The spotlight given to Lina Bo Bardi’s work leading up to her centennial last year revises one of the great oversights of 20th-century design history. Though the Italian-born architect who practiced most prominently in Brazil designed several monumental projects, her legacy had long been overshadowed by the likes of Niemeier and Costa. But to a contemporary eye, her work offers a humanist rejoinder to the grandiose forms of her male peers, and it has recently found a wider audience with a wave of monographs and exhibitions.
One small, but well-traveled show, Lina Bo Bardi: Together, conjures the architect’s embracing attitude toward her adopted country. The exhibition opened on Friday at the Graham Foundation in Chicago, its 10th venue since originating two years ago at the British Council Gallery in London and its first in the United States. For the exhibition, which runs through July 25, curator Noemi Blager commissioned three artists—OMA co-founder Madelon Vriesendorp, photographer Ioana Marinescu, and filmmaker Tapio Snellman—to create new work about Bo Bardi. She also called on the London-based collective Assemble to design the exhibition. The result is an evocative and idiosyncratic show that fills two floors of the Foundation’s home—a Prairie-style mansion completed in 1902—like a noisy crowd that has come in from the street.
On the ground floor, the majority of the work focuses on the architect’s own house, the Casa de Vidro, designed in 1951 and located in a posh and leafy district of São Paulo. Photographs by Marinescu show the Casa’s right angles framing tall trees—a Miesian courtyard house raised into the Brazilian foliage. The images are displayed in lightboxes elevated on metal stands, giving them a sharpness and a striking tropical brightness that contrasts with the mansion’s rich wood finishes. In one room, visitors can lounge in Bo Bardi’s Bowl Chairs (recently reissued by Arper) and get a sense of the intimate refuge from the chaotic city that the architect designed for herself.
But the repose is interrupted by the troupe of small objects—handmade metal devils, voodoo dolls, paper figures, a rather vulgar piggy bank, and various other crafts and ephemera—that parades throughout the show. Vriesendorp assembled these collections by holding workshops with Brazilian children that took place in Bo Bardi-designed buildings, where they made some of the objects and gathered others. The crafts provide a lively presence and represent heterogeneous Brazilian culture that the architect sought to invite into her work. But pulled from their context and displayed here, they can also feel like quaint curiosities, patronizing symbols a strange and colorful other.
The collections of objects are housed in Assemble-designed display cases made from chunky concrete and workaday metal, some of Bo Bardi’s preferred materials. These and other exhibition design elements are highlights of the show, as are a series of videos by Snellman that document the people of São Paulo inhabiting Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompéia cultural center. The dynamic complex, completed in 1982, includes a former factory converted into a café, ateliers, and other diverse public spaces, as well as three imposing towers of modest concrete that connect components of a sports complex with elevated bridges. In a succession of meditative and well-paced video snapshots, Snellman captures the wide range of activity—from swim practice to a rock show to a chess match—that take place at the center.
The filmmaker shows the SESC Pompéia bringing in a section of the city’s population that cuts across culture and class. Like the photos of Bo Bardi’s house, the videos portray a refuge from the bustling city—evoked in a frenetic video of São Paulo street life in the same gallery—but this one is open to everyone. The work gives a sense of the generosity behind Bo Bardi’s spaces, but like the show as a whole, they rely less on depicting architecture so much as creating an inviting atmosphere.
Lina Bo Bardi: Together runs through July 25 at the Graham Foundation.
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