Magazine article The Spectator

Baroque Swagger

Magazine article The Spectator

Baroque Swagger

Article excerpt

Architecture

Brazil Still Builds (Architectural Association, till 26 June)

The Art Nouveau Architecture of Riga (RIBA Heinz Gallery, till 25 July)

When students in Sao Paolo gathered in the faculty of architecture to protest against the military dictatorship of Brazil in 1970, the building could not be closed because it had no doors. A photograph of its central space, filled with seated demonstrators, is one of the images in the exhibition Brazil Still Builds at the Architectural Association. There is a political and a climatic lesson for architecture in this. Contrary to the disillusionment about modern architecture's social role, experienced so widely during the 1970s, it is possible for buildings to embody political ideas and make them apparent to the ordinary user as well as to the academic laden with books of French critical theory. The climatic lesson is perhaps a simpler one, that buildings without doors in northern climates may be less successful.

Brazilian architecture had a period of great energy from 1930 to 1964. The exhibition takes its title, somewhat disingenuously, from a New York exhibition and book, Brazil Builds, held in 1943. The AA exhibition looks at two architects and their projects, but only up to 1964, although it is evident in the giant recycling process that modern architecture has become at the end of the century that distance lends enchantment to the view. Some of these buildings, with curving plans, canted legs and areas of coloured mosaic, strike a contemporary chord and could easily present themselves as millennium projects in Cardiff or Salford. The joie de vivre of Affonso Reidy's Pedregulho neighbourhood housing in Rio de Janiero in 1947, with large trees growing on balconies, is compelling and even the idea of an indoor street in a long snaking housing block, which in England would surely have been an instant disaster, seems to make sense in a warmer climate. In 1943, when modern architecture in Europe -was almost non-existent, Brazil offered the world a baroque swagger and a sense of fun. The new state capital of Brasilia seems, on the other hand, to have been a fatal folie de grandeur, one of the causes of modern architecture's downfall, out of touch with human scale and need.

In the same way that Brazil can convey re-emergence into democracy through a selective architectural nostalgia, so can Latvia. …

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