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SÃO PAULO — The drive up to Lina Bo Bardi’s Casa de Vidro, or Glass House, is steep. Located in the wealthy Morumbi neighborhood of São Paulo, the house was once surrounded by the remnants of the Atlantic Forest. When Bo Bardi built her house, in 1950, it was practically the only one; armadillo and wild cats still roamed the grounds. It was hard to picture this when I visited, passing by the tall gated homes that are shielded from the surrounding slums — a sadly typical scenario in Brazil’s largest cities.
Still, once I reached the top of the hill, I felt remote and enclosed in greenery. Bo Bardi maintained the topography of the area, and built the house on slim pilotis, which are blue and elegant, elevating the house and extending through the interior of the glass home. Inside, the columns blend with the tree trunks that act like another curtain to the outside world. Bo Bardi planted these now soaring trees, which frustrated her for not growing faster. In an essay about the house three years after building it, she writes:
This residence represents an attempt to arrive at a communion between nature and the natural order of things; I look to respect this natural order, with clarity, and never liked the closed house that turns away from the thunderstorm and the rain, fearful of all men.
The house was perhaps too exposed to the elements, as Bo Bardi and her husband shivered from the cold, and often kept the fireplace lit.
Born in Rome, Bo Bardi escaped Fascist Italy for Brazil in 1946, at the age of 32. She came with her husband, the art critic and collector Pietro Maria Bardi. Already a practicing architect, the very first thing she built in the foreign country was her home, where she and her husband resided for 40 years.
Part of the joy in visiting an artist’s home is in seeing how their vision manifested in the everyday. I had heard of Bo Bardi’s vast and curious collection of jars, baskets, saints, tin foil lamps, saddlery objects, buckets, dolls, and clay figurines that spilled over the tops of tables and armoires, or even were arranged on the floor, neatly and purposefully. I was dismayed, however, to not see many of these objects during my visit.
According to the director of the Lina Bo and P.M. Bardi Institute, Renato Anelli, when Pietro died seven years after Lina, in 1999, the heirs of his first marriage demanded their share of their inheritance, and made an agreement with the institute. “As such, many of the artworks, furniture, and carpets went, leaving the living room with only a part of its decoration,” Anelli said. For a time, the objects in the house were reconfigured to fill the gaps; my architect sister visited during this period, and when I compare my own photos to hers (I’ve included a few in this article) it becomes clear that the living room has since been greatly emptied. “I prefer that we assume this void,” Anelli said. While I comprehend the decision, I can’t help but disagree with it. To leave the house mostly sparse betrays Bo Bardi’s character as an avid collector, for whom space was as much about its design as it was about how it was inhabited and adopted. More disconcerting, however, has been the choice to install the institute’s administrative offices in the corner of the living room, where rows of tall bookshelves previously stood.
This year, the institute did auspiciously receive a grant of $195,000 from the Getty Foundation for conserving modern architecture. It will support an 18-month technical evaluation of the house and its tropical environs. This will include a 3D laser scan of the area, led by the conservation lab at the University of Ferrara in Italy. While the house, which was most recently conserved in 1993, is in decent condition, glass does occasionally break and the stone annexes and walls have cracked. The largely artificial garden perhaps poses the most serious challenges. “It’s very big, and aggressive toward the house,” Anelli said. “Trees sometimes fall over the studio.” The assessment will try to determine the ideal size of plants, and which to eliminate.
The ultimate goal of the institute is to transform the Glass House into a museum. According to Anelli, they are still deliberating whether to build an annex for this purpose. The impulse to expand the premises is a reasonable one, given Bo Bardi’s archive of 15,000 photographs and 7,000 drawings.
The Bardis brought their extensive library and art collection with them from Italy, and once in Brazil, they continued to amass objects, particularly popular art from the northeastern state of Bahia, where Lina Bo Bardi lived and worked for a few years as the director of the Museum of Modern Art. The earlier photos of the house reveal the eclectic jumble of objects, from brilliant art nouveau vases and earthenware pots from the northeast of Brazil, to a plastic toy car and Baroque sculpture of an angel. The couple’s musical tastes were equally diverse, with found vinyl records by Duke Ellington and the Brazilian samba and bossa nova musician Dorival Caymmi.
Bo Bardi’s passion for, and even affinity with Brazilian culture was profound. While she carried her European heritage with her, she naturalized herself Brazilian, and famously said, “Brazil is the country I chose, and it is therefore twice my country. I was not born here, I looked for this place and decided to live here. I chose my country.”
In the past year, the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), which Bo Bardi designed and where her husband served as the director, has restored some of her vision for what constitutes art and its more flexible display. After 20 years, the museum has rehung the paintings in its main gallery, which range from European Medieval to today, as Bo Bardi had them: not on walls, but in the middle of the room, anchored in sheets of glass that lock into cement pedestals. As such, the paintings appear to float weightlessly, much like her home.
The museum has also remounted its inaugural exhibition of 1969, curated by Bo Bardi, titled The Hand of the Brazilian People. The collection of quotidian objects is not unlike those the architect collected: ex-votos, wooden spoons, toys, rustic chairs, and textiles. The museum has listed the exhibition as a radical example of “decolonizing the museum practice” by conceiving of manual work as an art form.
Even in her architecture, Bo Bardi’s approach was not solely aesthetic, but practical. This becomes especially clear in the kitchen of her home, where each detail was intended to reduce the burden of labor: the sink’s steel surfaces are easy to clean; the floor is a black tile; the trash travelled through a chute; there was an imported dishwasher; and the doorway is generously wide, to make carrying trays full of food easier.
The design of the Glass House is undeniably influenced by the open and pared-down architecture of the European modernists Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe; Bo Bardi kept Le Corbusier’s famous black chaise longue in her living room. But her architecture feels less cool and removed than that of her male peers; the roof subtly curves, and the rooms welcome and adapt to the body.
The house, in fact, was a famous gathering place for artists and intellectuals, both local and international — among them were Alexander Calder, John Cage, and Roberto Rossellini. Bo Bardi loved to cook, especially Brazilian dishes, like moqueca (a typical northeastern fish stew) and carne de sol (dried, salted meat). I imagine them in the back garden, by the stone oven with a brilliant green door, drinking lemon cocktails and maybe sitting on one of the steps of a handmade staircase, beneath the jackfruit trees. From this end of the house, its architecture has lost any resemblance to glassy modernism and mimics Brazilian colonial architecture with its handmade shutters.
Bo Bardi’s architecture and vision didn’t fall within a strict movement; she absorbed the modern sensibilities of her times, but without forgetting the past, or basic human needs for comfort. She once proclaimed the need to “combat the modernistic voice which goes, ‘The old doesn’t work any more’,” calling it a “dangerous generalization.” The design and appliances of the house are certainly sophisticated and technologically advanced for their time, but there are old technologies, too, like the individually crafted blue tiles on the living room floor, and a special appreciation for the knick knacks of the past. And while we can no longer see a faithful representation of what the interior rooms of Bo Bardi’s house once were, at least through a few photographs and what remains, we can imagine the person behind the glass.
Visits to Lina Bo Bardi’s Casa de Vidro (Glass House) (Rua General Almério de Moura, 200, São Paulo, Brazil) are by appointment only.
The Hand of the Brazilian People continues at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) (Av. Paulista, 1578 – Bela Vista, São Paulo, Brazil), through January 22, 2017.