“Don’t go to São Paulo,” people told us, and out came the expletives: Concrete jungle, crime-ridden, rain-drenched. But we had a long-lost friend who'd fallen in love there, and just had to see her before we left Brazil. Squeezing in two days, the city came good and surprised us. After Rio’s tropical rain São Paulo's hot streets felt like holiday. People were generous, welcoming even, and the place had an air of community that London would envy. But I blame that on SESC Pompeia.
SESC is a Brazilian NGO that provides sporting and cultural activities, but to call this complex, in the São Paulo suburb of Pompeia, a leisure centre does it an injustice. I’d heard of SESC through Louise, my favourite Carioca, who is straight-up about the good and bad of places. This place felt good. Sure it's a concrete jungle: jungle, in the sense of a spot teeming with all kinds of life; concrete, in itsbrutalist towers which give it status and confidence. The city opened up to us and here we encountered all walks of life: a group of Grandmas celebrating a birthday barbecue; neighbours getting quiet time in the library; students shying from work in the beer hall; curators musing video art in the gallery; kids challenging each other to futsal in the gym. The place had soul.
It takes a certain genius to make a place like this — a savvy intuition for people, performance and architecture. Lina Bo Bardi, who created it, was a diverse talent: architect, editor, curator, designer. No wonder she found her home in Brazil, a country that hates to pigeon-hole and embraces improvisation as a matter of national pride. There’s a beloved term for it, ‘o jeitinho’ a way of achieving something by skilfully circumnavigating rules and conventions. So in this landscape of re-invention Lina flourished, and her ability to sway from architect to curator to editor to designer was celebrated. It’s always the spaces in between disciplines, those that defy definition, that create the freshest and most exciting projects. Here, boundaries are pushed and new approaches shaped that can move a whole society forward. That’s the field where Lina played. Perhaps her most pioneering work came in the cross-over between architecture and content (she didn’t like the word culture). It’s no mistake that so many of her most revered buildings are theatres, leisure centres, museums, galleries: platforms for curating and communicating content; places with a point of view.
Lina’s early forays into editorial could have something to do with it. Taking influence from her work at Domus and Habitat, and her husband as an editor and art critic, she was able to apply a sensitive approach to content in her architecture. It created spaces that allowed for multiple voices, that could be re-programmed by the people who would use them to make the space theirs. There’s a tendency in architectural practice to view content as ‘the soft stuff’ that comes in second place to the tangible and physical. The conversations, memories and community pride often have to yield to concrete, render and stone that makes ‘real’ buildings. But Lina flipped that dynamic and made places with soft power. Rather than intimidate activity, the soaring concrete towers at SESC Pompeia pump up the confidence of the football teams that play there, the clay roofs of the factory’s down below were kept to yield to memories of the sites’s past. “Brutal, but also delicate” is how her collaborator Marcelo Ferraz described it.
Something special lies at the sweet spot between people and a place, between a context and a culture. Lina had an intuition for it and knew exactly how powerful that magic could be. She called it ‘popular soul.’ It’s a quality that’s hard to define but one that arguably all her works are characterised by, and why they’re still considered so important today. Put simply, her buildings work because people love being in and among them. Lina succeeded in creating physical spaces that ‘speak’ to the people who inhabit them, and could spark an emotional connection that draws people to the places she made.
Lina today might be re-titled a ‘narrative designer’: someone who considers emotions and senses, poetry and stories within her palette and like a playwright weaves them into architectural space. The most successful storytellers know how to captivate, to move their audience, but most importantly to hand over the flame to others to make the make the story theirs. That’s where Lina’s content-driven architecture comes into play. She handles places like oral histories, platforms where a story or activity is passed from one person to the next until it becomes a ritual and myth founded in culture. From this approach the audience becomes the actor and ultimately the director.
“Deixa rolar,” Louise recommended before I headed out for Brazil. “Let it roll, don't plan too much and you'll see where your journey takes you” I relented. In that same ethos, the relaxed handover of control to allow for everyone else’s talents is Lina Bo Bardi’s legacy.
Love Lina's work? For more on Lina Bo Bardi...
Lina Bo Bardi Together
Lina Bo Bardi: Together is a travelling exhibit and events programme, and online archive paying tribute to Lina's capacity to engage with every facet of culture and see the potential in all manner of people.
As part of this year's London Festival of Architecture, the British Council and Central Saint Martins are hosting an event with opera director Finn Beames, Lina Bo Bardi Fellow 2015, to present his research following his trip to Brazil on Bo Bardi's approach to 'dramatising spaces'. Sign up here for the event on Friday 17 June.
Lina Bo Bardi Fellow 2016
The fourth and final year of the Fellowship will kick off next month, as Studio Julia are set to travel to Brazil to investigate Bo Bardi's editorial work as a compendium of her practice.