Revered architect and designer of the twentieth century, Lina Bo Bardi was an unstoppable force. Emigrating from Italy to Brazil in 1946, she played a pioneering role in shaping Modernist design in post-war Brazil. Lina Bo Bardi was perhaps best known and loved for bringing the arts to the people with her socially inclusive designs, forging a special kind of populist Modernism in Brazil which influenced the country’s culture in unprecedented ways. With the expressive humanist values of her Arquitetura Povera, she became one of Brazil’s most important designers. Unlike the immediate recognition of the names of Oscar Niemeyer or Lúcio Costa, Lina Bo Bardi remains one of the most underrated designers of her time. Ironically, she still largely remains academia’s carefully guarded secret, which, once unraveled, opens up a world dedicated to the everyday instead. Her greatest legacy ultimately lies in her creation of a culture for the people.
Italian Roots and Move to Brazil
Achillina Bo was born in Rome in 1914, where she also studied architecture. Among her professors were Marcello Piacentini and Gustavo Giovannoni, both strong proponents of fascist architecture which was mainstream in Italy at the time. After graduating in 1939, she moved to the more liberal city of Milan, where she worked with architect Carlo Pagani, as well as Gio Ponti. With the latter, she collaborated on the magazine Lo Stile, at the same time establishing her own architecture studio. However, a lack of work during the war and the destruction of her office in a bombing in 1943 marked the end of her brief attempt to work as an architect in Italy. During the hard economic times, she worked mostly as an illustrator for several magazines, before becoming the Deputy Director of Domus magazine.
In 1946, Achillina Bo married art critic, curator and collector Pietro Maria Bardi. After the end of the war, the Bardis moved to Brazil. Political concerns were the most probable cause for this upheaval, as Bardi was a prominent figure within the fascist regime, despite his left-wing inclinations. Shortly after the move, Lina and her husband co-founded the magazine, Habitat, through which they continued to express their artistic views. Pietro Bardi’s passion for Modernism – additionally fed by his personal connections with great Italian rationalists, as well as members of CIAM, most notably Le Corbusier – greatly influenced Lina’s early style as an architect and designer.
In 1951, the same year that she became a naturalized Brazilian citizen, Lina Bo Bardi completed her first built project. She designed her own home, the Glass House (Casa de Vidro) in the remnants of the rain forest surrounding São Paulo. Over time, the rain forest was regenerated, growing under and around the house. Elevated on pilotis, today the house floats among the treetops. It provides an example of her open-minded modern approach, in which she integrated elements of the local environment. Through the use of glass walls and internal courtyards, nature was also brought inside the home. The surrounding greenery provides a welcome and warm contrast to the steel and concrete structure suggesting the house’s Miesian and Corbusian influence.
In addition to her architectural work, Bo Bardi was known for her furniture designs. The economic boom of São Paolo and the slow but steady modernization of Brazil – which Lina had a hand in shaping – brought forth a new outlook on furniture design. In 1950, the first edition of Habitat featured an article titled ‘Moveis Novos’ (New Furniture) highlighted the necessity of skilled designers in this process.
“Whilst Brazilian architecture has developed considerably, the same cannot be said of the furniture. Architects, occupied with more urgent, frenzied construction in this country which is expanding with prodigious rapidity, do not have sufficient time to work on chairs. Such pieces require a technician, an architect, not a lady looking for distraction or an upholsterer, as many believe.”
The changing times called for simple and durable designs and in 1951, Lina Bo Bardi designed the iconic Bowl chair. It consisted of an upholstered semi-spherical seat which, disconnected from the metal ring upon which it sits, allows for adjustment. The freedom of the playful design enables the user to assume multiple positions for lounging and resting. The focus of the design was on human interaction. Although the Bowl chair didn’t enter the mass-production stage, a resurgence of interest in Lina’s work has brought the design back to life in recent years. A limited edition collection based on the original design is manufactured by Italian company Arper.
The same year, she designed the striking Bola de Latão armchair for her Glass house. With armrests capped with brass balls and a seat made of soft leather stretched over its iron frame, the chair is as much a sculpture as a functional piece of furniture.
The São Paulo Art Museum
A significant part of Lina Bo Bardi’s career is tied to the São Paulo Art Museum, established in 1947. The museum’s founder, Assis Chateaubriand, had a vision of creating an art collection of international standard in the prospering Brazilian city. The expert he hired for the realization of his plan was Pietro Maria Bardi. While Bardi would dedicate the rest of his life to the museum, Lina also played a large part in creating the museum’s identity. She was in charge of adapting the interior of an existing building for the museum’s first headquarters.
At the same time, she also designed a folding, stackable chair for use during events. The chair made from a local type of wood with a leather seat, though modern, was in line with Brazilian culture and climate. It merges two currents which can be distinguished in Lina’s work – her modern European roots, and the influence of the rich heritage of her adopted Brazil.
Eventually, the museum’s growing collection required a new building, one that reflected its modern nature. The only limitation was to preserve the plot as a “public place in perpetuity”. To that, Lina replied with a brilliant solution – to suspend the building in the air. The elevated structure, carried by four colossal pillars, enables public life to take place unimpeded. With a simple yet significant gesture, she created a plaza for gatherings and events, placing the user in the center of focus and inviting passers-by to feel the spirit of the building. It was a museum for the people which paved the way for perhaps the most important period of her career, marked by her “poor” architecture.
Just prior to designing the São Paulo Art Museum which was completed in 1968, Lina had been working and teaching in Salvador, Bahia. It was one of the poorest regions of Brazil, but one extremely rich in native culture. Of her opportunity to traverse this area, Lina wrote: “I made the most of my experience of five years in the Northeast of Brazil, a lesson of popular experience, not as folkloric romanticism but as an experiment in simplification.”
It was during this period of her life that her outlook on design changed and the refinement of the Glass house gave way to the rawness of the museum. She gifted her work to the ordinary people, naming it Arquitetura Povera. The culmination of her Poor Architecture: the leisure center “SESC Pompeia” designed in 1986, as well as the 1991 Teatro Oficina, elected the “best theatre in the world” by The Guardian’s Rowan Moore.
The evolution of Bo Bardi’s furniture designs evolved with her increasingly populist views. They became more simply designed, almost exclusively from local materials. The “SESC” chair – one of her final pieces – designed for her beloved leisure center completely embodies her late style. It is characterized by a simple and sturdy form made of solid wood – a lesson in unpretentious craftsmanship.
Her furniture designs were intrinsically linked to her architectural work and resulted from her thoroughly modern worldview. The sheer ambit of her career as an architect, designer, editor, illustrator, curator and teacher is impressive in itself. That’s without mentioning the lasting influence Lina’s passion-driven work had on the shaping of the identity of twentieth century Brazilian design. Yet the Brazilian culture and people left as much of an impact on her as she did on them. Together, they embarked on a decades-long journey of mutual growth, leaving behind an enduring legacy of socially responsible, uniquely Brazilian design.