On the Interpretation of Architecture
Applied Interpretation

Vol. 13, No. 1, May 2009


___Zeuler R. M. A. Lima
Saint Louis
  The Reverse of the Reverse:
Another Modernism according to Lina Bo Bardi


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Figure 1:
The Bardi House (1951), also know as the Glass House, designed by Lina Bo Bardi in Morumbi, São Paulo.
Photo by the author

  As Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi looked at the trees from her new suburban house built in the 1950s, she couldn’t see the convoluted landscape of São Paulo. Actually, she didn’t like the city very much. Her friend and Brazilian composer Caetano Veloso didn’t, either. And he wrote a song titled Sampa, which became the unofficial anthem to the city. He described his encounter with São Paulo in a minor, slow beat, by singing:

“[…]Who comes from another happy dream of city
Quickly learns to call you reality
Because you are the reverse of the reverse of the reverse of the reverse

This paradox translates well into the architecture of Lina Bo Bardi.

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Figure 2:
The Cirell House (1958) designed by Lina Bo Bardi in Morumbi, São Paulo.
Photo by the author
  Her contribution to design and theory offers an important resource for exploring what constitutes the other in architecture and across cultures. This meaningful relationship can be traced back to many works she produced, particularly in the correlation between two houses that she designed in the 1950s: the Bardi House, also known as the Glass House, and the Cirell House, which are useful examples for understanding her negotiation with modern rationalism. This parallel proposes a few theoretical considerations about how traditional centers and margins constitute elements of a rich, ambivalent process.

Lina Bo Bardi produced the reverse of the reverse throughout her career as she tried to reconcile differences in her thinking and practice. Her work reveals the dialogical condition of otherness not as the perception of the other isolated in itself, but mainly as the recognition of the other in one’s own personal and cultural identities. The combination between the exposure to a new country, Lina Bo Bardi´s education in Rome, and her work in Milan created the condition for a design and intellectual work that developed into a unique and contentious proposal for Brazilian modernism.

Lina Bo Bardi (Achillina di Enrico Bo) was born in Rome in 1914 and died in São Paulo in 1992. She was an outsider; even in Italy. She was provocative, contradictory, self-confident, and gloomy. She had awkward relationships with people and, yet, a generous sense of humanity. She spent most of her adult life in transit. She moved geographically, and her work and personal affiliations moved between different values.

She studied architecture in Rome and moved to Milan after graduating in 1939. During the Second World War, she collaborated in several editorial projects with Carlo Pagani and Giò Ponti. She was active in the debate around Le Corbusier’s analysis of the “house of man” and worked on a four-hand project with Pagani published by Domus magazine in 1944. Together, they proposed a genealogy of the modern house departing from traditional, anonymous, and improvised shelters. Shortly after, in collaboration with Bruno Zevi, they produced A, Cultural della Vita, a critical publication about modernization and reconstruction in post-war Italy.

In August 1946, Lina Bo Bardi married Pietro Maria Bardi, a controversial Roman gallery owner and art critic, sixteen years her senior, who had been one of the main advocate of architectural rationalism to in the early 1930s. Soon after their marriage, they left for South America. The trip was less a honey moon than an adventurous self-exile and a calculated enterprise to sell a large collection of artworks in Bardi’s possession. Their first stop in Brazil was their last one. Pietro Maria Bardi was invited to create and direct the Museum of Art of São Paulo (MASP), which became the couple’s life-long safe harbor and Lina Bo Bardi’s point of departure towards her maturity and the northern regions of Brazil.

The couple disembarked in a country that was experiencing a cosmopolitan cultural and economic project of modernization. This process was followed by the increase in social differences that kept large groups from having access to the benefits of modernization. Lina Bo Bardi was keen in observing this reality and responding to it with creative criticism. In her first years in Brazil, she worked closely to her husband in the design of the temporary facilities of the museum of art (MASP) and in a few small, private commissions. Together, they also started an important journalistic endeavor in 1950 with the creation of Habitat, an art and design magazine. Until 1954, she edited critical articles about Brazilian modernism. She also authored essays about how people in the outskirts of São Paulo and in remote regions of the country appropriated the environment and the material culture around them as a source of inventive simplicity. These lay practices constituted, to her, the context and source for an authentic Brazilian architecture.

Most of the buildings that she designed in Brazil are hybrid structures with elements of rationalism, folk, popular culture, and vernacular architecture. The two houses in question are part of a series of five built domestic projects, which increasingly stressed those values over time. While the out-looking, cosmopolitan Bardi House has enjoyed great public exposure in the last five decades, the Cirell house has remained obscured in its plainness and containment. Their conceptual distance and their historic and geographic proximity – they are located about two blocks from each other in Morumbi neighborhood in São Paulo – unveil Lina Bo Bardi’s ambiguous aspirations.

The Bardi House, her first built work at the age of 37, was initially intended to be, like the Bauhaus Meisterhäuser, one of six studio residences for the Contemporary Art Institute affiliated to the downtown museum. However, only one of the houses was built in 1951 and it became the director’s residence without ever having served its pedagogical purpose. The Cirell House was the private property of Valéria and Renato Cirell, some of Lina Bo Bardi’s closest friends since her arrival in Brazil. This house was built in 1958 following her trip to Barcelona and her correspondence and disagreement with Bruno Zevi about Frank Lloyd Wright and his ideas toward organic architecture. More than Wright, Gaudì had become her reference for the relationship between architecture and nature.

The first sketches for the Bardi House show a square plan and hybrid structure.[2] These initial drawings try to reconcile the typologies of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Brazilian modern architecture with natural materials, tropical climate, and traditional uses of collective domestic space. A single volume sits undecidedly between the top of the hill and four wooden stilts over stone or concrete foundations. The first sketches produced for the Cirell House are less conciliatory. They strongly invest in vernacular principles from the start. The small house is grounded by thick load-bearing walls, and it embraces vernacular and natural elements such as the surrounding vegetation and a roof garden, a central fireplace, water gargoyles, and a rustic thatched-roof porch, initially elevated from the ground.

These operations, like the essays Lina Bo Bardi wrote for Habitat, translate, transpose and update elements of the earlier architectural debate in Italy in the 1930s and 1940s to Brazil. Her Italian background suited the political climate of romantic, revolutionary sensibilities of the left in “search for an authentic Brazilian people
, better than the architectural mainstream of Brazil in the 1950s. Her attempts to negotiate between her Italian and her Brazilian experiences displaced origin and destination, source and effect by appropriating and simultaneously rejecting traditional and modern forms.

The Bardi House was created when Lina Bo Bardi was still working very closely to her husband, a strong supporter of rationalism, who had great influence on the decisions made by the couple.[3] She also counted with the help of Russian émigré architect Gregori Warchavchik[4] for the construction drawings and site choice. The Cirell House, however, was created by Lina Bo Bardi alone, after seven years of personal and professional changes.

In the construction of the Bardi House there are no traces of the naturalistic elements and rougher materials that appear in Lina Bo Bardi’s early sketches, such as the stone foundations and the wood frame. The ambivalence of the house is more subtle. A more careful look reveals that the frontal, transparent, hovering structure is conceptually anchored not only by defiantly narrow pilotis, but also by two opaque volumes that emulate the simplicity of Brazilian rural houses with white-washed walls and trellised shutter windows.

Historically, the reception of the Bardi House in most publications has highlighted the glazed, elevated structure and secured its crystalline, popular denomination as the Glass House. This fact has eclipsed the ambivalent nature of the project and dissimulated its internal contradictions. The building is not only a glass house, it is also the result of the negotiation between conceptions of modernism that are, on the one side, abstract and rationalist and, on the other side, culturalist and naturalistic.

The Cirell house presents Lina Bo Bardi’s ambivalence more forcefully. Regular geometries coexist with natural materials and simple construction techniques. The structure of the porches around the house brought back, seven years later, the first ideas for the wooden pilotis that she had initially imagined for the Bardi House. Some of her drawings even show the Cirell House in two levels and partly elevated from the ground. The use of rough finishes that come from her late encounter with Gaudi’s work, regular forms, wooden columns sitting on a rough concrete base, tree-like columns, thatched roofs, hard-wood floors, and vegetation inaugurated the synthesis of her intellectual and editorial work, which she later described as arquitetura pobre, or simple architecture.

The seven years that separate the creation of the Bardi House and the Cirell House was an important period in Lina Bo Bardi´s development. It represented her movement towards greater personal and professional autonomy consolidated in her experience in Salvador, the old colonial capital of the state of Bahia, after the late 1950s. This period was her opportunity to experiment and to materialize her ideas with other work partners released from her husband’s direct influence and from tight commitment to the mission of the Museum of Art of São Paulo.

Despite the obscure perception and the idealism of the Cirell House, it is genuinely representative of Lina Bo Bardi´s values and goals. The correlation with the shared work on the Bardi House allows us to expand – if not challenge – the reception that her work has had so far. Instead of promoting a variation of canonic modernism, her work and thinking fostered the simultaneous confrontation and appropriation of contradictory expressions. This effort cost her a long period of ostracism and misunderstanding in Brazil, and only recently has started to reemerge into the context of cultural and anthropological debates around architecture.

Lina Bo Bardi turned the identity of modernism from the inside out. Her two-way attitude and her transit in and out of different cultures offer a powerful example for decentralizing the concepts of modern and modernity and for revisiting their sense of transience. She triggered the continuous movement of “the reverse of the reverse” suggested in Caetano Veloso’s song. Her relationship to rationalism resonates with anthropologist Nestor García-Canclini’s analysis in Hybrid Cultures (1990) that emerged from the phenomenon of modernization in Latin America.[5] He is interested in the obliqueness that defines the relationship between culture and modernity. He explores how popular, folk culture resists and negotiates with the presence of the modern, destabilizing boundaries between educated, folk, and mass cultures.

García-Canclini defines hybrid practices as a set of strategies for entering and for leaving modernity. Lina Bo Bardi’s approach operates on the flip side of this reciprocal relationship, showing how modern culture and architecture appropriate and resist the presence of tradition and the everyday. Her attempt to bring the popular into her conception of the modern, in fact, simultaneously occurred with her attempt to leave modernism.  By doing so, she introduced a way to articulate what García-Canclini described as “the mistaken links [that the modern world] organized with the traditions it wanted to exclude or overcome in order to constitute itself"
.[6]  As Lina Bo Bardi’s work started to gain political overtones in the late 1950s, it exposed the conflict arising from the fact that cultural modernization in a country such as Brazil has historically represented a process of abstract inclusion and concrete exclusion.[7] She revealed the presence of what was made invisible by social stratification.  She was interested in the other that the cultural elites of the country had traditionally undermined and rejected in the construction of a modern nation state.

This kind of syncretism and the role of the otherness and difference can also be seen in the light of anthropologist Tim Mitchell’s (2000)[8] assessment of the complex origin of the modern in his definition of what modern is. Like Lina Bo Bardi, he is interested in the fleeting condition of modernity, which he defines as the staging of history. According to him, if the hypothesis that “modernity is not so much a stage of history but rather its staging, then it is a world particularly vulnerable to a certain kind of disruption or displacement[9]. This vulnerability opens modernity to possibilities of misrepresentation. Above all, it opens modernity to the production of difference, which is, we could add, the place where identity and otherness coexist.

To Mitchell, modernity “always remains an impossible unity, an incomplete universal. Each staging of the modern must be arranged to produce the unified, global history of modernity, yet each requires those forms of difference that introduce the possibility of a discrepancy, that return to undermine its unity and identity”.[10] He concludes by saying that “modernity becomes the unsuitable yet unavoidable name for all these discrepant histories".[11]

These disruptions represent the condition from which Lina Bo Bardi operated. However, the critical challenge to our discussion about other modernisms – if we follow a parallel with Mitchell's argument – is to expand the theorization of modernity into a globalizing context. We could do so not in a way to invert the narrative of modernization, but instead to enable it to become more complex[12]. This point could be further explored politically as we reconsider the role of the margin, the non-modern, and the excluded in architecture. To reexamine this relationship implies to investigate spatial situations created under asymmetrical power struggles in “a mobile process of rupture and re-inscription”.[13] The other appears as the element that provides the gap that makes internal differentiation or, as Mitchell suggests, “displacement, deferral and delay[14] possible in the indeterminacy of modernity.

As much as these arguments help us make sense of Lina Bo Bardi’s negotiation for entering and leaving modernity, they still face the open question posed to the discipline and the history of architecture today. The modernist project that informed Lina Bo Bardi’s work and conceptualization of modernity has become too fragile to face the industrialization of a worldwide symbolic economy, including architecture and its conservation. The transition from traditional, popular, and modern cultures into market and consumption cultures is complicated by the forms of cultural production that are often invested in maintaining the status quo instead of challenging the disjunctions and inequalities within modernity. Yet, if considered in its historic and geographic specificity – and not as a reproducible model – Lina Bo Bardi’s work may provide an important analogy for contemporary architectural design, scholarship, preservation, and historiography.

We can only call her modernism otherness if this term helps us understand modern architecture’s pluralism and complexity. After that, we should, as Foucault did for other purposes, reject it as a classificatory category. Lina Bo Bardi’s work as a searcher – a woman, itinerant and outsider – shaped an endeavor based on making sense of the paradox of modernization and modernity. The ambivalence in her work resembles the fleeting and critical sense of the modern, which Tim Mitchell describes as the “an instability always already at work in the production of modernity” (Mitchell, 2000, 17). Lina Bo Bardi was aware of this transient and critical condition. Her struggle with modernism shows that the modern has no simple and fixed origin, place or form, despite its aspiration for universality, completeness and singularity. In order to create and realize her project through a spatial and cultural practice, she was loyal to the belief that the role of architects is to negotiate with reality. Lina Bo Bardi herself, like Caetano Veloso in his song, came from another city, with another dream, and quickly identified another reality as her own. To her, too, this reality was the “reverse of the reverse of the reverse of the reverse.”






[1] In the original Portuguese, “... e quem vem de outro sonho feliz de cidade/ aprende depressa a chamar-te de realidade/ porque és o avesso do avesso do avesso do avesso.”

[2] The archival sketches are not dated and they likely were done between 1949 and 1950, when the Bardi couple elaborated the idea for the creation of the studios for the Contemporary Art Institute. See Archives of the Instituto Lina Bo e Pietro Maria Bardi.

[3] Even though there is little written evidence of Pietro Maria Bardi’s direct participation in the design process, Lina Bo Bardi’s appreciation of him and interviews with her sister and assistants confirm that Pietro was the one who tended to present academic rigor and strong ideas.

[4] Warchavchik is the Brazilian spelling for the phonetic English transliteration Warshawshki.

[5] Nestor García-Canclini (1990), Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 23.

[6] García-Canclini’s argument resonates with Tim Mitchell’s comment on Karl Marx’s demonstration of capitalist modernity as a system of force. Marx’s notion of “forcing history”, as Mitchell states, “tells us about the violence of modernity’s origins.  It is a question of asking what other histories must be overlooked in order to fit the non-West into the historical time of the West.” See Tim Mitchell (2000), “The Stage of Modernity”, in Questions of Modernity.

[7] This cultural gap has been a useful instrument applied by the dominant classes to preserve their hegemony. García-Canclini explains they have achieved this goal in written culture by controlling access to basic education and literacy, and that the elites supported an aristocratic form of visual culture through three complementary operations: the separation between arts and crafts based on the spiritualized concept of autonomous artistic creation, the control of meaning and circulation of cultural assets in official collections, and their contemplation as the only legitimate form of symbolic operation (Canclini, 1990, 67). 

[8] Tim Mitchell (2000), “The Stage of Modernity,” in Questions of Modernity, p. 11.

[9] Op.cit., p. 23.

[10] Op.cit., p. 24.

[11] Op.cit., p. 24.

[12] Op.cit., p. 7.

[13] Tim Mitchell complicates the relationship between West and non-West by stating that “to see modernity as a product not of the West but of its interaction with the non-West … [implies the risk of] assum[ing] the existence of the West and its exterior, long before the world’s identities had been divided into this neat, European-centered dualism.” This point poses profound questions to the way architectural education and practice has been carried out in the globalizing world in general and in the United States in particular in the last few decades. Tim Mitchell, op.cit., p. 3.

[14] Tim Mitchell, op.cit., p. 24.