When I was a kid, a museum meant a temple: a stone edifice filled with treasures whose cultural value were solidly grounded in scholarship. It upheld set values I couldn’t fully understand or question. Then I visited the Museum of Art, São Paulo (MASP) – Lina Bo Bardi’s landmark 1968 glass and concrete box, held aloft eight metres above Paulista Avenue by great red brackets – and all that melted away. It wasn’t just the building’s modernist form that made centuries of art appear weightless, but the interior display the Italian-born Bo Bardi had devised: tall, slender panes of glass, slotted into concrete blocks, upon which the museum’s collection hangs. I moved freely amongst the paintings on these cavaletes, unimpeded by walls that might proscribe my viewing experience. My exit route took me past the paintings’ scandalously exposed backsides, where I spotted artists’ signatures and labels from exhibitions long-forgotten: a visceral lesson in the objecthood of art.
The cavaletes form a central part of ‘Lina Bo Bardi: Habitat’, the touring leg of the architect’s retrospective, on view at the Museo Jumex, where they display a dozen masterworks – including paintings by Paul Cézanne and Tarsila do Amaral – on loan from MASP. When the exhibition first opened, it mostly showcased Bo Bardi’s haute-moderne furniture designs, which she produced from 1948 until her death in 1992. At Jumex, the exhibition, curated by Julieta González, focuses on Bo Bardi’s most famous architectural projects, from MASP to SESC Pompéia. Raw plywood walls raised a few centimetres off the floor, designed by the Mexican architect Frida Escobedo, feature irregular niches in which photographs and drawings are exhibited like an archaeological excavation.
Achillina Bo was born in Rome in 1914. Just a year after she moved to Milan to open her own design studio, at the age of 28, it was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid during World War II. She joined the antifascist resistance, hosting communist meetings in her home and, to support herself, began illustrating magazines, such as Domus, of which she became deputy editor in 1944. Shortly thereafter, Bo married the critic Pietro Maria Bardi and, in 1946, the newlyweds moved to São Paulo, at the behest of publishing magnate Assis Chateaubriand, to help establish an art museum for the growing metropolis. Several issues of Domus open the Jumex show alongside covers of Habitat, the magazine the Bardis co-founded for MASP in 1950, and from which the show takes its name.
Casa do Vidro (1951), the house Bo Bardi designed for herself and her husband on the outskirts of São Paulo, barely gets a mention at Jumex, though its form – raised on pilotis above the floor of a jungle – was an important prototype for MASP. Notably informed by the warmth and lush colour of its tropical setting, Bo Bardi’s Glass House offers a friendlier model of domesticity than its counterparts by Pierre Chareau and Philip Johnson. Instead, the show places emphasis on Bo Bardi’s designs for the Museum of Modern Art in Bahia, in Brazil’s poor northeast, which she ran as director from 1959–63. Housed in a former sugar mill, the museum’s meagre collection was installed alongside large holdings of popular art, a flattening of institutional hierarchies that became a hallmark of Bo Bardi’s practice. Viewing the museum’s mission as primarily educational, she staged productions of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (1928) and Albert Camus’s Caligula (1938) for working-class audiences, most of them the descendants of former slaves.
Later, in her essay ‘Five Years Among the “Whites”’ (1967), Bo Bardi decried the ‘cultural colonialism’ of the 1964 military coup, and the cloistered upper class that supported it, one that sounds all too familiar today.
When MASP opened at the height of the dictatorship, she curated the inaugural show, ‘A mão do povo brasileiro’ (The Hand of the Brazilian People); the exhibition presented a wide range of objects – including a wooden pail, an ex voto and a colonial painting – as being of equal aesthetic worth. Such an ethnographic approach is still considered radical.
The largest share of Jumex’s top-floor gallery focuses on Bo Bardi’s last major project, SESC Pompéia (1977–86), a large community centre complex in a former São Paulo drum factory. The red, amoebic windows and angular bridges of its sports and recreation buildings have a singular kind of brutalist whimsy. Reflecting pools wind through the concrete floors of its cafe and exhibition hall. At Jumex, photographs of these spaces are blown up as large wall vinyls, which can be viewed from rolling desk sets that fit together in neat cubes. A lifelong Marxist, Bo Bardi was less interested in what we might now term ‘accessibility’ than in the principles of collective ownership. Hers is free public space: the most revolutionary architecture of all.
Main Image: ‘Lina Bo Bardi: Habitat’, 2020, exhibition view, Museo Jumex, Mexico City. Courtesy: the artist and Museo Jumex, Mexico City; photograph: Ramiro Chaves
First published in Issue 211