Just looking out of the window, it’s possible to see two opposing forces at work in São Paulo these days. One is a construction craze that has uprooted decades-old buildings, replacing them with residential and corporate highrises of increasingly staggering heights. The other is a push for the conservation of old buildings, especially those by renowned architects, which have somehow resisted the speculative waves that flood the real-estate market and smother any attempt at sensible urban planning in this metropolis.
Museums and galleries have kept an eye on these developments. Lina Bo Bardi, the Italian-born architect whose buildings include the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (1957–68) – a glass box suspended on two gigantic red pillars on Paulista Avenue – has emerged as a symbol of a heroic past that needs to be preserved. Her architectural work has long been regarded as art, sculptures planted in the gritty soil of the city.
In a way, Bo Bardi’s buildings are a hybrid case of modernist aesthetics in Brazil. They seem more human and spontaneous than the work of her peers. Though deeply reverent of João Vilanova Artigas and Paulo Mendes da Rocha, the giants of Brazilian brutalism, she never neglected the organic solutions that sprout from vernacular or pedestrian architecture. Bo Bardi, who once declared that visual arts were ‘solemn filth’, always preferred art made in the streets, or works born of happenstance, to objects arrayed in museum displays, and her buildings reflect that.
When she built the Museu de Arte, she made sure to raise it up on pillars, to preserve the site’s original view of old downtown. She also used the same kind of stones the Portuguese conquistadors employed in the construction of the city’s pavements and public squares to cover the museum’s floors, recognizing the country’s colonial past in a building which, simultaneously, served as a manifesto for times to come, modernity reinterpreted from a tropical perspective.
Yet Bo Bardi has also been held hostage by the art world here. Her drawings have been copied and her buildings reproduced as silly souvenirs, while the popular image of her – as a bold, unwavering woman who never lowered her voice, much less yielded to criticism – is now the subject of a forthcoming film by Isaac Julien, titled The Ghost of Lina Bo Bardi.
In 2013, Hans Ulrich Obrist curated a show in the architect’s former residence, the Casa de Vidro, a glass house that appears to float in the middle of a lush forest on the west side of São Paulo. The exhibited works blended in with her furniture, becoming almost invisible. Olafur Eliasson transformed one of her museum displays – a pane of glass mounted on a base of solid concrete – into a colourful mirror. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster made a bench out of her maquette for the Museu de Arte Moderna, while Cildo Meireles depicted her as a housewife: a recording of her husband Pietro Maria Bardi’s thundering voice telling her to make coffee echoed throughout the house.
A recent series of other exhibitions have also commemorated her legacy. Lisette Lagnado’s ‘Panorama da Arte Brasileira’ (Panorama of Brazilian Art), traditionally a survey of emerging artists held every two years at the Museu de Arte Moderna, chose to focus on the museum building, refurbished by Bo Bardi three decades ago, instead of on new artists. The show was a bold rendition of what the space was meant to look like but never did: a building with no walls, drenched in light from the floor-to-ceiling windows. Bo Bardi championed audacious display methods – such as pictures mounted on sheets of glass in a vertiginous, uninterrupted sequence – that were never respected by her clients, but were here resurrected by fierce curatorial strategies. While Lagnado’s project shed light on what could have been and never was – with a touch of what she calls the ‘melancholy of modernity’ in this part of the world – the contemporary artists and architects in the exhibition were left with little choice but to toy with Bo Bardi’s work, twisting and turning it into propositions that looked feeble and flimsy at best.
The 2013 Bienal de Arquitetura de São Paulo, with Guilherme Wisnik as its chief curator, also revisited Bo Bardi’s past, installing works of art in the basement of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo according to the principles she established. He brought back her classic panes of glass to stage a show in which architectural projects by Artigas and Mendes da Rocha contrasted with works of art by Meireles and Hélio Oiticica. While the architects built homes with walls that never reached the ceiling and ramps instead of stairs, Meireles and Oiticica created new ideas for private space in a kind of broken architecture, of small-scale spaces subject to the voracity of street life.
Is heritage this flexible? If not, how can architecture evolve without the overbearing weight of the past? The recent craze over Bo Bardi, turning her work into a sort of fetish, only serves to highlight how fine the line is between homage and shallow, flamboyant obsession.