In April last year, a fire at the College City campus of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro set the second floor of a modernist building ablaze. That building, designed by Jorge Machado Moreira, housed the University of Architecture and Urbanism, whose Research and Documentation Center — or Núcleo de Pesquisa e Documentação (NPD) — contained archival equipment like cameras, scanners, and computers. It also held over 50,000 documents and 5,000 photographs recording more than 150 years of Brazilian architectural history. The papers included those associated with Brazilian modernist architects such as Lúcio Costa, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Roberto Burle Marx, and Moreira himself, as well as Europeans like Le Corbusier.
Earlier this month, the Getty Foundation granted $240,000 to the NPD to restore the archives damaged by the fire, which started in an air-conditioning unit. Founded in 1982, the NPD was established with the purpose of collecting documents important to the architectural history of Brazil.
“These collections are considered the most important architectural archives of modern Brazil’s Carioca School, so the conservation and long-term care of these priceless items is our highest priority,” Andrés Martín Passaro, an NPD coordinator, said in a statement. The Escola Carioca, a group of architects active from 1930 to 1960, drew inspiration from modernists like Le Corbusier while hybridizing that style with Luso-Brazilian elements.
For 18 months, a team of conservators and an archivist will work with students in the Conservation and Restoration department at the Escola de Belas Artes and the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism to restore the collections. This will involve preventative measures like situating them in a new temperature-stabilized environment, while assessing the condition of what remains and keeping up-to-date records on a database. Students and staff will also be trained in best practices for the conservation of the roughly 38,500 objects that survive.
“While soot and water permanently harmed a significant number of items and the Center is now unusable, we can take comfort in knowing the bulk of our collection will be given a new home with suitable environmental conditions,” Passaro continued.
In recent years, preventable blazes at Brazil’s museums and cultural institutions have occurred with upsetting regularity. In 2018, a fire at Brazil’s National Museum eviscerated 90% of its collection, destroying one of the largest museums of natural history and anthropology in the Americas overnight. Among the many artifacts damaged were “Luzia,” the oldest human fossil in the Americas, and the most extensive Egyptian collection in the Americas. In July 2021, a fire enveloped the Cinemateca Brasileira, Brazil’s foremost archive for film and television — an inevitability that many had apprehensively predicted given deep budget cuts and an observable pattern of negligence toward arts and culture under the governing regime.
The grant is the latest one in Getty’s Keeping it Modern initiative, which supports conservation efforts for modernist buildings worldwide. The conservation of the site of the NPD is important not only because it represents a significant building preservation in its own right. Its materials are additionally critical to preservation professionals, who “rely on collections like these to care for modern buildings,” São Paulo-based preservation architect Silvio Oksman said in the statement. Getty indicated in a press release that it is currently doing conservation work on 77 sites, a majority of which “involve the development of conservation management plans that draw heavily on archival materials such as those housed in the Jorge Machado Moreira building.”