By Monique Sager and Kahaari Kenyatta
The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, informally known as ‘Fiocruz’ and situated just outside the city limits of Rio de Janeiro, is Brazil’s premier public health institute. The Foundation’s mission, in its own words, is to “promote health and social development, to forge and disseminate scientific and technological knowledge, to be an agent of citizenship.” The foundation was founded by Oswaldo Cruz, a Brazilian-born doctor, bacteriologist, and public health crusader in the 19th century.
Cruz is credited with serology and vaccine research that set off Brazil’s tested acuity in handling tropical diseases and biologically based poisons. Cruz recognized yellow fever’s roots in mosquitoes and created mass campaigns against the pests, eventually eradicating the disease in Rio in 1907. He also worked against malaria, a disease that had killed so many men that work on the Madeira-Mamoré railroad had to be stopped. Perhaps most famously, Cruz helped find a cure for the mysterious Chagas disease that had devastated the rural population. He was subsequently awarded the gold medal for sanitation work at the International Congress on Hygiene and Demography in Berlin in 1907. The legacy of his vaccine research can be seen in the surrounding public health complex in the Maguinhos neighborhood. Though a symbol of public health successes in Brazil, the Moorish Pavilion on which the central building of Fiocruz sits stands in for a lot more of the world that just Brazil.
The imposing Fiocruz foundation, finished in 1900, is built in the neo-Moorish style and reflects the world in its walls. Leaping back through centuries, we discover the first Moors, Islamic Arabs and Berbers from Morocco and northern Africa. In the 8th century, this was the ruling group on the Iberian Peninsula, which includes present-day Spain and Portugal. Besides some fragments of Arabic that have remained in the languages of the region (for example ananas, the word used for pineapples in Spanish and Italians rooted in Arabic) Moorish architectural modes were left behind, some elements of which continued to appear in buildings long after the Moors left the Portugal.
The Moorish Revival came with the Renaissance exploration of the Orient. The style recalled to the old themes with little New World variation, and Brazilians, in their early 20th century fascination with the French, followed suit. Buildings were unbelievably ornate and built like fortresses. Ornamentation came in the form of decorative tiles, crenellated, horseshoe arches, lancet arched ceilings, domes and muqarnas, or stalactite ornaments on ceilings and descending from the crenellations of the roofs. These features are layered into Cruz’s building, with every wall densely ornamented through carved floral arabesque and colorful heavily geometric tile arrangements, calling further to Islamic roots. Every balcony landing was decorated with a large arrangement of floor tiles, while every supporting arch was made sharp with muqarnas, Attention to geometric detail and ornamentation is evident within every inch of the palace, even the staircases decorated as to suggest muqarnas and complex angular patterns. The design of the building is but one aspect of the building’s cosmopolitan origin. Its marble and glass are imported; it’s iron and ironworkers British, tiles from abroad, etc. Cruz, with his support from the state and businessman father’s money, used the port his building’s façade faced to bring in all the raw material necessary, and always the best.
The Moorish Architecture signifies the importance of a Brazilian health institute just as the country was struggling to promote its image abroad. By harkening back to a respected era, Cruz links Brazil to a length tradition of excellence. Cruz’s work carried great significance for Brazil. First, he helped eliminate diseases that had impeded productivity. Dying rural populations could neither farm the land nor contribute to the flurry of building the country was experiencing at the turn of the century. Additionally, Cruz made such progress in public health that he put Rio on the global map for medical advances. To this day, Brazil claims the Fiocruz Foundation to be “the most prominent science and technology health institution in Latin America.” While tour guides at the site are quick to avoid comparisons to the Pasteur institute in Paris, there are many similarities. Both founded within two decades of each other, the institutes work to promote public health as well as research and knowledge dissemination. They also provided international acclaim for their country, especially when battling international diseases. Brazilians are quite proud of their institute’s ability to combat devastating diseases as effectively as more developed countries. The institute signifies the country’s progress in science and technology, which has always been linked to a nation’s development as a whole.
Inside, some of Brazil’s best research was performed. Even today, Fiocruz is committed to production and dissemination of knowledge, is a site for the study and treatment of infectious disease such as Chagas’, HIV/AIDS, and dengue fever, and is the major research and policy production arm of the federal government informing the legislators and leaders of SUS (Sistema Único de Saúde), Brazil’s public healthcare system.
“Oswaldo Cruz,” Fundação Oswaldo Cruz. Accessed April 7, 2015. http://portal.fiocruz.br/en/content/home-inglês.