Learning from Lina
This is a journey following the spatial and social aspects of Brazilian modernist Lina Bo Bardi’s most striking works. Questioning what it means to build for an ever-shifting present moment, Pia Brückner discovers that what makes Bardi’s work last through time is its continued usefulness for the many, not the few.
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Jan 3, 2024
Pia Brückner
Issue 2

After four years of studying architecture I had the great opportunity to spend a year in Berlin, I had the great opportunity to spend a year in São Paulo in 2018—time that became very intense and had a lasting effect on my attitude towards architecture. I believe hardly any other city raises as many exciting questions about the relationship between architecture and its context, about the values it should represent, and about the influence of architectural production on the social fabric. Brazilian modernism was a hopeful and dynamic epoch that lived the dream of a better society. Its proponents produced numerous masterpieces that, in the way they encapsulated local culture and social needs, still provide unprecedented inspiration for the problems that confront architecture in the present.

Before I went to Brazil, I started working in one office or another with all motivation and ideologies stemming from university. I got to know the sober reality of our construction practices today, its dependence on market interests, the enormous time and financial pressure, and the resulting designs. The discrepancy between architecture as it is taught at university and the reality of contemporary architectural production can disillusion a young architect on the way from the studio to the office. In any case, I felt disillusioned.

Bo Bardi and her husband Pietro Maria Bardi In their house, Casa de Vidro (1951)

In our inexorably globalizing and urbanizing world, where the big players of the market economy are exerting ever greater influence on creative processes, designers are finding it increasingly difficult to translate their ideals into design. In architecture, it is becoming harder to realize social ambitions or to respond to local cultures. Architectural discourse has criticized the emergence of characterless buildings that have lost touch with their places of origin and those that use them for years. As early as 1992, the French anthropologist Marc Augé addressed the emergence of so-called non-places in his book Non-Places — an introduction to supermodernity, referring to places and/or architectures that have lost their identity through the loss of their relation to the city, local culture, climatic conditions, and social needs; spaces that due to their unimportance and insignificance, give up the reference to their users, and primarily serve profit interests or the representation of the clients. We all know these places: Augé speaks of supermarkets, airports, shopping malls.

Coati restaurant in Ladeira da Misericórdia in Salvador de Bahía (1987)

These architectures, which have little or no social or aesthetic value, are now (almost thirty years after the publication of the book) having an increasing influence on the architectural appearance of our cities. The need for ever greater profit has led architects to focus more and more on market and consumer interests. Conceptional ideas and aesthetic and formal qualities are becoming increasingly irrelevant and run the risk of falling by the wayside. Against this background, it was enormously inspiring and encouraging for me to get to know the works of the Brazilian modernists. Brazilian modernism was driven by the unstoppable conviction that design can change society for the better. Its designs bear witness to a deep engagement with the social needs and culture of its time. This is why today, it still serves as an inspiration for meaningful architecture far beyond the borders of Latin America. Of all the great architects of this era, one in particular fascinated me the most: the Italian emigrée Lina Bo Bardi. With the following, I hope to pass on my enthusiasm for her work and her convictions and inspire you to take a closer look into the beauty of Brazilian modernism.

Respect for local culture

Lina Bo Bardi, born in Italy in 1914, was a member of the Communist Party and the Italian Resistance, openly opposing the dogma of the fascist government. In 1946, after she had to close her office during the Second World War, she decided to emigrate to Brazil with her husband, Pietro Maria Bardi. She came as a foreigner to a country that was still in conflict with its colonial past. Instead of being an advocate of the principles of European modernity in Brazil, she quickly became interested in local building practices and popular culture. As international modernism rapidly gained attention and popularity around the world, she didn’t see the ideas of time as set in stone but rather incorporated practices and arts in her designs that were far removed from the status quo of the artistic elite. In particular, her projects in Salvador de Bahia are strongly influenced by her sensitivity in dealing with local building culture and her attitude towards the past. While working as a museum director in Salvador, she was commissioned to convert two old buildings in the middle of the city into a center for Brazilian-African culture. She used elements of traditional African adobe construction to expand the existing buildings. Modern reinforced concrete structures stretching through the large old rooms are clad with traditionally woven palm leaves. However, her approach to the design of the Casa do Benin was not simply to copy traditional building methods, but instead to find out what meaning these practices could have for the present. She focused on preserving the atmosphere of the place, which was her idea of the historical present. Contrary to the widespread view that the success of Brazilian modernism can be traced back to the arrival of European modernism in Latin America, it is precisely this critical adaptation and further development of modernist principles that makes Brazilian architecture of this era so special.


Another important aspect of Lina Bo Bardi’s creative work was her unconventional approach to developing her designs. She never had an office in the classical sense. For many of her projects, she installed a temporary studio right where the buildings were constructed. The design of one of her most famous works, the SESC Pompeia in São Paulo, was primarily created on site. In this way, she was able to capture the atmosphere of the place, get to know the needs of the local residents and recognize the qualities of the surrounding buildings. She also worked in close contact with engineers and craftsmen; as she says, “do away with the ridiculous dichotomy between architects and engineers.” She had a humble attitude when it came to listening and learning. She never considered her academic knowledge untouchable. Her designs were never produced at an exclusive location and passed on to the executing trades as completed. They always emerged as a synthesis of her theoretical approach and the practical knowledge of all other parties involved. As a result, her projects have reached a level far beyond their aesthetic and formal qualities, which even today should serve as an example of how architects can position themselves in the creative process.

SESC Pompéia Factory in São Paulo (1986)

Building for the 99%

Alongside her sensitivity to the existing and her close contact with actors outside the architectural discipline, her social ambitions played a decisive role in the significance of the present in her projects. The SESC Pompeia clearly reveals all these ideals. The design task was to develop a cultural center on a large plot of land with several old factory buildings. Instead of demolishing the existing buildings and realizing her personal visions in a new design, as the client expected, she recognized the spatial qualities of the old halls and their historical significance. Sitting in the large halls, which Lina Bo Bardi called a public living room, one can feel the history of the building and establish a connection to the space. The various uses of the complex, from workshops and exhibitions to theaters and concerts, to sports halls and swimming pools, are absolutely inclusive.

In São Paulo, the tendency towards gated communities and the privatization of public space is increasing rapidly. More and more people are withdrawing from public space into private enclaves. In this context, the SESC offers extremely valuable space for social exchange and creative activity in a non-commercial context. The SESC functions like an oasis in the dense thicket of São Paulo and resists the appropriation of the city by commercial interests. Due to its accessibility and open and adaptable spaces, it is a project that does not serve to realize the architect’s personal vision or the client’s profit interests but instead pays full attention to the needs of its users.

Benin House Cultural Center in Salvador de Bahía, (1988)

By creating public open spaces that are freely accessible to everyone without barriers, Lina enables the population to freely appropriate spaces for political participation, social discourse, and cultural events. For the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo, one of her most famous works, she also placed the public sphere and accessibility at the center of her conceptual focus. The exhibition spaces are located in a big volume that hovers eight meters above the ground. This not only creates a structurally incredibly impressive project but also provides valuable urban open space on the ground in one of the city’s most important and densely populated streets. To this day, São Paulo’s most diverse actors use the site for concerts, markets, protests, and spontaneous gatherings. Buildings like this are proof of the great social value that well-designed architecture can have.

Lina Bo Bardi was as much a visionary as she was an advocate of the everyday, the simple, the down-to-earth. She lived the life of a successful architect, surrounded by the cultural elite of her time. And despite that, she always remained true to her ideal of creating buildings for everyone and a better future. She left behind a work that is timeless in its meaning for society and can teach us to this day how modesty, openness, and the ability to listen can add true value to creative work.

View of the Casa de Vidro (1951)
The illustrations are parts of drawings from the exhibition “Lina Bo Bardi Drawing” at the Fundació Joan Miró in 2019

This content was originally published in PRESENT
Issue 2

Pia Brückner works as an architect in Berlin. With a focus on challenging design and construction conventions to produce sustainable architecture, she works as a research and teaching assistant at the Chair for Construction of Professor Helga Blocksdorf. Together with Tobias Schrammek and Maximilian Becker she is currently founding an architectural practice, that wants to critically engage with current architectural production and develop new concepts for inclusive and forward-thinking architecture.

I met Dennis back in Cologne through Hermes Villena, Béla Pablo Janssen and the rest of the ComeTogether gang we used to run. Good times. I collaborated with Dennis many times before and it was a no-brainer to have him on board!
I was always fascinated by his mix of professions and passions, notably writing (fantastic) poetry and travel books and being a Jiu-Jitsu fighter and teacher. Also, shout-out’s to Sergio for the great layout!