São Paulo state Palácio do Governo. Photograph by Guilherme Gaensly (Wilhelm Gänsli), from the album Lembrança de São Paulo (ca. 1900). Collotype, 8 5/8 × 11 in. (22 × 28 cm).

The Fantasy of the “tabula rasa”: Modernist Urbanism in Brazil

Adrian Anagnost—

Brazilian Experiments

Modernist urbanism was rooted in a fantasy of the tabula rasa. City space would be created anew, buildings inserted into blank landscapes — a vision of rupture that often ignored sites’ existing inhabitants. In the Americas, modernist architecture and modernist spaces were shaped by histories of displacement, forced labor, and racial inequality, framed by a frontier mythology that privileged elite impositions of order over space and site.

For Brazilian artists and architects of the twentieth century, avant-garde aesthetic movements had the potential to create new social forms and re-order the spaces of modernity. These vanguard movements often took the racially diverse, class stratified population of Brazil as material for their aesthetic experimentation.

The City and Its Crowds

In the late 1920s and 1930s, for example, an elite-driven form of populist politics provided fodder for artists and architects. Civil engineer Flávio de Carvalho mounted performative architectural lectures and urban interventions — proto-performance art such as the Experiment/Experience no. 2— a disruption of a Corpus Christi Day parade that interrogated modernist notions of the crowd in relation to Brazilian religiosity, the propriety of bourgeois politics, and modernist architecture.

Flávio de Carvalho, illustration of a São Paulo crowd “shaken by a strange force,” from Experiência n. 2 (1931).

In 1930s-1940s Rio de Janeiro, which was the national capital before Brasília was inaugurated, radical urban “renewal” intersected with new forms of mass politics. Vast urban renewal projects displaced Black, mixed-race, poor, and working class people, making way for modernist architecture and open plazas. These spaces, such as the Ministry of Education and Public Health and the President Vargas Avenue, formed apt settings for mass politics.

Parade of students from the Darcy Vargas fishing school, during the Semana de Pátria (National Homeland Week), Ministry of Education, Rio de Janeiro, September 2, 1944. Dossier BR RJANRIO EH.0.FOT, EVE.2878, photo 5, Arquivo Nacional do Brasil, Brasília.

By the 1950s, museums and galleries had become ersatz public squares. Artists and architects experimented with new social orders by reformulating the space of the museum through experimental exhibition design, artworks, and architectonic settings. At the São Paulo Museum of Art, Lina Bo Bardi’s radical museology crafted a new space of spontaneous encounters, using techniques honed in interwar Italy.

Museu de Arte de São Paulo, September 16, 1969. Dossier BR RJANRIO PH.0.FOT.1441, photo 2, Arquivo Nacional do Brasil, Brasília.

In the 1950s, too, Concrete and Neoconcrete artists such as Lygia Clark and Franz Weissman created playful takes on geometric abstraction in modern materials like acrylic paint and aluminum. Removed from the picture frame and pedestal, these artists’ works existed in an ambiguous relationship with the architectures of Brazil’s gallery spaces — where the generic white cube of the modernist museum could not be assumed.

“Neoconcretos na Bahia,” Suplemento Dominical do Jornal do Brasil, November 21, 1959, showing abstract works by Lygia Clark (on the wall) and Franz Weissmann (in the foreground) in the 1959 Exposição Neoconcreta at the Galeria do Departamento Municipal de Turismo, located on the Belvedere da Sé in Salvador, Bahia.

Media City

The capital city of Brasília is perhaps the most spectacular—and certainly the most media-savvy—example of this mode of twentieth-century world-making, of crafting new spatial orders to create new social forms. Based on an urban plan by Lúcio Costa, Brazil’s new national capital was constructed between 1956 and 1960 according to a practically messianic scheme. As seen in late-1950s publications such as Revista Brasília, a magazine dedicated to the construction of the city, Brasília’s cruciform layout evoked the Catholic cross of Portuguese settlers and the airplane’s conquest of far-flung geographies.

Page spread from Revista Brasília 6 (June 1957), showing cross of the monumental axis at the start of construction of Brasília. Photo Mário Fontenelle, Arquivo Público do Distrito Federal, Brasília.

Brasília emerged whole cloth from the packed red earth of Brazil’s high plains (cerrado), set alongside an artificial lake. The city’s forms cut a futuristic silhouette, in the sweeping concrete curves and bombastic proportions favored by Brasília’s architect, Oscar Niemeyer. Even unfinished, the city’s geometries served as the backdrop for a dramatic chase scene in the 1964 French-Italian action film L’Homme de Rio.

Informal satellite city, Brasília, film still from L’Homme de Rio (1964).

Forms of Exclusion

But if Niemeyer’s forms echoed the modernist architectures of Le Corbusier, and playfully invoked gigantic versions of Concrete and Neoconcrete art popular in 1950s Brazil, they also referred to architectures of the Indigenous Xavante, who were cleared from much of central Brazil in the 1940s as part of the government’s “March to the West,” a form of internal colonization. Niemeyer’s design for Brasília’s National Museum/National Library explicitly referred to the oca hut form common to Xavante architecture. Brasília’s placement in the cerrado was thus rooted in an idea of a wide open frontier predicated on the displacement of Indigenous people, even as its forms invoked their absence.

Xavante hunting huts, photo April 1944, Arquivo Nacional do Brasil. Inset showing Niemeyer’s National Museum/Library, Brasília.

Even once Brasília was built, its orderly blocks excluded people who did not fit the utopian vision of the city. Clusters of unplanned and often impoverished satellite cities sprang up at the edges of Brasília, to house migrant workers who came from poorer regions of northeastern Brazil to construct the city, but who were allowed no home within it.

Eden … or Sad and Desolate Hinterlands?

Already in the 1950s, even as Brasília was being constructed, Brazilian thinkers criticized its forms and spaces. In 1957, Brazilian art and architecture critic Mario Pedrosa drew on German art historian Wilhelm Worringer’s notion of oasis civilizations, to argue that the Americas are a place where European settlers—seeing nothing of value in the cultures and civilizations they encountered—assumed a tabula rasa, a vision of the Americas as “a place where everything could start from the beginning.”

In his 1957 essay, Pedrosa contrasted Brasília to Maracangalha — a vision of Brazil’s northeast that was simultaneously Edenic and emblematic of the nation’s underdevelopment. In a samba that took the 1956–57 by storm, Maracangalha was presented like Shangri-La, “a neo-romantic fantasy.” However, as an exposé in the illustrated magazine Manchete in February 1957 explained, Maracangalha was no romantic idyll, but “the name of a tragic city, a kind of sad and desolate hinterlands.” Maracangalha was a small, historically poor town with predominantly Afro-descendent inhabitants, located in the northeastern state of Bahia. Bahia is notable for its picturesque coastal landscapes, its rambunctious Carnaval tradition, and its susceptibility to perpetual drought — which drove many of inhabitants of this region to migrate to construct Brasília.

By the late 1960s, in works such as Tropicália and Eden, artist Hélio Oiticica viewed architecture and space not as modernist forms creating new social orders from above, but a ground-up reformulation of space through embodied movement. Drawing on experiences with samba and an idyllic view of Indigenous Brazil informed by anthropology readings, Oiticica created environments that proposed new forms of sociability in the space of the gallery.

Adrian Anagnost is the Jessie Poesch Assistant Professor in the Newcomb Art Department at Tulane University.

Recent Posts

All Blogs