Lina Bo Bardi: Material Ideologies
Edited by Monica Ponce de Leon
Princeton Architectural Press, 2022

Who among architects is immune to the talents and charisma of Lina Bo Bardi? None at least that can be imagined from my admittedly remote outpost. 

If, like me, you were shown a meager clutch of images exposing the fever dream of SESC Pompeia in architecture school without much background or explanation on how the hell something like that exists (or if this reference is entirely unfamiliar to you), you will be grateful for Lina Bo Bardi: Material Ideologies, published by Princeton University Press as part of the Women in Design and Architecture Publication Series. The book is a selection of multidisciplinary essays that serve to document a 2018 conference of the same name, organized by the graduate student group Women in Design and Architecture at Princeton.

Lina Bo (1914–1992) was born and educated in Rome. She began her career during the National Fascist era and spent time in Milanese bomb shelters during WWII when “nothing was built, only destroyed,” while publishing designs, writing, and illustrations for popular and architectural magazines such as Domus

In 1946 she married art collector and journalist Pietro Maria Bardi and relocated to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she lived and worked for the rest of her life. In Brazil, Bo Bardi established herself as a principled advocate for Brazilian culture and manifested a robust and joyful architecture in its service, most notably with the Sao Paulo Museum of Art (Museu de Arte de São Paulo – MASP) and SESC Pompeia. 

As these essays make clear, Bo Bardi’s concerns never fit neatly within any particular discipline. Like her Italian contemporary Carlo Scarpa, her work is often embedded in existing structures, relied on close collaborations with artisans, extended into museum exhibition design, and existed in a parallel universe beside twentieth-century modernism writ large. Her desire to create a “poor” architecture that embraced and served all classes of people alienated her from her contemporaries. And, after all, she was an unaffiliated woman in a masculine profession and culture. Consequently, her name and work remained obscure outside of Brazil during her lifetime. Material Ideologies marks a culmination of scholarship and documentation that has continued to grow since her death. In her essay, Beatriz Colomina underscores this point as she writes: “Her shocking absence from all the canonic histories of modern architecture (from Tafuri to Frampton, to Colquhoun) has liberated her. She doesn’t fit their narrow moralistic stories. She breaks free. She confuses the discipline.”

The ideas that confused the discipline in the middle of the twentieth century are now defining its loftier aspirations. Bo Bardi sought connection to the natural world and a cultural inclusiveness well beyond what even today is considered good form—from celebrating cockroaches and eschewing climate control systems to presenting upcycled folk technologies, like light-bulb oil lamps, in museum shows. 

As a cultural concern, the Bardis embedded themselves within the milieu of modern art in Sao Paulo, determined to democratize the movement within the larger culture of Brazil. Adopting an avant-garde approach to exhibition design, Bo Bardi, also like Scarpa, removed framed artworks from their traditional placement on institutional walls and placed them on mobile easels on the floor. Béton brut cubes with wood wedges that support large panes of glass, from which the pieces are hung, operate as rhetorical devices themselves, employing raw materials and vernacular craft that sought to reduce the culture barrier between what is thought of as high and low craft. 

In the essay “Artifacts of Work,” Mike Cooter quotes Renato Anelli: “For the Bardis’ cultural initiatives, ancient art, and avant-garde production were equally valuable; they wrested monopoly control of cultural heritage from academics in order to destroy the ‘aura’ that prevented ordinary people from understanding works of art, which were shown as the product of ‘labor,’ although highly skilled labor; shown in a way that may be understood by the uninitiated.” 

But Bo Bardi herself is more direct and poetic on the topic, saying the easels are an attempt to “destroy the aura that always surrounds a museum, to present the work of art as work, as a prophecy of work at everyone’s reach.”

An original thinker at all scales, Bo Bardi did not shy away from larger projects. With the MASP, the mayor of Sao Paulo asked for a large ballroom with no columns to accompany the museum. Bo Bardi responded with a 70-meter structure of prestressed concrete that, at the time, was the largest free-spanning structure in the world. In her defense, however, Bo Bardi did argue against bigness for its own sake, stating: “Monumentality does not depend on ‘dimensions,’ as such. The Parthenon is monumental, despite its reduced scale. Fascist constructions (in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy) are not monumental but elephantine, in all their bloated arrogance, their defiance of logic. What I call monumental has nothing to do with size or ‘pomp’ but relates to a sense of collectivity, that is, a collective consciousness.”

Bo Bardi’s writing is an important component to understanding her ideas and approach. She wrote extensively in publications and for academic purposes, a good selection of which is compiled in Stones Against Diamonds, published by the Architectural Association in 2013. But where that publication lacked the images and supporting information with which to understand the context of many of Bo Bardi’s essays, Material Ideologies is inversely imbalanced, excluding any original writings in favor of extensive interpretations and short quotations. To be clear, the array of multidisciplinary perspectives very much helps to illuminate Bo Bardi’s life and work. But one does get the feeling that Bo Bardi has become something of a ghost in the works here, haunting the pages but present only by proxy, in service to the specialist rhetoric of academic and artistic pursuits. Her writing is direct and spare, if not terse, and conveys a sense of her personality and style that I did not glean from this collection of essays. Even if other monographs already exist that cover the same territory, I believe the inclusion of an original essay or two could have helped to establish Bo Bardi’s agency within her own legacy. 

Where Bo Bardi does come through directly, however, is in the many sketches and drawings shown throughout. She imagines the buildings as overgrown and demonstrates her attention to how plants, animals, and people will genuinely occupy the spaces she designs. Mike Cooter gamely points out that even graffiti makes an appearance in a drawing of the public courtyard of the MASP, showing “reclamation as a design intention.” 

While the scholarship of the essays is strong throughout, the images can feel downright profound. One colleague relates that Bo Bardi would throw any drawing or model in the trash that anyone called pretty, but the built work has a raw and sculptural physicality that translates easily into magnetic imagery. The juxtapositions of scale, context, and program, as well as the blending of exterior and interior elements, are captured so thoughtfully and skillfully by Joana Franco, Jane Hall, and others, it’s easy to get lost in them. 

Much is made of Bo Bardi’s use of raw materials, primarily concrete, and their incorporation with natural elements. She was drawn to vernacular expressions and scaled masonry elements with seashells and small stones. The soft, playful curves of her signature punched openings were intentionally left open to the elements and serve as a standing challenge to architects today in terms of their inventiveness, audacity, and ethos. 

And ultimately it is the ethos, or ideology, of how materials are used and for what purpose that makes the legacy of an architect. Zeuler R. M. de A. Lima explains: “To [Bo Bardi], the basic material of architecture was human life instead of a building’s physical attributes … . The core of her legacy as an architect is not a formal vocabulary but rather an ideology: a value system and an attitude. She searched for a cultural authenticity that was both visionary and grounded in the history and traditions of the people and places for which she designed.”  

Stephen “Chick” Rabourn, AIA, is an architect in Marfa.

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