Kolja Reichert In recent years, architect Lina Bo Bardi has gained a particular currency within the art world. People respond with knowing or envious looks if you tell them you’ve visited Casa de Vidro (1949–51), her residence in São Paulo, a hybrid of modernist glass and traditional Italian architecture. The centennial of Bo Bardi’s birth last year occasioned an array of exhibitions in Europe, the largest of which was the retrospective Lina Bo Bardi 100. Brazil’s Alternative Path to Modernism at Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne/Architekturmuseum der TU München. These days, familiarity with Bo Bardi seems to be an emblem of taste. How has this come about?
Laura Weissmüller It’s worth bearing in mind that however prominent a figure Lina Bo Bardi may now be in the art world, in recent years an entire generation of architects has elevated her to the status of role model. In some respects, this is due less to her buildings than to her process of creating them. Unlike the ‘great’ modernist architects, Bo Bardi had no interest in designing her buildings at the drafting table as if she were some kind of demigod. Rather, she worked on them in collaboration with craftspeople. She had no studio or office, preferring instead to draw on-site, continually readapt her designs to the reality in front of her.
KR This fact is also apparent in the perplexing forms her buildings take. Each appears to be by a different architect: compare the single-family house Casa do Chame-Chame in the state of Bahia (1958–64) evoking the ocean floor with its façade of seashells and glass bottles, to the stark, dramatic façade of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP, 1957–68), with its modernist glass form and reinforced concrete beam structure encircling the building. She transcended the rationalist dictum ‘form follows function’ with a practice that could be described as ‘form follows discussion’. She wasn’t fixated on solving technically oriented problems, but rather enacted – as clearly as possible – the societal conflicts her designs were built upon. At times she deliberately limited comfort, such as when she designed unupholstered theatre seats or when she created outdoor passageways between changing rooms and gymnasium, as in the SESC Pompeia sport and cultural centre (1977–86). Instead of syntheses, Bo Bardi constructed antitheses. Do you think the term ‘agonistic architecture’ applies to her?
LW I would take issue with applying that term to Bo Bardi’s work. For one thing, as you’ve suggested, her buildings resist being pigeonholed. In my opinion, this is what all good architects and artists do, but Bo Bardi’s work is particularly characterized by the individual nature of every one of her buildings, each one custom tailored to its function. Also, a term like ‘agonistic architecture’, which someone might have to look up in the dictionary, is contrary to Bo Bardi’s ethos. Her work was about creating buildings that everyone – from craftspeople to future inhabitants – could apprehend. Technical drawings are nowhere to be found in her work. Her sketches remind me of Andy Warhol’s early commercial illustrations: brightly coloured, cheerful, very playful and, above all, accessible to all. In another sense, you’re right, though. Bo Bardi demands quite a lot from the people who enter her buildings. You can see this clearly in her Teatro Oficina in São Paulo: every single square centimetre is part of the stage. This means not only that the audience sees the actors changing and putting on makeup, but also that the audience members themselves are part of the spectacle. It’s radical, and it’s uncomfortable. Bo Bardi described this theatre as her way of participating in politics. This might be part of what makes her so compelling today.
KR For me Warhol’s graphic design work demonstrates a certain striving for beauty of form, and ultimately for purity. By contrast, the caricature included in this show of Bo Bardi’s husband – the curator and art dealer Pietro Maria Bardi, who moved in the same circles as Mussolini during the fascist era – is wonderful precisely because it’s so carelessly sketched. When in doubt, Bo Bardi always opted for impurity. For example the collages in which she imagined the courtyard of the MASP as a busy urban space almost akin to a children’s playground were my favourite discoveries in the exhibition. She used coloured pencils and silver foil to suggest sculptural form – going far beyond typical design drafting. With the term ‘agonistic architecture’ I really didn’t intend to impose a uniform theoretical programme upon her, quite the opposite. What I mean to imply is her freedom from theoretical programmes altogether. Her unconditional openness to negotiation, both at the building site and in the work’s later use. Architecture that seeks to provide space for all voices also has tremendous potential to be positioned against ‘star architecture’ that can be reduced to well known signatures. Getting back to the show, what did you think of the exhibition design?
LW I actually liked the exhibition architecture. Architecture is just about the most difficult thing to present. All an exhibition can really do is show pale imitations of some-thing that the viewer really has to step into in order to understand. With their dull succession of innumerable plans, layouts and models, architecture exhibitions often end up being not only boring but also inaccessible to anyone lacking specialized knowledge. The show in Munich, by contrast, struck me as highly approachable. All of the text on the walls and banners was handwritten; I thought it made the information seem very personal which fits very well with Bo Bardi’s work. Details like a crossed-out word or the individual curve of a letter ‘a’ enlivened the texts. At least to me, this made them easier to read, while also leading me to read them in a more focused way. I also liked the exhibition’s presentation because it highlighted Bo Bardi’s status as one of the definitive architects of the 20th century. Though the show may have been somewhat white and museological, the bottom line is that it was her first major exhibition in Europe, and possibly the world, whereas her male colleagues – Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Oscar Niemeyer – seem to be venerated just about every month in a museum somewhere in the world. This is why I felt irritated by the small presentation of Bo Bardi at the Deutsches Architektur Zentrum in Berlin last year where they seemed to present her as the perfect inspiration for handmade dolls and quirky display cabinets. This absolutely does not do justice to her work. In fact, it trivializes it.
KR Bo Bardi is a figure easily romanticized. She lived in a tropical dream house and was a champion of the poor. She led a glamorous life while being a folk art enthusiast. For her there was no beauty without conflict. Her work in founding and directing the city of Salvador’s folk art museum was not exotic, it was political. She was not opposed to the possibilities of modernity. Rather she hoped to open up its emancipatory potential to society at large by connecting them to practices rooted in traditional crafts and folk beliefs. Her work’s rigour and precision in conjunction with the greatest possible openness is quite unique.
LW I see this openness as the very thing that makes Bo Bardi so current. Through her buildings, she created sites where people could gather informally; where it was acceptable to linger without having to do anything specific. In short, she designed the kinds of public spaces that have become woefully scarce, even though we now need them more than ever.
Translated by Jane Yager