Visiting Scholar Seminar: Lauro Cavalcanti

Architecture of the Good Neighbors: Architectural Relations
between Brazil and the United States in the 1930s and 1940s
Seminar, 17 June 1999

Visiting Scholar Lauro Cavalcanti presents his research and book Modern and Brazilian: a reference guide on modern architecture from 1928 to 1961 which examines around 200 buildings and tries to shed a new light on the modern architectural history of Brazil and its relations with European countries and the United States.

Brazilian modern architecture has often been described in terms of the influence of European architects who had a renewing impact, especially French-Swiss Le Corbusier. In the research I have undertaken in 1996, I noticed that certain moments of exchange between the United States and Brazil – largely overlooked even to this day – were highly important in the Brazilian case for both the internal consolidation of the modern style and for the reaffirmation of its autonomy and development vis-à-vis the initial European models.

In the 1930s the architectural atmosphere was very lively in Brazil because the country was undergoing something of an economic boom; it attracted the interest of architects like Alfred Agache, Marcelo Piacentini, and Le Corbusier, who had still not found an opportunity to build on a large scale in Europe, then suffering a severe crisis because of the war effort. In 1938 Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer spent nearly a year in New York, neighbors of Wallace Harrison’s office at Rockefeller Center, to design the Brazilian Pavilion in the making one of the most important buildings of Brazilian modern architecture. The Brazilian Pavilion, despite using the basic vocabulary of the international movement, foretold future trends with the freedom of its ramp, the flexibility of its volumes, and the use of brises-soleils, thereby establishing a language of their own, already independent from that of Le Corbusier.

In the United States, the Good Neighbor Policy was in effect. The year 1940 saw the founding of the OCIAA (Office of the Coordination of Inter-American Affairs), under Nelson Rockefeller’s inspiration and command, aimed at extending U.S. political, economic and cultural influence over all of Latin America, with special attention to countries like Brazil that had trade partnerships with the Axis.

In many of its technical aspects Brazilian architecture owed a great deal to United States standards of plumbing and elevators in tall structures; the major contribution of the United States was of a different order: it has encouraged Brazilian architects to keep distance from the European canons through the recognition of the importance of their work, giving them a worldwide diffusion that, otherwise, they would not have had so quickly. From the early 1950s on, the modernism Americas had imported from Europe earlier became a more pluralistic style, and traveled the Atlantic in the converse direction.

Lauro Cavalcanti was director of the Center for Heritage and Contemporary Art (Paço Imperial) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 1998, he was appointed professor in charge of the program of theory and history of contemporary architecture at the University of Rio de Janeiro.

Lauro Cavalcanti was a Visiting Scholar at the CCA in 1999.


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