Text: Monica Uszerowicz
Photos: Sandy DeWitt, courtesy of MCAD
It can be easy to identify where cultural romanticism becomes exploitation, by virtue of the fact it’s a real slippery slope. In 1946, Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi visited Brazil with her husband, and became deeply enamored with the spirit,traditions, and lifestyle of every aspect of the country. She became wholly enmeshed, stating, “When one is born, one chooses nothing: one just happens to be born. For this reason, Brazil is my country twice times over; it is my ‘country by choice,’ and I feel like a citizen of all its cities, from Cariri to the Minas Gerais Triangle, the cities in the countryside, and on its borders.” Bo Bardi would go on to use Brazilian artistic traditions in her own work, but it was through a love that’d prove pure–she’d soon dedicate much of her practice to serving the interests of the Brazilian populace.
There was a resolute quality in her love for the country, one that mirrored her approach to design and its meaning—for Bo Bardi, buildings were made for the people within, and all elements of design ought to be human-centric. Even her flexible, spherical Bowl Chair—recently reissued by Italian furniture brand Arper—was designed so the upholstered seat could balance on its metal shell any which way, adaptable for both lounging and formal sitting. “The artist’s freedom has always been ‘individual,’ but true freedom can only be collective,” she said. “Freedom aware of social responsibilities can knock down the frontiers of aesthetics.”
Lina Bo Bardi: Together, a traveling exhibition that recently made its Miami debut at the Miami Center for Architecture and Design (MCAD), narrows the wide scope of Bo Bardi’s practice to her singular, special focus on just that: how her acute awareness of her own social responsibility resulted in structures and workshops that gave back—psychologically, spatially—to the place she adored. “It’s less a retrospective than it is an overview of her life through the work of people inspired by her,” Ricardo Mor, Programs Coordinator at MCAD, told Ravelin.
Bo Bardi was born on December 5, 1914, in Rome, Italy, and graduated from the Rome College of Architecture in 1939. Until 1943, she worked with designer and architect Giò Ponti; throughout, she illustrated for various newspapers and eventually became Deputy Director of Domus magazine, becoming heavily involved with the Italian Communist Party. In 1946, she married Pietro Maria Bardi, an art critic and writer, with whom she traveled to Brazil later that year. There were only five years between their being welcomed by the Architects Institute of Brazil and Bo Bardi’s becoming a naturalized citizen of the country.
Bo Bardi’s spirit had an eclipsing effect, encompassing every medium with which she worked and transforming most of them into passion projects (education, furniture, fashion and stage design, and illustration among them). Together features the work of Madelon Vriesendorp, films by Tapio Snellman, and handcrafted objects culled by Vriesendorp from the markets of Salvador de Bahia–all noted for their connection to Bo Bardi’s practice. The exhibition, which has been traveling since 2012, was designed by Assemble studio, who were awarded the 2015 Turner Prize. Together’s Miami installation is the first since Assemble won the Turner; incidentally, MCAD was built the year of Bo Bardi’s birth. Assemble have divided the space utilizing heavy wool curtains, which feel initially oppressive but ultimately serve to guide visitors through the space’s two distinct halves.
Snellman’s films document the intimate details of Bo Bardi’s buildings, and the ways in which they teem with life. Snowcrete, concrete, and steel recur throughout Together, and one set of dual mini-screens is housed in a small concrete structure. Here, visitors can watch a film of a children’s art-and-handcraft workshop, conducted by Vriesendorp in the spirit of Bo Bardi’s own educational programs. These workshops took place in the Solar do Unhão, which once served as the transfer point for sugar shipments; Bo Bardi assisted with its refurbishment in 1963 and was responsible for moving the Museum of Modern Art of Bahia to the building. The kids are happily involved in the work itself, but explore the world outside the building, too. Similarly, in Snellman’s documentation of the Serviço Social do Comércio at Pompeia (SESC Pompeia)—whose Leisure Center Bo Bardi designed and opened in 1982—we see the building itself, but mostly its activity: punk shows, older men playing chess, dance performances. On another screen, there’s Snellman’s moving portrait of the São Paulo Museum of Art—Bo Bardi designed the glass and concrete headquarter structures in 1968—as if it were a living thing, patches of light illuminating its walls and visitors stomping in rain puddles outside. Structures, it seem, are larger than their walls and even their intended purposes—with people inside, like seeds, they grow. Bo Bardi expanded the artistic cultural relevance of the country she loved, simultaneously making it accessible to its people.
The objects created by the children in Vriesendorp’s workshop are on display in the exhibition’s second, brightly-lit half, inside concrete vitrines bursting with color. Above are Vriesendorp’s paper hands, gold and silver with painted nails, dangling from the ceiling with one pointed finger, some of them directing us to placards with quotes by Bo Bardi (many of which have already been included in this story). The hands directly reference Bo Bardi’s use of pointing fingers in her design blueprints; she’d use this to indicate an area of interest, rather than drawing a circle. Interestingly, the hands also resemble the mano fico (fig hand), an ancient and obscene gesture representing both sexual union and protection against the evil eye. It is found in both Roman and Brazilian history, and there’s a hand-carved one a few steps away, in the collection of items Vriesendorp purchased at a market. Arper-produced Bowl Chairs dot the space, as well as lightboxes showcasing the architect’s Casa de Vidro (Glass House). The Glass House, one of her first projects in Brazil, was Bo Bardi’s home. The transparent, stilted structure mirrors its lush surroundings, a tree in the center of its courtyard. Snellman has filmed the interior, too, capturing the journey up its stairs, the view from its windows.
The way Bo Bardi’s designs gave back to or worked with her adoptive community and, more significantly, the way it continues to, is uniquely rare. Time is often unkind to personal stories (especially a woman’s): their validity contested, their interests suddenly rendered self-serving. But like her buildings, Bo Bardi’s relevance continues to assert itself. She ascribed significance not to the universality of a culture, but to its particular qualities and specific needs—which might be the very essence of respect. “I believe in an international community of interests, in a concert of all the private voices,” she once said. “Now it makes no sense to think of a language that is common to all the people if each of them do not deepen their own roots, which are different.”
Lina Bo Bardi: Together is on view at the Miami Center for Architecture and Design through July 29, 2016.