Long associated with European cities, the style has history in other parts of the world, too. In Brazil, it reached a surprising apotheosis
.... there are virtually no closed spaces; it feels like a lung, distended with breath, or a heart pumping blood through an infinite loop of ventricles. “I decided to make no dead ends,” the architect says. “You can always be moving ahead.”
By the end of the last century, “moving ahead”1 in most parts of the world meant moving away from both the forms and politics of Brutalism — even, for the most part, in São Paulo. Consider, for instance, the house that the architect Ruy Ohtake built over the course of 25 years for his mother, the Japanese-Brazilian sculptor and painter Tomie Ohtake, which traces his defection from hard, straight lines to an architecture that, he says, could better represent his “country of colors.” The first part of the house, completed in 1970, is paradigmatic Paulista Brutalism: 3,875 continuous square feet of space, the low roof held up by thick concrete beams, with cell-like bedrooms at the center that force the house’s life into public areas. When Ohtake’s mother bought the neighboring property in 1992, he inserted paraboloid dividers, like Richard Serra sculptures painted in white and blue and yellow, to separate the stark dining room from a dim, cloistral library, its back wall a bank of windows barely withstanding an army of philodendrons. In the final addition, built in 1982, which expanded the house to 7,965 square feet, he opened a 59-foot diameter oval skylight and filled it with opaque glass, framing it in steel like the keel of a blimp. “The Paulista School looks backward,” Ohtake says. “In my work, I try to look toward the future.”
LIKE MODERNISM BEFORE it, Brutalism ultimately failed to bring about the change it had promised. In India, Nehru’s descendants consolidated wealth and power to become an outright political dynasty: May’s re-election of Narendra Modi, a right-wing demagogue, is nothing less than an outright rejection of Nehruvian socialism and secularism; the Indian Trade Promotion Organization’s overnight demolition two years ago of Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations, a Brutalist masterpiece completed in New Delhi in 1972, was that shift’s architectural analogue. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, political and economic turmoil in the late 1970s and early 1980s put an abrupt halt to public works projects — and the architecture they’d supported. In Cambodia, state-sponsored Brutalism ended with the rise of the Khmer Rouge in 1975. (Molyvann fled to Switzerland and worked for the United Nations until his return to Cambodia in 1991; many of his contemporaries were murdered.) Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Singapore-based architect and scholar Eric L’Heureux says, access to air conditioning and mass-produced materials like sheet glass rendered natural ventilation and brise-soleil obsolete. Not long after joining the ranks of rich nations in the early 1980s, Singapore followed the lead of the United States and Britain in tearing down many of its Brutalist buildings, replacing them with flashy private developments sealed off from the city by curtain walls (a travesty that continues today with the impending demolition of Pearl Bank Tower in favor of a high-end apartment complex). Such radically open architecture no longer had a place under governments that were encouraging the cultivation of private wealth over public good.
- 1. Five years before the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism’s completion in 1969, a military dictatorship, supported by the United States, came to power in Brazil. Artigas was exiled for a year and both he and Mendes da Rocha were temporarily stripped of their teaching posts. Despite its repressive politics, the regime oversaw a period of considerable economic growth, positioning itself as a new regional power, often in opposition to the American juggernaut steamrolling its way through Latin America. So whatever their political reservations, Artigas and Mendes da Rocha, committed to the city and to resistance against the United States, continued to build for the regime: The former designed schools and public housing projects while the latter crafted a dazzling national pavilion for the 1970 Expo Osaka in pure Paulista style — a sheet of concrete that barely brushed the ground. The historian Monica Junqueira de Camargo, a professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism, says that the dictatorship in those years “also wanted to be seen as progressive.” But like the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich producing triumphalist symphonies under Joseph Stalin, these architects still had their chamber works: “The beginning of the Paulista School was in houses,” says the scholar Marlene Acayaba, 70, whose 1987 book, “Houses in São Paulo, 1947-1975,” remains the essential text on the subject. “These houses were the laboratories.”