- The Rise of Popular Modernism in Brazil
It is always very interesting to see how many people in architectural circles can talk fluently about Brazilian architecture. Conversations usually focus on the work of a very small group of modernist architects who were prolific in the middle years of the twentieth century. Indeed, to many it would seem ludicrous to attempt to discuss Brazilian architecture without dropping names such as Oscar Niemeyer, Lucio Costa, Eduardo Affonso Reidy, Roberto Burle Marx, João Batista Vilanova Artigas, and a few others of the same generation. However, Fernando Luiz Lara argues in this book that there are other architectures produced by the common people (and less famous architects) whose importance [End Page 580] in the development of Brazilian modernism has been ignored. I welcome this proposition with excitement.
Though in a slightly disorderly historical way—the discussion jumps back and forth between the 1950s and the 1960s—Lara gives an abbreviated account of the development of mainstream modernism in Brazil, examining in particular the way in which the formal repertoire of Brazilian modern architecture spread throughout the country. Such an expansion was not only geographical but also social and political: images of modern architecture were appropriated by the middle classes as well as (it is suggested) by less privileged sectors of the society, the working class. Thus, Lara demonstrates that in becoming the preferred style for housing among the middle class in most major Brazilian cities architects lost control over the dissemination of modernist architectural ideas. This caused great anxiety among architects, who proceeded to withdraw validity from these spontaneous architectures. Consequently, "popular modernist architecture" has seldom been examined academically.
In the first two sections of the book, Lara describes a research project carried out in two neighborhoods of Belo Horizonte. It is an interesting and enlightening account that unveils numerous issues about the history of the city. It explains the practical ways in which members of the middle class appropriated the modern architectural repertoire and so illustrates the transition from traditional (colonial and French republican) styles to modernism. In the process, Lara discusses the emergence of architectural ambiguities, houses whose planning was traditional even though they looked modern outside —a characteristic that can also be found in the modern houses of the social elites designed by architects. This unusual formal analysis of popular housing is, in my opinion, the most successful aspect of the book. It opens doors onto a wide range of issues that require urgent scholarly attention, namely the ways in which people have contributed to the development of cities in Brazil and other countries in Latin America. It is thus encouraging to know that there are architects continuing the work that Lara started ten years ago.
Lara subscribes to Jürgen Habermas's idea that modernity is an incomplete project and therefore argues that popular architectures are part of its continuous transformation and development. He makes this proposition in two disconcertingly separate parts of the book (sections 3 and 5). In the latter section Lara also introduces the notion of post-modernity as an alternative way to approach the proliferation of elements taken from modernist paradigmatic buildings across the country. These discussions provide a fertile ground theoretically to study Brazilian modernism but it is somewhat odd that they are separated. Though it can be argued in the context of Lara's own discussion that fragmentation is not necessarily a problem, the brevity of the book (which is one of its strengths) exacerbates the effects of its fragmentation, especially when the author peppers his narrative with theoretical excursuses in which he examines the concept of hybridity in both postcolonial theory (via Homi K. Bhabha and Edward Said) and postmodernism (via Néstor García Canclini). On the other hand, these theoretical discussions are not only useful, they are also necessary because they help to advance Latin American architectural studies. In that sense, Lara's book makes a contribution to the field. It will surely [End Page 581] have...