time of co-habitation

originally published in Beyond the Supersquare, Art and Architecture in Latin America after Modernism
Edited by Antonio Sergio Bessa, with additional research by Mario Torres
Fordham University Press Copublished with The Bronx Museum of the Arts (2014)

see also conference, opening event (2012) and exhibition (2014)
Beyond the Supersquare, Bronx Museum, New York

In her 1976 essay “Ambient Planning, Design Impasse,” the architect Lina Bo Bardi (1914–92) wrote:

"The last country to enter the history of Western-style industrialization, Brazil still bears the marks of the prehistoric period and of Africa, rich in popular élan. All the contradictions of the Western fallacy came immediately to the fore in the course of Brazil’s modernization process, leaving strong vestiges of a situation undergoing crisis. A process that took centuries to unfold in industrialized nations, here lasted only a few years. An abrupt, unplanned industrialization, structurally imported, led the country to experience a redoubtable natural occurrence, not a process created by people. The sinister diktats of real-estate speculation, the non-existing planning for low-income housing, the speculative proliferation of industrial design: gadgets, most of which useless, bear heavily on the cultural state of the country, leading to severe restraints, making it an offence right now, cultural decline is upon us. If the economist and the sociologist can carry out diagnoses with detachment, the artist must act as an element connected to active people, as well as to the intellectuals. A review of the country’s recent history is called for. An assessment of Brazilian “popular” culture is required, even if it is considered poor in the eyes of high culture. This assessment isn’t the assessment of folklore, always paternally supported by high culture, but an assessment “from the other side,” a participatory assessment. It’s Alejadinho and Brazilian culture before the French Mission. It’s the people from the Northeast with their leather and empty tins, the dweller of the “vilas,” Blacks and Amerindians, the mass of inventions, which contribute something that is tough, dry, hard to swallow. This urgency, this “can no longer wait,” is the real basis of the Brazilian artist’s work, a reality that doesn’t need artificial stimuli, a cultural abundance that is close at hand, a unique anthropological wealth, heavy with fundamentally tragic historic events. Brazil became industrialized; in order to be studied, the new reality needs to be accepted. It is impossible to bring extinct social bodies back." [1]

Bo Bardi, with her husband, the Italian art dealer and art critic Pietro Maria Bardi (1901–99), left her native Italy for Brazil in 1946, lured by the promise of prosperity. Given her background—a graduate of the Rome College of Architecture and editor of Domus magazine—intellectually Bo Bardi belonged to the first twentieth-century European artistic and political avant-garde. As part of a generation who worked with the available materials and preexisting elements, Bo Bardi recognized in Brazil—particularly in the Northeast—the power of popular culture to improvise, simplify, and invent which permeated her whole work. She explored the cheap, simple, and local situations in her work, toward a culture of survival and recycling, alongside with other artists in Brazil including Lygia Clark, Helio Oiticica, theater director José Celso Martinez Corrêa, and filmmaker Glauber Rocha. These modes of existence and working were opposed to the conception of progress and consumption, part of the overwhelming development ideals of a “Modern Brazil,” a project driven by the state and society throughout the period of 1930–60, culminating with the construction of Brasília as the new federal capital.

For her, being an architect included drawing, writing, editing magazines and books, teaching, directing museums, setting up exhibitions, designing jewelry, clothes, graphic design, furniture, objects, getting involved in cinema and stage design for theatre, designing projects from houses to mainly public buildings and urban projects, ranging from SESC Pompéia in São Paulo, to the public spaces in Salvador da Bahia, to the bowl chair and the Glass House.

Bo Bardi and her husband came to São Paulo, invited by Assis Chateaubriand—a Brazilian entrepreneur and the most powerful local media mogul at that time—to become part of the first modern museum experience in Brazil. The Museum of Art of São Paulo (MASP) was founded in 1947, one year after their arrival, housed in an existing building downtown. The building was conceived as both museum and school. It represented a provocative space, alive, polemical, and part of the city’s daily life. Pietro M. Bardi was its cofounder and its director and curator for 49 years until 1996. Bo Bardi was responsible not only for the architectural project, but also for the various exhibitions and she became deeply involved in the museum’s cultural-educational programs.

The museum’s eclectic collection was composed of paintings and sculptures, from the baroque to modernism, coming mainly from European collections devalued in the face of the precarious postwar situation. As Pietro Maria Bardi summed up, there was no institutional sponsorship of the arts in São Paulo at that time, yet São Paulo was the place where the money from the emerging industrialization came from, and also where the new financial elite who could contribute to the institution took up residence. Many stories abound about the strategies used by Chateaubriand in “convincing” the new financial elite to invest in the museum, including blackmail. [2] With the growing collection and MASP’s strong didactic role in society, a new place was necessary. Bo Bardi played a fundamental role in proposing to the mayor and the local elite the construction of a new building in a plot of land (a former Belvedere), which had been donated by a family to the city administration, at the city important intersection of Paulista Avenue and 9 de Julho Avenue. Coinciding with the migration of the city’s financial center from the historical downtown to Paulista Avenue in the late 1960s.

MASP’s new building was conceived and built between 1957 and 1968, overlapping with the construction of Brasilia (inaugurated in 1960), and with the transition from a democratic regime to a military dictatorship (1964–84). When the process was temporarily suspended, Bo Bardi was invited to teach at the Federal University of Bahia and to set up and direct the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Popular Art in Salvador. This was when she intensely realized the intrinsic relationships between the Western projects of modernity and colonization, conceiving important exhibitions in São Paulo and in Salvador on popular art, with an anthropological conception about human invention, mainly the people in the Northeast: “When [MASP’s] construction site was reopened, I had become another person. I had lived in Bahia, had met authentic Brazil, not that of European immigrants. The frustrations after the crisis of 1964 did not make me give up the program of building something heterodox and provocative.” [3]

MASP consists of two structures—one raised and aerial, the other semiburied—that allow a view of the city from the park toward the valley to downtown, configuring this “empty space” as a public plaza and refuge in the midst of this horizon-less metropolis. It is a glass box with a 70 meter-span, 29 meters wide and 14 high, suspended on four concrete pillars 8 meters above the ground. [4]

Up until the early 1990s, one could enjoy the openness of the belvedere span before walking down the stairs into the lower part of the building to get admission tickets, and then use the elevator or the stairs to go up to the main picture gallery, the pinacotheca, on the second floor of the floating glass box.
It was always a pleasure to enter the vast open gallery, which held a constellation of paintings, more than one hundred, floating in glass panes fixed on cubic concrete bases, all facing the entrance. The gallery was filled with daylight that entered through partially opened shutters that revealed the metropolis in the distance. Instead stepping through “staged” period rooms or a space devoted to a historical art movement, visitors were at liberty to choose their own, personal itineraries and in the process make new connections with the works of art, as they pass, for example, a portrait of Modigliani, The Student painting by Anita Malfatti, a Hieronymous Bosh painting, or a Renoir dancer sculpture. Each artwork would contain a short description on the back. The building and objects seemed to levitate, as if space and time were suspended. Bo Bardi’s architecture created a reciprocity that allowed for a dialogue between time periods, movements, artists, visitors, and the city itself.

Both building and glass easels are composed by two sections: one aerial and floating, and the other opaque, grounded, and made of concrete. The glass exhibition easels operate as a synthesis of Bo Bardi’s understanding of art as part of daily life, in which we all recognize ourselves as creators and producers, and not only as consumers and spectators. [5] According to curator Roger Buergel, the way the artwork was radically singularized, as an image of artistic labor, on these transparent panes attested to “the migratory destiny of the pieces, but also, and more importantly, to a lack of institutional framing. Art’s ontological status was no longer treated as a given.” As if there was no way to any “systematicity (be they by chronology, genre, style, -isms, national school). It laid any universal claim about the Western idea of art to rest.” [6]

A specific notion of time would come to bear in all its potency at MASP, linked to the experience of daily life. Olivia de Oliveira argues that time is Bo Bardi’s raw material. In the open picture gallery, the artworks cohabited the same space freed from any predefined systematization, breaking “with the hegemonic idea of progress and with the Western model of historical time, linear, homogeneous and irreversible, always directed towards the future.” [7] As Bo Bardi remarked, “linear time is a Western invention, [but] time is not linear, it is a marvelous entanglement where, at any time, points can be chosen and solutions invented without beginning or end.” [8] It seems that nonlinear time has always been Brazil’s historical time, some places and people are in 2014, other cities may live in 1976 or in 1984, and much of the elite economic centers like São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro keep acting as if it were 1953 or 1964. [9]

Bo Bardi passed away in March 1992. It was my first month as a student of architecture, and I remember the silence, the suspension of time in the midst of the metropolitan buzz, of seeing her body arriving at MASP’s span, an image that is still burned into my memory, as if preannouncing the changes to come. At the time, Brazil was undergoing the transition from dictatorship to a democratic regime and experienced the opening of its economy to international capital. MASP and Paulista Avenue were considered São Paulo’s epicenter for cultural meetings and political demonstrations. Prized at that time as the city’s chief museum and best collection in Latin America, the museum’s span also provided a space for the international cinema festival screenings, music performances, flea market, informal meetings, as well as seminal civil and political movements.

In the following year, the Lina Bo and Pietro Maria Bardi Institute (formed in 1990) organized the first major exhibition on Bo Bardi, which opened at MASP and later traveled to Europe. As her work gained growing international recognition over the past twenty years, her architectural work—built in São Paulo and in Salvador da Bahia—was seriously altered or destroyed, including MASP.

In 1994, architect Júlio Neves was elected MASP’s president. Under his leadership, which ended in 2008, MASP experienced its greatest institutional and financial crisis. Between 1996 and 2001, the museum’s administration underwent a polemical and wide-ranging refurbishment. Notwithstanding the necessary conservation of artworks, they completely disfigured Bo Bardi’s original architectural project. The glass exhibition easels were replaced with a conventional wall system and “refined” materials. The seventy-meters long empty span was partially obstructed by barriers, screens, ticket booths, and a cloakroom counter. These interventions destroyed Bo Bardi’s design strategies both physically and conceptually.

The president architect has designed over five hundred buildings around the city. To help raise much needed funds, he proposed the construction of a tower 125 meters (410 feet) high, which he would design “for free” on the site adjacent to the museum. That site had been purchased by a Mexican mobile telephone company for the sole purpose to associate its brand with the museum, and the tower was called MASP VIVO (MASP Alive) (VIVO is the name of the mobile company). A “lighter” retrofit version of the existing former residential building on this plot seems to be currently – and very slowly – under way.

Marcelo Cidade, Tempo suspenso de um estado provisório (2011). Fonte: Galeria Vermelho

Suspended Time of a Provisional State

Marcelo Cidade’s (b. 1979) installation tempo suspenso de um estado provisório (suspended time of a provisional state, 2011) [10] reintroduces Bo Bardi’s legendary glass easels with the exception that the glass pane that provides transparent support for the paintings, here is bulletproof and bears shotgun marks. Tempo suspenso was first shown during the SP Arte art fair in May 2011 at Oscar Niemeyer’s Fundação Bienal de São Paulo building (1951) in Ibirapuera Park (which bears a strong symbolic charge from the city’s and Brazil’s modernizing and developmentist thrust of the 1950s), Audiences would traverse about ten or so shotgun glass easels, in a series suggesting a domino set pattern.

Does the criticism proposed by the artwork refer to Bo Bardi as part of the establishment? Or does it denounce, by means of the easel its very dysfunction? The bulletproof glass pane and shotgun marks decidedly evoke a context of violence: the violence that has caused the city’s financial elite to self-segregate—territorially and socially—and seek shelter in armored cars and houses; the violence against Bo Bardi’s vision and legacy, manifest in the removal of her glass easels from MASP and the disfigurement of the building; but also violence against the public that now is subject to more predictable and spectacular exhibition experiences. These views of and disdain for the work of Bo Bardi and others is representative of a narrow-minded mode of thinking that has permeated Brazilian society for some time now. However, do we have better conditions today for a possible counterpart against these socio-economic forces born in the industrialization-developmentalist process already lived by Bo Bardi?

The placing of the shotgun marks on the glass surface was to be anticipated. Is this predictability of the shotgun’s domino pattern ironic, or is it an entrance to a game that reifies precisely what is already given? For the artist, “the idea was not only to give each piece singularity, but to compose the intensity of each ‘chance’ in a concrete and rational manner, so as to ponder on that São Paulo artistic movement [Concretism] with a certain critical acidity as one considers Bo Bardi’s easels loss of functionality, inverting their purpose of supporting modern pieces, and proposing them instead as the support/victim of a hail of São Paulo bullets, thus constituting this game of domino or perhaps of domination.” [11]

Bo Bardi’s glass easels with its “floating” paintings, as if suspended in time and space, evoked a notion of time linked to our daily lives and of the possibilities of art. More than fifty years after Bo Bardi’s creation and some fifteen years after its destruction by the museum’s authorities, Cidade’s installation challenges us to experience the suspended time of the provisional state of things and social relations in Brazil, to confront the radical societal mutations and its repetitions of creating and self-destroying. Instead of confronting art (as was the case with Bo Bardi’s creation), we confront the silent/loud and invisible/visible violence of everyday life in São Paulo: Which or whose provisional state is Cidade alluding to? The provisional state that endures in the precariousness of Brazilian cultural institutions? Of the current “international boom” of Brazilian contemporary art? Or the provisional state of the very ouvre of Bo Bardi? Bo Bardi used to say that São Paulo was “the world’s champion of self-destruction.” The title of Cidade’s work ironically entangles crucial issues at stake, establishing a connection between Brazil today and the Brazil of the 1950s and 1960s.

The Woman and Her Glass House: A Family of Things

The Glass House was Bo Bardi’s first building (1951), located on the top of a hill overlooking a green valley and the city of São Paulo in the distance. The Morumby neighborhood was a suburb at that time, but today it is completely urbanized by favelas, low-income housing units, an elite and high middle-class residential area close to the main current financial district, and, since the mid-1990s, media headquarters around Berrini Avenue.

It is composed by two bodies: the first is upfront, holding the social areas, floating, made of glass, supported by very thin columns, close to the modernist lexicon. The second preserves the house’s private area, with a white wall protecting it, it is settled on the ground, built with traditional materials and techniques.

The Glass House (2008) work [12] by artist Laercio Redondo (b. 1967) in collaboration with artist Laura Erber (b. 1979) features two simultaneous film projections set contiguously on a corner at a 90-degree angle: two loops of approximately ten minutes that seek to trace the same parcours within the Glass House by showing the building in a time lapse of almost ten years—one loop was shot at the end of 1999, right after the death of Pietro Maria Bardi, and the other in 2008, when the house was in a fragile state of conservation, undergoing maintenance and restoration work.

Laercio Redondo, The Glass House, video still in 1999 / Video still, The Glass House during restoration, 2008

The two projections show the single image of the small pond with the river stones in the middle of the tropical garden, as well as the ground next to the driveway. The soundtrack consists of an ocean-like buzz (an experimental musical piece by artist Goh Lee Kwang) and a dialogue between a man and a woman that resonates on many levels: a dialogue between Laercio and Laura, between Pietro and Lina, between the bodies of the house, between nature and the objects, between the soul of the eyes and the soul of the body, [13] between the house and the metropolis, and ultimately between both film loops in time. As we enter the house, however, both projections diverge and overlap. In both, the camera follows a continuous, floating movement. On the left, the film time of 1999, the camera gravitates around the objects and furniture, as well as around the paintings on the white façade that separates the social from the intimate spaces, as if the present and past times were cohabiting.

The interior of the Glass House is populated by an enormous multiplicity of furniture, lamps, paintings, sculptures and statues, objects of popular art. We see a lived-in house, soaked by time in a constellation of things to which Bo Bardi and her husband kept adding on over the years. Each object vibrates. [14] Elements from different contexts and modes of existence occupy the same space, whether they are Western-European paintings and objects, Asian sculptures, African or indigenous objects, popular objects invented in the northeast of Brazil, or modern furniture designed by Bo Bardi and her contemporaries.

On the right, in the film time of the house that seemed to be dying, “an itinerary that was once familiar now lies undone.” The objects, the works of art, and the remaining furniture are boxed up and covered by black plastic sheets, and the house’s structure reappears. The camera loses track and forgets the path taken years before, and it is the transparent glass surface, and the green of the tropical gigantic trees, that catch the soul of the eye. Remembrances and forgettings. “The past for Lina was something forever alive, something occurring in the present.” For her it “was synonymous with memory, individual or collective, memory being an innate human sentiment.” [15] In that year of 2008, with the house “nearly gone,” past and present seemed not to exist, memory—individual or collective—had been erased, existence seemed to have been paralyzed.

After the death of Pietro Maria Bardi in 1999, the Lina Bo and Pietro Maria Institute claimed the Glass House as its headquarters (since 1995). Despite the recognition of its status as historical heritage, the institute had experienced family disputes of inheritance, institutional crises, and financial difficulties. The Glass House finally has been restored and the Institute is constructing its sustainability and potentialities. However, the frailty of the house (in a museum-becoming? [16] ) renders evident the enduring Brazil’s cultural-institutional ambiguities and challenges that Bo Bardi had already pointed out in the 1970s.

About the Tension of Holding Incompatible Things Together

The Glass House with the art objects floating in space is analogous to MASP’s glass easel–suspended paintings. In both, Bo Bardi’s specter always hovers between the aerial and the grounded, where glass is a transparent and reflecting surface, allowing spaces to be modified and adapated to exterior events. In the Glass House as well as in MASP, one witnesses the deep collaboration between Pietro and Lina as well as the ambiguities and ambivalences of their marriage and partnership. While Pietro M. Bardi had connections with the European migrants and the local financial elite, Bo Bardi pursued questioning these connections and aligning herself with the Brazilian “popular soul” and nonmodern ontologies.

For anthropologist Bruno Latour “the history of modernity is based on the shared feeling that there exists an arrow of time that thrusts forward, thus defining a front line that differentiates an archaic past from a more advanced future.” He reminds us that we are no longer living in the modern time of the present, of societal changes over time, but the time of space, of cohabitation, in which “a very different past, a very different future, and a very different comparison between collectives become possible.” [17] The works of both Cidade and Redondo (with Erber) question and actualize poetic and political dimensions of Bo Bardi’s work and her approach to art, time, and space as cohabitation of multiple collectives (representative of an entanglement between the modern movement, the Northeast’s popular knowledge, and the emergent tropicalism), creating an opportunity to arouse a different awareness toward the challenges mobilizing us today and our capacity of holding incompatible things together.

The country has undergone accelerated social, governmental, and economic transformations that were unimaginable in the early 2000’s, with deep epistemological transformations. Bo Bardi used to say that the new reality has to be accepted, calling for an urgency of inventing a present. Faced with the expressive power in her work as a critical and real confrontation with a contemporary state of affairs—political, social, economic, scientific, and artistic— and celebrating her hundredth birthday in 2014, we have to ask ourselves: What present are we to invent now?

This text is dedicated to Dona Maria Gertrudes and Kabila Aruanda

[1] Quoted in Olivia de Oliveira, ed., Lina Bo Bardi: Obra construida/Built Work (Barcelona: 2G, 2002), 223; originally published as “Ambient Planning, Design Impasse,” in Malasartes 2 (1975/1976).

[2] See Fernando Morais, Chatô—O Rei do Brasil (São Paulo: Ed. Companhia das Letras, 1994).

[3] Bruno Zevi, “Incontro con Lina Bo Bardi. Un supervisore con mitra e speroni,” L’Espresso, May 27, 1973, 28.

[4] de Oliveira, Lina Bo Bardi: Obra construida/Built Work.

[5] Architect Olivia de Oliveira places Bo Bardi in the context of comparable experiences in 1930s Italy, alongside Franco Albini and Eduardo Persico, or Frederick Kiesler in Vienna in 1924, whose “spatial exhibition method,” sought to create an ambience of proximity between the pieces, as well as between the works of art and the visitors. Olivia de Oliveira, Lina Bo Bardi—Sutis Substâncias da Arquitetura (São Paulo: Romano Guerra Editora Ltda., 2006).

[6] Roger M. Buergel, “‘This Exhibition is an Accusation’: The Grammar of Display According to Lina Bo Bardi,” Afterall (spring 2011), p.57.

[7] Olivia de Oliveira, “Lina Bo Bardi: Toward an Architecture without Borders,” in Cruelty and Utopia: Cities and Landscapes of Latin America, ed. Jean-François Lejeune (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005), 201.

[8] de Oliveira, Lina Bo Bardi: Obra construida/Built Work, 201.

[9] I thank Marcelo Rezende for the careful reading and suggestions for this text.

[10] For more on Marcelo Cidade’s works see http://www.galeriavermelho.com.br/pt/artista/40/marcelo-cidade.

[11] E-mail exchange with the artist Marcelo Cidade, October 2011.

[12] For more on Laercio Redondo’s work see http://www.laercioredondo.com; for Laura Erber’s work go to http://www.lauraerber.com.

[13] See Els Lagrou, A fluidez da forma: arte, alteridade e agencia em uma sociedade amazônica [Kaxinawa, Acre] (Rio de Janeiro: Topbooks Editora, 2007). See also Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[14] “It is objects that condense actions, relationships, emotions and meanings, because it is through artifacts that people act, relate, produce themselves and exist in the world.” Els Lagrou, Arte indígena no Brasil: agência, alteridade e relação (Belo Horizonte: C/Arte, 2009), 13.

[15] de Oliveira, Sutis Substâncias, 339–61.

[16] After many years being closed to the public, the Glass House was open to the public again. In August 2011, the exhibition project “The Insides are on the Outside” by Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, in collaboration with SESC/SP and the Institute, was announced. About forty artists and architects were invited to create projects in the Glass House – and at SESC Pompéia – that were on exhibit in 2013. It was the latest in a series of domestic interventions by Obrist, and for whom, “Lina is one of the great women architects of the 20th century, and her major contributions haven’t been recognized enough”. It is interesting to note how this project became part of a dynamics between precarious and ambitious, global and local state of affairs. See Charlotte Burns, “Lina Bo Bardi: The Artist’s Architect,” The Art Newspaper, August 1, 2011, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Lina-Bo-Bardi-the-artists-architect/24389.

[17] Bruno Latour, “Summary of the AIME Project—An Inquiry of Modes of Existence,” http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/328. See also “There is no Terrestrial Globe,” interview by Jean-Christophe Royoux in Cosmograms, ed. M. Ohanian and J. C. Royoux (New York: Lukas and Sternberg, 2005), 211–22.