Lina Bo Bardi 100: Brazil’s Alternative Path to Modernism, edited by Andres Lepik and Vera Simone Bader. Hatje Cantz Verlag, October 2014, 368 pages, $65.

Lina Bo Bardi, by Zeuler R. M. de A. Lima with a foreword by Barry Bergdoll. New Haven: Yale University Press, November 2013, 256 pages, $65.

Stones Against Diamonds, by Lina Bo Bardi. London:Architectural Association, 2013, 132 pages.

Lina Bo Bardi is best known for the SESC Pompeia community center in S'o Paulo, completed when she was 72 years old, the culmination of a complex and contradictory bi-continental career. Now, two new books and the comprehensive catalog of a current exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of her birth trace her evolution from design journalist in Fascist Italy to advocate and builder for social needs in Brazil.

Born in Rome in 1914, Bo Bardi graduated from architecture school in Milan in 1939, just before Italy entered War War II. She spent the war years writing articles and drawing illustrations for commercial design magazines promoting “good taste” in home design and met Pietro Maria Bardi, a gallerist, critic, and art and architectural advisor to Mussolini. Eventually, she married him and followed him to Brazil, where Bardi he organized an art exhibition in the lobby of the new Ministry of Health and Education. There the couple met Assiss Chateaubriand, the São Paulo  media mogul who would sponsor Pietro as the founding director of the Museo de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) in 1947.

The Bardis settled in the Morumbi district of São Paulo where, in 1951 she designed their house, her first built architectural project. It was a hybrid structure combining a glazed living room on thin pilotis with a masonry “back.” Photos of the Glass House (actually the living room) were included in Henrique Mindlin’s 1956 survey of Brazilian architecture between 1937 and 1955, which was published to capitalize on the historic MoMA exhibition and catalogue Brazil Builds of 1943. Nevertheless, Bo Bardi remained on the margins of Brazilian architecture. Although her 1957 thesis failed to win her a faculty position at the University of São Paulo, it helped clarify her anti-formalist, humanist, and anthropological approach to design.

Invited to create and direct a new Modern Art Museum in Bahia (MAMB) in 1959, Bo Bardi encountered the extreme poverty of the Brazilian northeast, the resourcefulness of its inhabitants, and the local artists’ Movement for Popular Culture. This inspired her to include a Museum of Popular Art on the MAMB campus, which she created by renovating historic buildings on an old estate,in the city of Salvador.

Meanwhile, in São Paulo, she developed the design for MASP’s new building, her first emblematic project, which opened in 1968. Her scheme combined an underground building housing temporary exhibitions and an auditorium, with a bold, 243-foot-long structure that hovers 26 feet above the street to create a public plaza open to the city.

The SESC community center for Pompeia, a working-class neighborhood in São Paulo, opened in 1986 and remains the best expression of Bo Bardi’s mature ideas. For this complex of old and new structures, she renovated existing concrete factory sheds to accommodate cultural spaces for theater, dance, and art.  For sports activities, she built two connected high-rise structures whose irregular windows, seemingly punched through the concrete walls, reconnect the site with the city.  In the project’s nine years of design and realization, Bo Bardi worked daily in a field office she set up to better interact with assistants, engineers, and workers, and to design with their input all aspects of the project, from program to furniture. The only separate “office” she ever kept was a rustic shed she built behind her house six years before her death in 1992.

In her manner of work and in this, her most mature project, we can see the influence of her readings of Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire and of the Italian Marxist theoretician and politician Antonio Gramsci, in developing a democratic architecture oriented to and responsive to the needs of the poor.

There is very little overlap between the three books reviewed here. Zeuler Lima focuses on biography, while Stones Against Diamonds presents a selection of Bo Bardi’s writings, and the volume edited by Andres Lepik and Vera Simone Bader serves as the catalogue for an exhibition at the Architekturmuseum der TU München in the Pinakothek der Moderne that is running until February 22, 2015. The catalogue thoroughly documents. with plans and images, all of Bo Bardi’s built projects, and includes essays that discuss her professional partnership with her husband, and places the MASP in the context of European postwar architecture. (I would argue, though, that a comparison with the urban placement of Norman Foster’s HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong would be more fruitful). Together, the three publications elucidate the multifaceted career of an inspirational and polemic figure who is now finally finding well-deserved recognition.

Susana Torre is an architect and feminist scholar, who grew up in Argentina, practiced and taught in New York, and now lives in Carboneras, Spain.