The fact that Lina Bo Bardi (1914–1992) has so far received less critical and popular recognition in the US than in the rest of the Western world perhaps reveals more about the architectural culture in this country and elsewhere than about the architect herself.
Let’s remember that Lina Bo Bardi left Italy at the beginning of her career and that she remained, for a long time, marginal to the prevalent architectural discourse in her adopted country, Brazil.
Part of the long disregard, in Brazil, toward Lina Bo Bardi’s career had to do with the diversity and unevenness of her production, which escaped modernist categorizations, and part of it had to do with her uncompromising disposition, nuanced by the fact that she was a woman and a foreigner.
Lina Bo Bardi’s idiosyncratic work only started to receive wide recognition in Brazil at the end of her life, in the 1980s, especially due to the success of her project for SESC Pompeia leisure center in São Paulo.
Not only is SESC Pompeia leisure center Lina Bo Bardi’s most complex and accomplished work, it also introduced new vitality to the debate about modern architecture at the height of its ideological crisis.
Lina Bo Bardi proposed to reconsider the ethical principles of the modern movement during a period in which Brazil struggled with both political and economic crises amidst the international restructuring of capitalism, which enhanced the challenges faced by architects.
Lina Bo Bardi’s enduring praise of aesthetic simplification, lived experience, and historical awareness expressed in hybrid projects and thoughtful programs offered critical alternatives to the standardization of high modernism, the pastiche of postmodernism, and the aestheticization of minimalism.
By the time Lina Bo Bardi’s career was celebrated in Brazil, the country’s architectural production—similar to that of much of the southern hemisphere—had vanished from the focus of the narrow and competitive debate established between the two sides of the north Atlantic.
Between the 1980s and the early 2000s, the logic of neoliberalism dominated the international architectural culture, with the ascendance of celebrity designers and critics at the service of a high-end symbolic economy, the devaluation of cultural resistance, and dismissal of ethical-social concerns, all of which were antithetical to Lina Bo Bardi’s belief system.
As the world and especially the US entered a new economic and cultural crisis in the late 2000s, the claims, the cynicism, and the extravagances by the design star system have found a dead end, yielding visibility to practices and values that had been neglected for the last few decades. Perhaps these changes help us understand the increased interest in the US in the career of an architect such as Lina Bo Bardi.
Zeuler R. M. de A. Lima is an architect and associate professor of history, theory, and design at the School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of Lina Bo Bardi, recently published by Yale University Press.