In April 1989, the architect Lina Bo Bardi was honored with the first exhibition of her work. She was 74. The Universidade de São Paulo — the same school that, three decades earlier, had denied her a permanent teaching position — hosted a show highlighting her proposal for the urban revitalization of the historical center of Salvador, the first colonial capital of Brazil. Only recently had she begun to receive recognition for her long and prolific career as a designer, which began with her education in Rome, where she was born in 1914, and matured in Brazil, the country of her adopted citizenship, where she moved in 1946 and worked until her death in 1992. Crowning the São Paulo exhibition was her final lecture, a rare public appearance, which was the first time that most in the young audience had seen her in person.
Bo Bardi arrived late for the event. A large crowd chatted impatiently in the brightly lit auditorium. Constrained by arthritis, she walked slowly down the ramps and entered the lecture hall through a side door, climbing the steps onto the stage with some difficulty. There, a few guests welcomed her at the table. As she spoke into the microphone with her husky, Italian-accented Portuguese, the audience hushed. Though fragmented, her lecture was frank and sophisticated. She expressed concern about contemporary architectural education and criticism. Perhaps rebutting the narrow formalism that had kept her unusual work from being fully accepted by modern Brazilian architects, she spoke against a tradition that she traced back to the Enlightenment, a “set of classical rules that were codified in books and erudite treatises.” 1
“I would not say that those rules are as dangerous as Gropius thought,” she warned, “but they may disturb the creative education of architects when they are not well understood historically.” Instead, she suggested, “it is necessary to consider the past as a historical present, still alive,” and to “forge another ‘true’ present” that could not be found in books. She offered this advice to young architects: “When we design, even as a student, it is important that a building serves a purpose and that it has the connotation of use. It is necessary that the work does not fall from the sky over its inhabitants, but rather expresses a need.” In conclusion, she said, “You should always look for the ideal, decent object, which could also be defined by the old term ‘beauty.’”
Bo Bardi then welcomed the audience’s remarks. She noted, somewhat romantically, that she did not have an office, worked in the silence of the night, and spent her days on the construction site, “where the collaboration among all professionals is total.” When asked how a professional pedagogy could be created in which architects would serve all people, not merely the affluent classes, her answer was brisk: “The question is beautiful, but it is also a little naïve. Architects, like other professionals … depend on the country’s socioeconomic structure. In order to change, one needs to make a revolution.” Still, she acknowledged, idealism “is very beautiful, worthy of a man, of a real person.” Then she reported on her personal experience: “I never worked for the affluent classes.”
As the dialogue continued, Bo Bardi offered a synthesis of her life that reflected her controversial politics. In response to a question about navigating the dilemmas of democracy and authoritarianism, socialism and capitalism, and private and public initiatives, she said: “In Brazil, I have always done everything I wanted.” She added, “I never faced any obstacles, not even as a woman. That’s why I say I am Stalinist and anti-feminist.” She did not explain these provocative assertions, which were published in newspapers and contributed to her personal mythology. Not everyone understood that Bo Bardi considered Stalin a hero in the liberation of Italy from fascism, or that what she opposed about feminism was the women’s liberation movement, which she considered a bourgeois dispute. In fact, she admired an earlier generation who fought for equality, and she noted that among the poorer classes women always strove side by side with men.
When the conversation ended, the guests onstage stood up and applauded, as did the audience. Bo Bardi remained seated. The clapping filled the space and echoed within the concrete walls of the auditorium. She crossed her arms and pressed them down against her chest, resting her elbows over the sheets of paper piled on the table. This was the same stance she had taken a few years earlier when she presented her proposals for Salvador’s historic Pelourinho District to city administrators. In that meeting she had sat, arms crossed, covering the drawings she had prepared, and listened in silence to the officials’ political speeches. When they had finished, Bo Bardi rose up, told them their architectural approach was mistaken and pushed her colorful sketches to the center of the table, asserting that this was how it should be done. 2 Now — at her final lecture — she remained quiet.
The audience finally left the auditorium to visit the exhibition in the hall above, which revealed the methods of a designer who had an inclusive view of architecture and practiced it accordingly, with incursions into numerous fields. Bo Bardi associated the practice of architecture with everyday culture and its experience with the theater of life. She was against the idea that architecture and design education were problem-solving endeavors. Architects, she believed, did not need to know how to solve everything. They needed to know how to think innovatively about where to look for solutions. Above all, she believed that architects should embed their choices in the search for collective freedom and solidarity instead of in competition.
The São Paulo exhibition provided a mere glimpse of the vast and original body of work that emerged from Bo Bardi’s prolific but discontinuous and circuitous trajectory as architect, designer, illustrator, writer, editor and curator — first in Rome and Milan, and then in São Paulo, Salvador and Rio de Janeiro. More than two decades later, her legacy can be seen more clearly. This slideshow presents a broad selection of her architectural work, from her first built project, her own house (1952), to her last, an adaptive reuse project for the São Paulo City Hall (1992). 3
Throughout her career, Bo Bardi witnessed significant cultural and economic transitions marked by political tension and unequal social realities. When she graduated from architectural school, in 1939, Italian modern architecture was in crisis and the nation was about to enter World War II. She left Rome and followed her Milanese classmate and boyfriend Carlo Pagani to the more progressive north. Away from what she described as the stale environment of the capital, she received a second education in Milan, where she worked as an editor and freelance designer, struggling to create constructive alternatives and humanize design amid massive physical, social and moral devastation. In 1946, she decided, rather impulsively, to marry the influential art dealer and journalist Pietro Maria Bardi and join him in a commercial venture to sell his art collection in South America. She did not intend to leave Italy permanently, but in the new world she found a novel environment, rich with opportunity, and she collaborated with her husband in the creation of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), which would become a powerhouse for the renovation and diffusion of modern culture in Brazil.
Her first decade in São Paulo was the springboard for an independent career, which matured especially after she emerged from her husband’s shadow to become a museum director in Salvador de Bahia, in 1958. She brought her innovative ideas about culture, design and education to the Nordeste, an almost mythical region of the country, for which she developed a deep cultural and intellectual affinity. The opportunities for cultural renewal that Bo Bardi encountered in this remote and archaic region offered a stimulating context and new partnerships for materializing her longtime quest for an authentic expression of design and architecture. Personal and political conflicts, however, kept her from working in Salvador after the 1964 coup d’état, which installed a military regime that lasted two decades.
Back in São Paulo, disappointed and angry, Bo Bardi sought alternative work. She was occupied at first with the new MASP building, which was completed in 1968. In the following years, the harshest in Brazil’s recent history, her political and aesthetic positions became more radical, transforming her relationship to architecture. In the mid-1970s, when she was in her early 60s, Bo Bardi became involved with radical theater productions and socially experimental projects, which led to further distinctive design contributions. This interest lasted until the end of her life, while Brazilian and international architecture struggled with profound conceptual crises that had been unresolved since the end of World War II. “Despite the great years being over,” she declared at the time of her São Paulo exhibition, “I continue working.” 4
Bo Bardi’s writings and wide-ranging designs are insightful and engaging, yet also ambivalent and idiosyncratic, and they cannot be easily classified into a single framework. She searched for strong design concepts and relied on a simple formal vocabulary, but her output was not systematic. Though fewer than 20 of her architectural projects were built, their social and conceptual meaning is deep, broad, and in direct communication with the many other types of design she developed. Her work was based on experimentation and on the laborious process of developing and materializing programs that nurtured collective life, more than on the desire to produce a coherent professional portfolio. She invited those who read her articles, attended her lectures or experienced the spaces she designed to consider “architecture not as built work, but as possible means to be and to face [different] situations.” 5 She strove to produce work that embraced how people live.
Bo Bardi was loyal more to an emancipating concept of modernity than to the abstract, formal language of modern architecture. Her thinking and practice were situated at the intersection of different worldviews: north and south, city and hinterland, privilege and deprivation, modernism and tradition, past and present, abstraction and social realism. She progressed from a hesitant but ambitious early career in Italy to professional and intellectual maturity in Brazil, especially in the Nordeste, where she “learned that beauty, proportions, all these things are not important.” 6 Her life’s trajectory does not explain her work but made it possible. She remained faithful throughout her distinctive career to a process of self-renewal despite (or perhaps because of) the discontinuous means she employed, the unusual paths she pursued, and the wide-ranging collaborations she embraced. As she declared to a journalist who interviewed her in 1989, “I didn’t make myself alone. I am curious and this quality broadens my horizons.” Without hesitation, she added: “I am somehow special.” 7