Over the last seven years, Brazil undertook a countrywide mega-construction project that sparked discontent among the population and led many of the country's widely admired architects to wrinkle their noses in disgust.
The 12 stadiums, built or renovated for about $3.6 billion for the just-started World Cup, planned in secret and accessible mostly to well-to-do ticket-holders, flew in the face of the egalitarian aspirations that have dominated many of the country's street demonstrations since last June.
But in the background, a renaissance of Brazil's heroic-minded and intellectual architecture is taking place, after decades of lying dormant. Drawing on the country's bold, progressive tradition of aggressive concrete and urban engineering, a generation of architects is crafting new spaces at home in a more democratic spirit.
"Brazil is beginning to again appear on the international map, and architects, especially those in the São Paulo school (escola Paulista), have won awards," says Guilherme Wisnik, curator of Brazil's architecture Bienal. "And at home, we've seen the return of a kind of neo-modernism, with simplified geometric forms and an ethic that is disconnected from the practice of consumerism."
São Paulo, South America's largest city, has been dominated for decades by the unchecked explosion of profitable closed-off spaces whose visual manifestation — shockingly obvious to new arrivals here — is a city of dull skyscrapers stretching into the horizon in all directions with no open space in sight. "But over the last four years, public spaces are being used again," says Wisnik. "The grand source of optimism is the Praça das Artes. It will push the city further towards giving architecture its proper place in the city."
The Praça, designed by Francisco de Paiva Fanucci and Marcelo Carvalho Ferraz, open to the public but in its final stages of construction, is an imposing concrete arts complex downtown, a gritty and densely built area that was largely abandoned by the middle class when it fled to the suburbs.
Functioning as an extension of the city's Municipal Theatre and offering dance and music classes, the complex's confident straight lines and rough, exposed concrete surfaces recall São Paulo's enthusiastic Brutalist tradition. And the construction is entirely public, with the structure raised above street level, opening community space to entrances on three streets.
"We could have used columns to support the structure. But we wanted to leave [the ground level] entirely open, as if to denounce the spaces that are empty or unused in the city, all the spaces that could be occupied, all the passages that could be opened for pedestrians," says Ferraz. "If we architects can try to interpret the cry that is in the air throughout Brazil at the moment, I think it says, 'We want a city. The city is ours.'"
Brazil, unlike Spanish Latin America, had little of a European pre-modern architectural tradition, giving the country a relatively clean slate to take on audacious modernism at the start of the 20th century.
"Architecture in Brazil started modern," explains Angelo Bucci, one of the country's most celebrated new architects, who has taught at Harvard and UC Berkeley and runs a studio here. This direction took shape, he says, when architect Lúcio Costa brought master modernist Le Corbusier from France to Rio in 1936 to give lectures at the School of Fine Arts.
Brazil quickly moved to the center of the global modernist scene, particularly as Rio-born, lifelong communist Oscar Niemeyer famously injected Brazil's tropical sensuality into the grand, white concrete structures he designed here and the world. Concrete is cheap here as well as ideologically satisfying in its stripped-down functionality, and Brazil remains advanced at shaping it.
Niemeyer and Le Corbusier collaborated to create the geometric U.N. headquarters in New York, but the high-water mark of Brazil's utopian modernism was Brasília, the government capital built by Niemeyer and Costa from scratch in the middle of the massive country, often in futuristic, almost extraterrestrial curves.
With time, some lamented the coldness of the city, and as Brazil was plunged into military dictatorship and much of the world moved on into the "postmodern" style, architects such as João Vilanova Artigas, Paulo Mendes da Rocha and Lina Bo Bardi continued to incubate the modernist tradition.
More recently, Bucci completed on a much smaller scale a concrete pool house in São Paulo with raised and exposed concrete surrounded by a garden, providing a place for urban relaxation that feels open to the surroundings.
"In Brazil, there was an interesting dialogue taking place, and that dialogue is being taken on again now.... It's almost like we have a cemented, frozen modernism," says Bucci, who says the most interesting impulse of the current mood is to insert social life into Brazil's urban neighborhoods, including favelas. "If you could turn every slumhouse into a mansion, you'd still be missing something, and that's the right to live as a citizen."
He praises the CEU [Centro de Educação Unificada] centers in blighted parts of urban São Paulo, with their "schools for the children, but libraries, cinemas and equipment also open to the population.... That's the kind of implantation that creates citizenship."
Although the actual temples to soccer were all finished — just barely — in time for the games, the vast majority of infrastructure projects that promised to improve daily life, including road and airport upgrades and public transportation extensions, have not been completed. The stadiums are almost all huge and visually overpowering; some here refer to disparagingly as "Pharaonic."
In the Amazonian city of Manaus, the new Arena da Amazônia is probably the most striking structure in the region, built by German outfit GMP Architects, and features bright red and yellow seats on the inside the curved white exterior. But the city has no major league soccer team.
While protesters have complained of costs, architects complained of the way their designs were chosen. "How can you put on a public works project of that magnitude and not even open one public architecture selection process?" asks Bucci. "No one has heard of any of the architects who created those projects. The errors committed were flagrant."
Still, some here think the whole experience has paradoxically raised consciousness and improved long-term prospects. "In São Paulo now, there are skaters, artists, neighbors fighting over a small amount of public space. When there is conflict over space that's a clear sign people want to use it," says Wisnik. "That desire became clear during the demonstrations [around the World Cup]. They're a sign of change. If the World Cup had been put on, exactly like this, 10 years ago, there wouldn't have been any protests at all."