A Concrete Symbol of Uplifting Ideals

Article excerpt

Brazil's Memorial da America Latina rises above controversy to preserve the collective cultural heritage of the hemisphere

Like many a new venture, Brazil's Memorial da America Latina had a tentative start. Perhaps that was fitting for a group of buildings that were to commemorate a continent's dreams of unity heretofore unrealized. And, are not grand architectural projects essentially dreams of unity too - earth to sky, concrete to glass, the natural world to the man-made? The Memorial's conception, construction, and first year were filled with arguments about cost, worth, and function. Controversies seemed to crop up constantly, from the buildings' lack of greenery, to the need for continual painting, to what damage - from extreme exposure to the sun - was being done to an important painting housed in one of the Memorial's shadeless buildings. Now that the Memorial is six years old, however, the debates have subsided.

Today, even the Memorial's most fervent critics cannot escape the fact that it exists - and works - as a cultural center. The city of Sao Paulo has learned to live with this collection of unconventional-looking white buildings. And, remarkably, little by little the Memorial is accomplishing its ideal - to help integrate Latin American nations that history drew apart.

The Memorial da America Latina was the brainchild of then-governor of the state of Sao Paulo, Orestes Quercia, who chose architect Oscar Niemeyer to design the Memorial and anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro to help form and guide its purpose and mission. Niemeyer, who designed much of Brasilia's public buildings - the presidential palace, congress, cathedral, and ministry of foreign relations - is world renown for his monumental buildings. He is the master of curves, of sinuous and writhing structures that captivate by their simple beauty, that dazzle by their size and majesty. And, the Memorial is Niemeyer at his best: curves and concrete, tinted-glass windows and concrete, mammoth size and concrete. Yet, while the form may hypnotize, function is another matter. It took twenty-six thousand cubic yards of concrete, and about twenty-two hundred tons of steel, to shape Niemeyer's vision. After the Memorial was finished, it was soon discovered that pedestrians were baking in the shadeless open spaces as they crossed from one serpentine building to another. Although the state government quickly added some palm trees, it is only fair to say that Niemeyer intended the large, open spaces to be areas for "civic" assembly.

Another problem was the white color of the buildings themselves, which are seasonally darkened by the combination of rain and pollution. Located in a large industrial city known for its seasonal downpours, the Memorial buildings only rarely appear snow white, as was intended.

Situated on the west side of Sao Paulo near the Barra Funda metro station - a futuristic complex among old buildings - the Memorial is divided in half by Avenida Mario de Andrade, named for the writer known as the father of Brazilian modernism who lived nearby in the first haft of the century. …