It’s often been said that you can glean an insight into the aspirations of a society by looking at its buildings. And yet architecture can be misleading — particularly in a country as contradictory as Brazil.
Brazilian architecture first made its mark in the 1930s with the blistering debut of Oscar Niemeyer. His Brutalist buildings shot up like curvy concrete dreams —as bold in their sinuosity as they were in their hopes of bringing about a socialist utopia. While the latter was never realised, Niemeyer did establish concrete as the material du jour of Brazilian modernism. A symbol of power and permanence, it took on an almost reverent significance — the only material capable of taming Brazil’s Atlantic forests.
The years that followed were neither so glamorous nor as audacious. Concrete continued to eat its way through the jungle, connecting the prosperous south with the ancient forests of the North.
Several major infrastructure projects began only to be forgotten. Sewn into each of the contracts — be it the Trans Amazonian railway or the Angra III Nuclear Plant — were ample opportunities for sticky fingered plundering by the Brazilian elite.
In 2019, Elaine Brum tapped into popular sentiment when she described Brazil as a “constructor of ruins” — a claim now poignantly underscored by the festering Rio Olympic park.
So it might take readers by surprise to learn of a new architectural masterplan in Brazil’s North East.
In late January, Bjarke Ingels, of the all-star architecture firm, BIG, joined Jair Bolsonaro and a couple of cabinet cronies for a two-week tour of Brazil. Accompanied by investors from the Mexican group, Be-Nômade, they were here on a fact-finding mission to discuss the future of tourism in the country’s idyllic North East.
“”We have travelled Brazil’s northeast region with our collaborators from Nômade Group and met with local governors and mayors, as well as the relevant ministries of economy, culture and tourism and finally the president’s office to gauge the possibility of devising a holistic masterplan for the northeastern coastal states of Brazil to create ecologically and economically sustainable development,” Ingels affirmed .
News of the pairing initially took the media off guard, with portions of the design community immediately denouncing Ingels for fraternizing with a fascist.
While the allegation may ring true, in his impassioned defence, Ingels stumbles upon two important questions.
How we do deal with despots when it comes to international development? And is it ever possible to separate the project from the regime?
How better to impact the future of the region and the country than to plant the ideas we believe in at the highest level of government? Neither the president nor the ministers are our clients, but we are happy to share our ideas and ideals with a government that is willing to listen. As much as I would enjoy working in a bubble where everybody agrees with me, the places that can really benefit from our involvement are the places that are further from the ideals that we already hold. I love Brazil as a country, and I really want to see Brazil succeed.Bjarke Ingels
In this particular instance it helps to get a little bit of context on the area that Bozo and his cabinet cronies are looking to develop.
This is not a down-town region of San Fran, destined to morph into a slick Apple Campus, but rather an area larger than France, Spain and Greece combined.
Comprising nine giant states, 8 thousand kilometres of pristine beaches and the lowest human development index in the country, it is a beautiful yet complex region.
Critics most ardent claim is that such a grandiose plan would legitimise the government, opening the floodgates for investors to do business with the belligerent Jair Bolsonaro.
However, the essence of this project — described as a bare-foot tourism endeavour — seem to be entirely at odds with the slash and burn conservatism of the Bolsonaro government.
If it came into fruition it could be the start of a new era of architecture in Brazil — a chance to turn the page from some the Brutalist tenets that have proved so ecologically damaging.
And if Brazil is to wean itself off its dangerous dependency on commodities (and the corresponding ecocide that comes with them) it will need other service-based sectors.
Sustainable tourism – however oxymoronic that might sound – represents a viable alternative. Not only does it employ citizens of all education levels but its profits, for the most part, can be relied upon to remain local.
Another question that must be asked is if not Ingels, then who? This is a government who has committed itself to development at all costs, accused of inciting violence against whoever gets in their way.
The knee-jerk reaction to any figure as repugnant as Bolsonaro is isolation. And yet in sitting back and letting things fester, we surrender the possibility of a better future.
The proposed masterplan offers a vision that Brazil’s maligned north-east deserves, one rooted in community, renewables and a celebration of its culture.
At a time in which clowns and xenophobes occupy public office, perhaps its only right that we must rely on architects to build diplomatic bridges. But build we must. Because if public opinion is anything to go by, Bolsonaro is not going anywhere. And we let him trample over Brazil at our peril.