são francisco de assis church - pampulha complex belo horizonte mg, brazil
The Pampulha architectural complex, designed by Oscar Niemeyer (1907- ) between 1942 and 1944, arose from a commission by the then mayor of Belo Horizonte, Juscelino Kubitschek (1902 – 1976) for the construction of a series of buildings around the artificial lake of Pampulha. The work provided for five buildings: a casino, an exclusive club, a popular dance hall, a church and a hotel, which was not realised. At the end of the project, the mayor added a summer weekend residence for him and his family. The project formed part of a modernisation plan for the city, which underwent major expansion in terms of space and population in the 1940s and 50s, translating into the creation of new suburbs such as Pampulha and Cidade Jardim, the residential zones of the elite. The creation of a university city (1944-1951) and an industrial district, named the Cidade Industrial [Industrial City], also date from this period. In Pampulha in particular, the municipal administration aimed to create a luxurious leisure location, with a casino and lake for nautical sports, in order to attract investment. For the execution of the project, Niemeyer drew on the collaboration of the structural engineer and poet, Joaquim Cardoso (1897 – 1978) and the landscaper Burle Marx (1909 – 1994).
The work was designed by Niemeyer as a complex, albeit one in which each element is seen as an independent and autonomous form. In addition, the buildings are conceived in strict relation with their surroundings, which provide a natural frame and inspiration for the designs and plans. The centre of the project, in accordance with the commission, had to be the casino. It was not by accident that it was the first element to be built. From the highest point of a peninsula, the casino building was conceived on the basis of an alternation of volumes, planes and curves, of plays of light and shadow. The rear block in a semi-circle established a counterpoint to the orthogonality of the games room. The rigour of the straight lines is broken by the curved wall on the ground floor and the irregular marquis. The vertical direction in which the window-sashes are placed is in turn opposed to the horizontality of the construction. The glass surfaces and the fine columns which support the marquis are other elements that give a lightness to the whole. The use of glass, also on the glass staircase which joins the restaurant to the terrace, is mobilised as a function of the light and the communication between interior and exterior.
In the Yacht Club and the Kubitschek House, Niemeyer returned to playing with volumes, in such a way that they appear at the same time to be merged together and individualised. We may also note the exterior/interior continuity as a fundamental element of the buildings. The façade in the form of a prow of a yacht refers to the nautical images popularised by Le Corbusier (1887 – 1966) in several of his works. The trapezoidal roof is in turn seen as a direct reference to the project of the Swiss architect for the Erazuriz residence in Chile (1930). If, in the casino and the yacht club, the curve is used as a counterpoint to the straight lines, in the ballroom, located on a small island close to the shore, the curve dominates. The sinuous marquis of concrete, whose lines are directly inspired by the curve of the island, becomes a central motif of Niemeyer’s architecture from this moment onwards.
The Church of São Francisco is considered the chef d’oeuvre of the set. In this work, the architect makes use of a new constructive solution: no longer the independent structure, with concrete flagstones supported on pillars, in accordance with the rationalist architectural lexicon, but a parabolic vault in reinforced concrete, a structure until then used in engineering works such as the aircraft hangar at Orly airport in Paris, by Eugène Freyssinet (1879 – 1962). Niemeyer appropriated a form dear to utilitarian constructions in order to explore its plastic and aesthetic possibilities. The use of the parabolic vault made it possible for a single element to be sufficient for the construction of the roof and walls. But, in any case, to concentrate attention on the mural of São Francisco [St. Francis], executed by Candido Portinari (1903 – 1962), which occupies the whole of the background wall, he shortens the vault, narrowing it in the direction of the altar. The play of light between the illuminated choir and the dark wood of the nave is another element that highlights the mural. Portinari was also the author of the white and blue tile composition, which covers the rear façade of the chapel. The deployment of the oblique curves and lines throughout the Church, on the façade and in the interior, confers an asymmetric and flexible character to it, which attests to the creative freedom of the architect, involved with the maximum exploration of artistic possibilities, and with the sculptural potential of reinforced concrete.
The Pampulha complex has become a milestone on modern architecture, both within Brazil and internationally. Various criticisms of the project were made, above all, the lack of any urban planning for the new suburb in which the works were located, and the lack of a social function of the work, a point underlined by Max Bill (1908 – 1994) in an interview with the magazine Habitat, No. 12, 1953. This criticism was rejected by Joaquim Cardoso in the same magazine in 1953: “…within Brazil, the Pampulha Complex is the first, and in a certain sense, perhaps the only one of a group of buildings with a collective and social aim: the casino itself, built with the immediate objective of exploiting games of chance, is not, by the layout of its elements, imperatively destined for this purpose: it is in fact a casino, but organically, is more suited to be a holiday complex for students or civil servants, rather than for professional players”. Disputes aside, the fact is that a series of difficulties accompanied the project and redefined it: the ban on gambling caused the casino to be transformed into a Museum of Fine Arts; the Dance Hall never functioned; the prohibition of the lake due to contamination by parasites prevented the practising of water sports and reduced the activity of the Yacht Club; finally, the chapel, the conception of which was by no means conventional, took time to be accepted by the Church, and remained unused for many years.