand these apparent contradictions, and from them emerges a sense of residence, in other words the architectural intent of Lina’s work.

In these houses we come across all the essential themes developed in her architecture. In small objects and details she tackles concerns and themes also found in her larger works, and these residential projects help us to understand this. With Lina there is no difference between big and small; I want to show that the power of her architecture resides precisely in the marginal, forgotten, borderline and silent aspects. The next topic covered emerges from this, and I call this Interval -referring to the title and intention of the exhibition Entreato para Crianças (Interval for Children) organised by Lina at the SESC Pompéia in 1985. This section deals with the linking elements and devices in her architecture, the ‘grey zones’; it highlights the way they are metaphorical, and attempts to draw out from them the intensity Lina sought. In Lina’s work we should understand the significance of the religious and playful (ludic), and the idea that it is for the people, ideas that are expressed most strongly at the SESC Factory in Pompéia. This interval ‘is merely the sound of a cog starting to move, a small invitation to science and fantasy. Also, it is an invitation to the terrible logic of children, which is so close to scientific rigour.’

A second and final movement is towards the MASP (the São Paulo Art Museum), a model building, designed at the same time as the Chame-Chame House but with an utterly different brief and context. These two buildings were created firmly tied to their sites -undoubtedly each could only be built in its particular location. At the same time we will judge the point to which the Chame-Chame House is present at MASP, the extent to which the two projects are completely consistent. The MASP will provide the ideal opportunity to look at the concept and perception of time in Lina’s work, and the ways time is used as a resource and raw material for her architecture. This will also be the moment to re-examine the concept of living, and this feedback will set up a dialogue with the opening movement.

Although she used completely different materials, we will see that Lina’s complete works have a unity which invalidates any sequential biography. The ‘concise’ feeling of Lina’s work comes from this capacity to concentrate the essence of the whole in each fragment. Thus the combination of components that proliferate throughout her architecture: watercourses, water-spouts, basins, water features, trees, tree columns, stairs, carrousels… This constant repetition of the same component in different buildings, times and places causes all notions of chronology to be diluted in her architecture, and means that all the work can be read together, as if mixed and superimposed in a melting pot. Therefore, this study will look at the Chame-Chame House, Valéria Cirell House, MASP, SESC, the Glass House, Museum on the Shore, the Solar de Unhão (which houses the Bahia Modern Art Museum), the exhibitions Lina designed and her unpublished objects, details, writings, sketches, studies and projects. I will treat all of them in the same way -stars that shine from within. Each marks a point where a solution was found, and there is no sign that time separates these instant works.

Lina Bo Bardi’s architecture does not derive from one project or reflect fantasies, so this cannot be why we find it to be a mosaic that can link the unthinkable -on the contrary, it is because it works with available material. Like the bricoleur (do-it-yourselfer) described by Lévi-Strauss in The Savage Mind, Lina constructs her architecture with limited instruments, so the rules of her game are always adjusted or adapted according to the material available. Her work is invariably tied to tangible things, and this is the source of its mythical poetic character, in the sense given by Lévi-Strauss. According to him, mythical thought is not concerned with definitively leaving or arriving anywhere, it ‘never develops any theme to completion: there is always something left unfinished. Myths, like rites, are interminable.’ In a way, in this book I attempt to track this spontaneous movement of mythical thought, so it is presented as limited but infinite knowledge, always ready to start again. A movement that dominates Lina’s work, unfinished, always active, under construction, revolutionary, ready for the indefinite.

Having trained at the Scuola Superiore di Architettura in Rome in 1939, Lina was a participant in the lively postwar world, and she belonged to the intellectual milieu of artistic and political vanguards. Her generation considered Surrealism to be the last great artistic and ethical movement. We must be clear that Lina was never against reason, history or the Modern Movement, but she did consider other rational ways of thinking and other options for understanding history, tradition and the modern. Lina studied the constantly quoted masters-Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Antoni Gaudí-and resolved to cut and paste, producing work like a kind of collage that draws together diverse components which are then brought into contact with each other. Lina created her architecture using a mosaic of quotations, and she also presented projects in this way, constantly using collage and photomontage. Photographic collage was a method widely used by the first European vanguard, and juxtaposition of apparently inconsistent objects was a surrealist technique, one that Lina rescued not just as a representational form but, as we will see, for the conception of all her work. Some of Lina’s architectural contemporaries had recovered the surrealist tradition of creative liberty in a similar way. All of them were disciples of Corbusian architecture and its objets à réaction poétique -for example the Italian Luigi Figini and some members of Team 10, particularly Alison and Peter Smithson, Bakema and Aldo van Eyck.

In Brazil, Lina’s work set up a dialogue mainly with the arts, in particular with certain trends that appeared there in the 1950s and 1960s, involving artists such as Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Glauber Rocha, José Celso Martinez and Flávio Império. Her work extrapolates from the limits of architecture to include other disciplines such as art, philosophy, anthropology, literature and psychoanalysis. Being a multifaceted person, Lina was remarkably flexible when she dedicated herself to designing furniture, objects, jewels, interiors, exhibitions, museum displays, shop-windows or costumes and scenery for films and theatre; she developed theory and criticism, taught, practised journalism and landscape design and was involved in the plastic arts. This freedom to face different situations and assume various identities is a triumph over never-ending possibilities.

In this book I caution against an analysis which is somewhat confused and diehard in its political implications, and I recover the power and current relevance of Lina’s work as an important and real response to particular circumstances. I oppose a contemporary reading of her work that tries to place it within a utopian-reactionary line of thought coming from modern European vanguards. It is true that her work constantly refers to the masters and their ideas about society. However, Lina did not suffer from that era’s utopian optimism, whereby the idea of progress broke out of the historical dimension and came to legitimise destructive apolitical concepts. She be-longed to another generation, the one that survived the Second World War, and she saw the future simply as a series of ambushes full of risks and dangers. A generation that examined the modernists critically. For them, ending a state of affairs seen to be false and oppressive was not abandoning the past -rather it meant revitalising it. Many times, Lina herself rejected the labels ‘idealist’, ‘romantic’ and ‘utopian’ that were often bestowed on her. If we take into account Lina’s words, she did not analyse the world in the metaphysical idealistic terms that used a fixed interpretation of history. Even if Lina was imbued with a ‘progressive’ ideology, her work was not nostalgic; it was rooted in the present and had no aspirations towards the future. It is a shout, a ‘punch in the gut’, ‘intensive therapy’ against a state of affairs that really existed and was unmistakable, in need of transformation. A state of affairs in relation to the historical, social, economic and political panorama (as well as the architectural world). Lina declared: ‘Nothing is more comfortable in the world than the idealistic and metaphysical position, which can go in any direction, and does not take objective reality into account, avoiding its control.’

In Brazil, Lucio Costa’s work had led to an architectural practice which integrated tradition and modernity, and influenced a whole generation of architects. Lina criticised Brazilian modern architecture many times in the pages of the magazine Habitat and, in some ways, her work is a crosscurrent at odds with the mainstream. We must remember that Lina had a very wide range of points of reference and that, when she arrived in Brazil at the age of 32, she had already received a solid and fertile Italian training. The two houses Lina built at the end of the 1950s-the Valéria Cirell House in São Paulo and the Chame-Chame House in Salvador-have no parallel in Brazilian modern architecture. They coincide with, or even predate, Oscar Niemeyer’s manifesto which included a self-criticism. In this he accepted that he had neglected the country’s social problems, and had adopted ‘an excessive tendency towards originality,’ impairing the ‘simplicity of building and sense of logic and economy that many demanded.’ Certainly this manifesto had immediate repercussions for his colleagues: ‘its content was seminal for leftist architects and it became the starting point for a new ‘line’ -a kind of architecture produced in São Paulo, the Paulist line.’ Until then nobody had suggested using crafted elements and recurrent materials from vernacular architecture so freely and intensely. In contrast with the romantic ideas of Ruskin and Morris, craftsmanship was not given mythical status. Instead they accepted improvisation and simple, cheap, local solutions that anyone could produce creatively. Lina’s houses suggest a ‘moral re-education of the Brazilian bourgeoisie,’ just like the proposal of João Batista Vilanova Artigas, an architect who had been impressed by Niemeyer’s self-criticism. However, it was almost a decade later in 1967, during a period when he was being persecuted politically, that Artigas designed the Elza Berquó House, his best expression of this logic ‘of the people’. It is true that Lina’s thinking was clearly aligned with the theories swirling around Artigas, particularly with the ideas that took into account an ethical, political and social dimension in architecture. However, the notion of the ‘project’ which Artigas held so dear brought him close to an idealistic line that Lina insisted she did not subscribe to. Lina distanced her work from the developmental optimism followed by a whole generation of architects, people who were deluded about the possibilities of transforming Brazil in the direction of progress. She differed from the ‘Paulist architectural practice of the 1960s’ that, according to Hugo Segawa, ‘did not abandon the positivist utopian ideas of a new country, which would be economically and socially transformed.’ The uniqueness of the Chame-Chame House removes it from the assembly line, and helps to expose the spreading industrialisation that Brazil practised at the end of the 1960s. A project that strikes at the established order and goes against optimism, the Taylorist way of thinking, the idea of progressive development, heroic and universal architecture, and op-poses the promise of an Eldorado, the emblem of which is the construction of Brasilia itself. Her hands-on attitude would be completely in agreement with the ‘economic poetics’ defended, many years later, by Flávio Império, Sérgio Ferro and Rodrigo Lefèvre, when they questioned the promises of modernisation linked to consumption.

Lina worked to stop the powerful from reworking tradition, thus eliminating its subversive efficiency. She strove to prevent the disappearance of tradition, a development that would condemn men to amnesia or prevent them from liberating the past. In this sense, her position is the same as the one Walter Benjamin proposed for historians:

‘In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.’

I want to highlight this messianic character in Lina’s work, and also consider her concern for culture, tradition and history. Fundamental to her work is ‘history’ understood as past and memory, and this is the raw material of her architecture.

‘I never wanted to be young. What I wanted was to have a story. At the age of twenty-five I wanted to write memoirs, but I did not have the material.’

In her postdoctoral thesis, when considering how to update teaching methods, Lina proposed the need to overcome the breach between the ‘old’ and the ‘modern’ in or-der to ‘clarify and understand historical continuity.’ We should understand ‘historical continuity’ to mean repetition of sequences and activities that are traditionally learnt and inherited, rather than the reaction of each phase in relation to the preceding one. The term ‘history’, as Lina uses it, is synonymous with time, and with a living past that directly affects us and pushes us into action. It has nothing to do with the academic discipline that organises and records the past. A consideration of history can mean looking at time and ways of understanding time. Therefore, it is clear from this quotation that Lina does not see history or time as part of a linear and homogenous journey. She works with time that belongs to humanity, time that is not absolute and ties together personal, emotional and human conditions. Time, unlike history, takes on an individual character in each of us, measured and seen only by us. Personal memory contrasts with collective memory in that it operates in time that is individual.

By tying tradition to personal memory and experience, Lina performs a double dismantling of the historical and linear models of time. History is radically opposed to tradition, if history conceives a story of the future which is trivially narrated as if it had already happened. Tradition has no place for a relationship with the future, the very idea of future makes no sense. Living tradition has no form nor is it an idea, in the sense that it never proposes an event; it lives the occurrence here and now.

In the phrase quoted above, Lina also implies that she is interested in narration. This does not mean an arrogant desire to prolong transitory experiences, but rather to make them last in another place and in a different way. This means transforming them; when we live things happen to us, but when we report them we make them happen. The memory cannot be understood as a memorial, rather it is a place for the imaginary and for new creativity. When recounting what has happened, as if rebelling against it, the individual does not just organise the facts but gathers new material from fields other than reality-readings, dreams, inventions-and uses these to shape and enrich the story. A narrator always works from a skilled lack of communication but, above all, narration is play. Any process that is recognised to be a memory exercise can be called tradition -except when there is the involvement of a visual and imaginative memory of the story, recording only what is known. Recounting includes an idea of survival; it is also a kind of confirmation.

According to Lina, there is no architecture divorced from reality; in a way, politics and architecture are one. Opposed to the idea of abstraction, she turns to the specificity of things. She acts in a real dimension, subverting it and shaping another present. Her architecture is the expression of a systematic destruction of standard experience. It puts forward a reality that is different from the existing one, where simplicity, spontaneity, waste, impurity, austerity and the ephemeral are valued, a reality of someone who lived through the war and knows that we are not free of it.

Lina’s work penetrates the fissures of the 1960s counterculture, which had themes that relate to her architecture -the deconstruction of works, the dissolution of artists’ individuality into collectives, stirring up the system within the system, the revival of the sensory by bodily stimulation and desire. Desire is a key word in Lina’s work, and close to the world of Charles Fourier where desire is an active, transforming and subversive force -an analysis that supports her libidinal critique of political economy. If there is a utopia in Lina’s work, it is similar to Fourier’s concept of civilisation as a New World of Love. But Fourier’s utopia ‘…is not a promise, now idle, of a better world. It is a praxis, a current experiment in desire, a call to all those who are in a hurry to enjoy. It explains his rejection of all future time, of all hope for tomorrow: Do not sacrifice current good for future good, writes (Fourier) in his Notice to the Civilised.’ Fourier understood how progress sets itself up as a kind of repression and suffocation of desire. That is why, in exactly the same way as in Lina’s work, the critical proposal of civilisation in Fourier’s passionate world can only appear outside time and historic space, because the historical continuum is in opposition to desire.

It is true that in Lina’s work many images of paradise are suggested, but they definitely do not assume the return to an original state, forgotten but happy. Like phalansteries (self-sufficient communes), Lina’s buildings work like ‘organising molecules of Harmony.’ They exist in a particular perspective that does not imply a return to a past state, nor the illusion of a visionary but possible future. They do nothing more than to lead us away to places where enjoyment and desire can flourish freely. Yes, Lina’s work subverts and challenges norms, and that is why it is always in danger.’

Copyright of the text: Olivia de Oliveira
Copyright of the edition: Editorial Gustavo Gili SL

Présentation de l'éditeur

> Prêmio Instituto de Arquitetos do Brasil: melhor livro de 2006
> Finalist Pevsner Prize of The Royal Institute of British Architects
> Finalist Prêmio Jabuti: best art and architecture book
Lina Bo Bardi, the Rome-born architect, emigrated after World War Two to Brazil, a country where she undertook her professional career. The outcome of her personal experience and of a wish to get closer to the culture and ways of life of the people, Bo Bardi’s creativity moved in the direction of an architecture that prized simplicity, spontaneity, the residual and the ephem-eral; an architecture understood as 'an organism suitable for life' which incorporated everydayness and the energy of the people who use it. As a result she used the word ‘substances’, rather than ‘materials’, to explain what her architecture was made of. These substances are air, light, nature and art, to which the author, Olivia de Oliveira, adds time. The work of Lina Bo Bardi, then, is presented here via a huge array of previously unpublished drawings, images, writings and projects that enable the reader to grasp in a kaleidoscopic way the power and current importance of her architecture as a critical confrontation with established reality.

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