photographs by nico oved
The Department Gallery Mainspace
August 5–28, 2010
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
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.
Thanks to everyone who assisted my shoots in Brazil:
Márcio Martins Melo
David and Marco Oved
Marcos and Henrique Siqueira
João Paulo da Mata
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 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
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.