Wednesday, June 25, 2008


We returned to Belo Horizonte with the Canadians in tow to spend a week workshopping on modes of addressing runoff and structural damage resulting from water penetration. On our first night back at PUC, after an evening lecture from Fernando on issues of permeability and storm management, we met our student hosts. My host, Marcelo, was really wonderful. His family lives a bit outside the city in a neighborhood called Nossa Fazenda (“Our Farm”), and over the course of my stay we had a lot of great conversations during the commute in his bright yellow VW Gol (which can run on either gasoline or a sugar cane derived fuel.)

Halfway through the week we were taken on a tour of Acaba Mundo, the favela which would be the site for our final proposals. The tour was lead by members of the community and city workers who are active there. The houses are densely packed and crawl up a steep incline, nestled between two streams which originate from springs in the hillside. A portion of the residences had recently been taken down as they were erected on sediment that is prone to mudslides during the rainy season. It was a tremendous opportunity to be invited there, and we constantly drew on that afternoon during the design process.

After a presentation of our collaborative work at the end of the week, we headed to the capital city of Brasilia. The city plan was designed in the 1950s by Lucio Costa, and it was mostly completed in just a few years. It is dominated by a symmetrical axis which runs from a giant broadcasting tower at one end to a lake at the other. Niemeyer’s iconic forms are everywhere, and the walk from one end to the other is marked by a procession of increasingly abstract structural expression.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


We left Belo Horizonte a few days after arriving, taking a bus for about 100 km to the outlying city of Ouro Preto. We stopped at a roadside cafe about halfway there that was festooned with folksy decorations and featured a small zoo in the back. These places are apparently common on the outskirts of BH, letting people know in an amusement park fashion that they are headed for the country.

Ouro Preto is located in a mountain range and has steep, twisting streets paved with hand cut bricks. It was the site of a major gold rush in the 18th century and was apparently the largest city in the Americas during this era, surpassing Boston and other commercial hubs further north. Despite its relatively small size, the city has 13 opulent churches whose construction was funded by the elite of the mining community. Most churches feature elaborate sculpted interiors and gold inlay, with the notable exception of the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosario, which was established by slaves and features interior decorations carved from wood and stone and decorated with local paints and dyes.

Ouro Preto was also the site of the Inconfidencia Mineira in 1789, a failed colonial independence movement which resulted in the hanging of one conspirator. This figure, known as Tiradentes, eventually became a major folk hero in Brazil, and there is a monument to him both in the central square of Ouro Preto, as well as at the end of the central axis in the capital of Brasilia.

We hiked up and down the streets, met our Canadian counterparts from Ryerson University, had a much needed Portuguese lesson, and made an excursion by steam powered train to the nearby city of Mariana, where we watched a seemingly endless procession of marching bands clog the streets.
Highlights include a pinup in the ground floor of Niemeyer's Hotel Grande, a piano recital in the oldest continually operating opera house in the Americas, a tour of a local gold mine, and dancing samba with some local students in a convenience store.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


We flew out of Sao Paulo after only a few days and headed for the city of Belo Horizonte in the state of Minas Gerais, a site which would serve as our base of operations for the duration of our studio. We spent our first day in a lakeside suburb just outside the city called Pampulha. It was designed in the 1940s by Brazil's patron saint of architecture, Oscar Niemeyer (who is still alive and practicing at 100 years of age). The project was commissioned by then-mayor Juscelino Kubitschek, who would later become president and oversee Niemeyer's work in the new capital of Brasilia in the late '50s.

The architecture was great, but the experience was overshadowed, I believe, by the sighting of a capybara resting beside the lake immediately outside the art museum. Thida informed me that, despite being the world's largest rodent (up to 140 lbs.), they are relatively easy prey for one who becomes stranded in the Amazon or an anonymous lakeside suburb. I believe her.

Afterward we returned to Belo Horizonte and saw the Pontificia Universidade Catolica de Minas Gerais (known as "PUC", pronounced "pooky"), the University were we would be doing our studio work. Tom attempted to order a cheeseburger and got this, which we later determined might be a type of panqueca:


We all flew through the night into Sao Paulo for our first day in Brazil. There was a thick blanket of fog in the morning as we landed, which gave everything a bit of a surreal quality. Seeing it lap against the base of the mountains around the airport, I really had no idea how close to the ground we were until we broke through and landed seconds later.

As we arrived downtown, the air cleared and we made our way through the hills of the city. Someone later remarked that parts felt like San Francisco--the topography is really quite dynamic, with steep inclines everywhere and pockets of unfamiliar vegetation breaking through the pavement. The city sits at a high altitude relative to its surroundings, and many of the highrises downtown have steel broadcasting antennae on their roofs which seem to be taller than the buildings on which they rest.

For the next few days, we would wander the city. The time went by in a satisfyingly slow pace despite all that we did. We got our first taste of the concrete gymnastics that Brazilian architects have occupied themselves with since Modernism's first landing in the mid 20th century, including Lina Bo Bardi's Sao Paulo Art Museum, Paulo Mendes da Rocha's Brazilian Museum of Sculpture and the gridded open-air monstrosity (monstrous in a good way) of the local University's Architecture building. We also saw several older structures, like the Neo Gothic Catedral da Se and many other Baroque and colonial era facades nestled into the more contemporary fabric of the city. Tried a few staples for the first time as well, including suco (fresh juice) and pao de queijo (cheese bread). Our first forays into Portuguese were greeted with polite amusement. The remaining hours were spent on the roof of our hotel, which featured a pool and an amazing view of downtown.