Two houses by João Vilanova Artigas

The Olga Baeta and Rubens de Mendonça houses were erected in a period of intense political debate in São Paulo, in Juscelino Kubitschek's Brazil.

 

Architecture / Lauro Cavalcanti

The houses for Olga Baeta (1956-57) and Rubens de Mendonça (1958- 59) belong to the second phase of the work of João Vilanova Artigas (1915-1985), the most important modernist architect of São Paulo. They were done at a particularly active moment in Brazil's history, a time that saw the competition for and the construction of the new capital, Brasilia. The country was experiencing an intense phase of democracy under the guidance of Juscelino Kubitschek (1902-1976), president from 1956 to 1961. It was, however, a contradictory democracy in that the Communist Party continued to be outlawed, a status to which it had been relegated in 1947 by a Superior Electoral Court decision, under the accusation of being an instrument of Soviet domination. In terms of architecture, there was an intense, ongoing debate about how the profession might best contribute to the social transformation of the country. Following in the footsteps of Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and his slogan "Architecture or Revolution" (1), there were many who felt a responsibility for constructing a new environment that would be able to effect change in people's lives. In the early '50s, Vilanova Artigas and Niemeyer, both militant communists, shared numerous points of view including recognising the futility of an architecture whose only contribution to capitalist society were reforms and repetitiously slapped-together buildings. They also asked themselves what they could do, professionally, while waiting for the revolution. Niemeyer rejected the idea of standardised architecture because, in a capitalist system, simplifying the appearances of buildings in order to facilitate their identical reproduction would lead to a lowering of quality without, however, helping the poor. He defended his freeform architecture because his aim as an architect was the advancement of technology, and as a citizen, he wished to engage in social revolution (2). In the first phase of his career, from 1937 to 1944, together with Duílio Marone, Artigas's studio and contracting business were very active. He made about 200 houses for private clients, clearly inspired by the Prairie Houses of Frank Lloyd Wright. Being a member of the Brazilian Communist Party since 1945 implied a certain level of doubt and self-criticism: "Where do we stand? What should we do? Should we hope for a new society by doing what we've always done? Or should we leave the profession and devote ourselves entirely to revolutionary life?" (3) With this dialectical approach, in addition to the struggle for a new society, he proposed a critical stance with regards to his profession as a way to achieve "a new spontaneity" created "as a direct interpretation of the real demands of the people" (4).

Rubens de Mendonça House. For the first time in an architectural project by Artigas, columns appear with a triangular section. He subsequently developed this theme in his projects for the São Paulo Football Club dressing rooms and the Anhembi Tennis Club, both constructed in 1961.

Starting in the late '40s, Artigas began taking an interest in the free forms of Affonso Eduardo Reidy (1909-1964) and Oscar Niemeyer. At the same time, he embarked on a search for originality of expression, which is clearly perceptible in some of his works, such as his second home (1949) and the bus station in Londrina (1950): elongated volumes with formal variations concentrated solely in the roofline. The quest for spontaneity was the basis for his houses. According to Artigas, "The city is a house and the house is a city." He liked to repeat how "in German, the verb 'to build', in its most ancient linguistic form, means both 'to be' and 'to live'"5. In the Baeta House, he calls into question two canons of modernist language in Brazil: the continuous flow between the street and interior space; and the removal, or concealment, of a sloping roof. In this case, there is a radical separation between the house and the urban environment, achieved by placing the garage and a blank wall at the front. The resulting form resembles that of a house with a traditional roof. The opacity of the walls stands in contrast to the openness towards the gardens, the visibility of the different levels, and the transparency between the various living areas. Only the bedrooms are closed off and private. The clear intent was to create a refuge, a special universe conceived and articulated according to non-traditional logic. In order to achieve a height of 4.5 metres in the living room and mezzanine without any internal supports, the structure of the house was held up by 3 parallel "porticoes" placed in a row. Two of them were square, structural walls within the concrete facades. The third, in the middle, was a system of pillars and beams connected to a central, reinforced concrete support column. Due to poor execution, the support column was later replaced by an improvised pillar on the house's exterior.

The two-storey Rubens de Mendonça House has an interior double-height space facing the hallway, which leads to the bedrooms

In 1988, the Baeta house was restored by Angelo Bucci, who rearranged the spatial division of the kitchen, bathroom and servants quarters, the latter having become obsolete. New, nearly full-height windows were inserted in the exposed concrete partitions, offering a solution that, beyond its aesthetic effect of great beauty, ensured a large amount of light and effectively sealed off odours. During a routine inspection of the walls while under construction, however, Bucci and his team discovered that the beam designed as a structural support for the central square had never been completed, therefore rendering the "portico" useless in terms of structure. Referring to Artigas's original sketches, they went back to the logic of the structure as originally planned, replacing the structural concrete with steel supports in order to showcase the different remodelling instances over time. This made it possible to extend the glazing over the entire surface of the side wall, which had been closed off to hide the improvised external support. In turn, it opened up a 360-degree view of the garden, lightening the overall composition, and also brought in more light to the mezzanine and living room.

The project observed the original colour scheme: blue for the structural elements (columns and walls), yellow and red for nonload- bearing walls, and a return to white for the entire ceiling in the living room, which had been partially painted brown in an earlier remodelling scheme. The gods of architecture were certainly in a good mood when, in 1996, the house was bought by Bucci's brother. Then he hired his sibling architect to work on the renovation. He accepted this difficult task and was able to return the house to an even more faithful version of the original design. Vilanova Artigas had always maintained close ties with the plastic arts.

Facing the road, the front of the Rubens de Mendonça House was treated as if it were a gigantic mural work of art. Vilanova Artigas involved Mário Gruber and Rebolo Gonzales in the design of the facades of the house for Rubens de Mendonça. “The fresco was created by Rebolo based on the studies I did with Gruber.” The geometric pattern on the building’s facade gave rise to the nickname “House of Triangles”. Here again, a colour theme was used: on the exterior, white and blue triangles are interspersed with pink panels.

The Rubens de Mendonça House, also known as the "House of Triangles", was the fruit of his collaboration with Mário Gruber (1927), Francisco Rebolo Gonzales (1902-1980), who made the fresco on the façade, and Waldemar Cordeiro (1925-1973), the leader of the Concrete Movement, who landscaped the garden. Concrete art used primary forms and colours only, and refused metaphors, abstractions and representations in artwork. Objects were meant to be exactly (concretely) as we see them, without alluding to elements from the "real world". Constructed on a sloping site, the Mendonça House was built on pillars of varying heights. The side entrance is located on the mezzanine, which immediately accentuates the rich interaction of space above and below the entrance hall, and the various dimensions of the interior volumes.

The west facade of the Olga and Sebastião Baeta Henriques House. The building’s profile reveals a slightly pitched roof; both the east and west fronts are compact and secluded, but to the north and south, the house opens up towards the garden through large, uninterrupted windows

Like in the Baeta House, the opacity of the outward-facing, windowless facades contrasts starkly with the transparency and airiness of the double-height ceilings and windows overlooking the gardens. The "House of the Triangles" celebrates geometry in every detail: from the volumes of the spaces to the fresco on the front façade, from the flooring pattern to the sections of the eight pillars, the walls and even the lawn in the garden. This Brazilian work of total art finds parallels and contrasts in two other Latin-American buildings: the Planchart House (1954) by Gio Ponti in Caracas and the Central Library of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico City (1952) by Juan O'Gorman, Gustavo Saavedra and Juan Velasco. The refined detailing in the Mendonça House closely associates it to Ponti's house in Venezuela, but the use of repetition places it in direct opposition to Ponti's quest for originality and individual symbolism in that same house.

The Baeta home’s study is partially below ground. Vilanova Artigas softened the brutality of the compact, solid forms in reinforced concrete through the use of primary colours: red, white, blue, yellow and black. In this way, he established a kind of hierarchy between the different elements of the building. The concrete stairs, for example, are painted black

The monumental artwork on the walls of the Mendonça House is similar to what O'Gorman did with the library, but where Artigas aspires to visually dynamic space, the library flaunts gargantuan figurations that were intended to serve the doctrine-driven propaganda that was then popular. The Baeta and Mendonça houses demonstrate how the pursuit of spontaneity brought Artigas to the conclusion that buildings must "renounce their immediate function, in favour of expressing that which is richest and most extraordinary about humankind, that is to say, the poetic vision of space".

Olga Baeta house: the dining room

Beyond their intrinsic value, these experiments were forerunners of what would prove to be the focus of his later work: the visual expression of structure, emphasis of the work's physical weight and the effort needed to support it, and the abolition of a syncopated rhythm consisting of solids and voids, replacing it with large windowless surfaces and the creation of transparency. Lauro Cavalcanti

Notes:
1. Le Corbusier, Vers une Architecture, Paris, G. Crès, 1923.
2. Lauro Cavalcanti, Moderno e Brasileiro: a história de uma nova linguagem na arquitetura (1930-60), Zahar, Rio de Janeiro, 2006.
3. João Vilanova Artigas, Os Caminhos da Arquitetura Moderna, 1952.
4. Idem op. cit.
5. João Vilanova Artigas, Arquitetura e Construção, magazine Acrópole no. 368.

The Baeta home’s study, partially below ground, seen from the outside

Born in 1915 in Curitiba, João Vilanova Artigas graduated as an engineer architect in 1937 from the Polytechnic University of São Paulo. In 1944 he joined the Communist Party; in 1948, he was among the founders of the School of Architecture and Planning of São Paulo (FAU-USP). In 1953 he travelled to the Soviet Union, but his disappointment with the country led him into a sort of personal crisis. After the military coup of 1964, Artigas was arrested and exiled to Uruguay. Only in 1979 did he return to teaching at FAU-USP. He died in 1985.

Architect and social anthropologist, Lauro Cavalcanti is the director of the Paço Imperial Museum in Rio de Janeiro. He has curated numerous exhibitions on modern Brazilian architecture, with particular attention to the work of Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Burle Marx. He is the author of the book When Brazil Was Modern: A Guide to Architecture, 1928-1960 (2003).