nico oved | photographer

photographs by nico oved

The Department Gallery Mainspace, Toronto
August 5–28, 2010


These are photographs of Brazilian buildings. But what they really investigate is construction as a representation of a group of people and their intentions. 

These photographs illustrate a Brazilian vernacular architecture found in four far-flung corners of the country – Rio's infamous hillside favelas, São Paulo's cortiços, a subsistence farming community in the flood plains of the Amazon and an isolated Bahian fishing village – and contrast it with a more familiar, high-minded architecture found in the master-planned city of Brasília. While the word 'vernacular' most commonly refers to a language or dialect spoken by ordinary people in a particular country or region, in this context it refers to architecture concerned with domestic and functional rather than monumental buildings.

Looking at these constructions, we see the contrast in both the intentions and psychology of their builders. While the public monuments in Brasília are inherently didactic – the whole city master-planned and construction completed before a single person moved in – they also represent a sort of optimistic and utopian outlook on behalf of their architect Oscar Niemeyer, who believed that many urban issues could be solved through intelligent design. 

On the other hand, in the four other locations photographed, we see buildings that are utilitarian – their only aesthetic follows their function in lockstep. On their face, these spaces can be depressing and reflect the pessimistic outlook of their builders: they passively shape themselves to the tough realities of their physical and socio-economic environment rather than seeking to actively shape that environment as Niemeyer's do. 

In a state such as Brazil, where bylaws and building codes are mostly notional, the pressures and needs of marginalized populations manifest themselves more easily in a tangible constructed environment. But it is also a place that has consistently yearned to demonstrate to the outside world its sophistication and development – often through audacious public architecture. In that sense, both the photographer and viewer of this exhibition are contemporary archeologists – attempting to investigate the everyday reality of people through the constructed spaces they occupy.


Favelas – Rio de Janeiro
While the debate over the origin of the favelas is ongoing, what we can be sure of is that the first and all subsequent favelas were occupied by people either unwelcome or forcibly removed from a more desirable elsewhere. They are massive squats that have grown into full-blown communities with varying levels of infrastructure and integration with the rest of the city over the last 100+ years. In Rio, the more than 1000 favelas are often spectacular sights to behold. Vidigal and Rocinha occupy either side of the Dois Irmãos mountain on the edge of Zona Sul in Rio. Vidigal overlooks the posh beach neighbourhoods of Ipanema and Leblon, making it the favela that most tourists first see from afar – the twinkling lights at night on the dark mountainside. Rocinha, rumoured to be Latin America's largest slum, could have anywhere from 150,000 to 400,000+ residents. It faces away from the city – but could really be a city in and of itself. Its size and proximity give it a notoriety and fame reflected in the three daily walking tours that take tourists through its winding passageways and staircases.

Cortiços – São Paulo
Cortiços differ from favelas in being large houses divided into small rooms or laneways lined with humble buildings sharing a single street address, rather than irregular squat neighbourhoods. In São Paulo, a city that has torn itself down and been rebuilt innumerable times over its 450 year existence, the cortiços bridge one epoch with another. Often the abandoned mansions of dead coffee or rubber Barons from the 19th Century, cortiços now house the city's underclass in a bricolage of opulent antique details and crude improvised renovations.

Cova da Onça, Bahia
Despite its isolation on the far side of an already remote island, Ilha Boipeba, Cova da Onça's buildings are perfect examples of the most common forms of rural and vernacular architecture found throughout Brazil. In Cova da Onça, Bahia #5, we see a half-complete house whose building methods are apparent: a cross-hatch of sticks form a frame which is then literally walled up with mud. Millions of rural Brazilians live in houses identical to this one.

Caburini, Amazonas
Caburini is a Amazonian subsistence farming community on the very edge of the river itself; population: 97. Like all riverbank communities in the Amazon, the residents of Caburini must deal with a river whose level changes by 15 meters between the dry and wet seasons. For this reason, all their buildings are built on high embankments, suspended above the ground on stilts. In the wet season, one must literally swim or paddle their way to a neighbour's house, as the water comes right up to the front door.

Brasília, DF
Designed and built to be the catalyst to open up and exploit Brazil's vast interior, Brasília was inaugurated as the country's new capital in 1960. Master-planned by urban planner Lúcio Costa and principal architect Oscar Niemeyer, the city was built in the shape of an airplane – itself a symbol of a modern industrial future. Two main avenues lined with identical government ministry buildings form the fuselage and terminate in the two houses of the Congressional Palace as the plane's cockpit. Meanwhile, two giant residential neighbourhoods fan out perpendicularly from the fuselage to form the plane's wings. These neighbourhoods are known as Asa Sul and Asa Norte – literally the North and South wings.


Special Thanks to everyone who assisted my shoots in Brazil:

Márcio Martins Melo
Zack Aders
David and Marco Oved
Tamsin L'Estrange
Marcio Januario
Marcos and Henrique Siqueira
João Paulo da Mata
Jorge Roman