Design icons: Lina Bo Bardi

From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.

Lina Bo Bardi was broadcast on 11th September 2021. You can listen to the audio here.

Lina Bo Bardi is a perfect example of how place can shape the direction of our work. She was also a rarity: a female architect making headway in the boy’s club of mid-century modernism and an Italian making a mark on Brazilian design. She studied architecture in Rome under Marcello Piacentini, whose stripped classical buildings of the 1930s became emblematic of Mussolini’s Italy. After graduating, she worked alongside Gio Ponti in Milan, whose elegant Pirelli Tower of the early 1950s would show how beautiful a skyscraper could be. So when she arrived in Brazil in 1946 with her husband, she brought with her a wealth of experience in European modernism.

Her husband, the art critic, Pietro Bardi, was tasked to establish a new museum in Sao Paolo and they had imagined it would be a short trip of a year or so. It turned into a lifetime. Together they set up a new magazine called Habitat, a kind of personal manifesto of what they considered to be good design. It was occasionally critical of work by the rising stars of Brazilian architecture, Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer. When Bo Bardi designed their home, the Casa de vidro or Glass House, it was clear she had a more European outlook. The house was strikingly contemporary, a glass box slung high on stilts on a sloping parcel of land. While it brought some critical acclaim, it had none of the colour and shapeliness of buildings by Costa and Niemeyer.

Her next significant building was the monumental Museum of Art in Sao Paolo. Designed in the 1950s, it’s a Brutalist giant, with its main gallery suspended from a massive concrete frame, now painted red. The open space below was intended for temporary exhibitions but swiftly became a popular meeting place for everything from concerts to political rallies. Paintings inside were placed against glass and sculptures on acrylic stands, giving the gallery a magical appearance as though filled with floating artworks. This then was Bo Bardi embracing Brazilian free-thinking. 

Her relationship to Brazil continued to change as she explored and incorporated elements of its indigenous and colonial past. Her work ranged from furniture and jewellery to theatre design, including an actual theatre building. The softening of her hard-line modernism is seen in her refurbishment of an old steel drum factory in Sao Paolo in the late 1970s, the Fábrica da Pompéia, which she refashioned into a sports and cultural centre, keeping its weathered walls while adding new structures but giving all equal importance.  Refashioning old buildings became her passion. Bo Bardi died in her glass house in 1992 but it’s only in recent years that she has emerged from the long shadow cast by superstar Oscar Niemeyer as a powerful voice in Brazilian design, one who could blend old and new to create objects and buildings that still thrill. A woman with a melodious name, learning to sing a different tune.

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