By Megan Bridges, Ariela Osuna and Emily Siegel
Palacio Capanema is a prime example of the intersection between Brazilian modernist architecture and populism. Considered the first Modernist public building in the Americas, the Palacio was built between 1937 and 1945 under the Getúlio Vargas administration to house the Ministry of Education and Health. It is also known as the Ministry of Education and Health Building, located in the central district of Rio de Janeiro. It was named after Gustavo Capanema, the first Minister of Education of Brazil.
The Palacio was designed by Lúcio Costa in collaboration with Carlos Leão, Jorge Moreira, Oscar Niemeyer, Affonso Reidy and Ernani Vasconcelos. Additionally, Cândido Portinari painted its Portuguese-style tile façade (called azulejos). The Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx designed the tropical gardens that adorn the main entry courtyard. Burle Marx also designed the mid-level rooftop garden (Figure 1) which utilized local vegetation employed sinusoidal curves (Figure 2), which are part of Brazilian modernist vocabulary. Most notably, however, the design of the building was overseen by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. For this reason, the building follows Le Corbusier’s 5 principles of architecture and employs modernist principles.
The Palacio houses 15 stories of office space. In the spirit of Le Corbusier, however, the building is lifted 3 meters off the ground on pilotis, a set of ground-level supporting columns (Figure 3). Besides their structural function pilotis raise the architectural volume, lighten it and free a space for circulation under the building. Furthermore, this open space underneath the building allows the lobby to be accessible from different directions. Palacio Capanema employed modern technology to control sunlight and heating. Sunshine on the northern glass walls is controlled by Corbusian brises-soleil (Figure 4). By deflecting sunlight, brises-soleil reduce heat gain within the building. These sun shades were a novelty at the time of construction and continue to reduce heat impact from the tropical sunshine.
The Palacio is not only an architectural masterpiece, but also a reflection of the populist aims of the Vargas presidency. Although the Vargas administration was marked by authoritarian and sometimes oppressive policies, it was also defined by its expansion of social welfare programs, its efforts to increase wages, and its attempt to create a national identity. In line with his populist policies, Vargas envisioned the Palacio to represent the “Brazilian man.” For example, not only do the pilotis discussed above structurally support the building, but they also provide an open space for visitors to walk beneath. In this way, the Brazilian populace metaphorically supports the government operations that are housed by the Palacio. Furthermore, the office spaces are visible to the outside through the use of tall glass windows (Figure 5), which implies a commitment to government transparency.
In addition to architects, sculptors were also employed to evoke imagery of the “Brazlian man” in the design of the Palacio. For example, the sculptor Celso Antônio was recruited to create the Monumento ao Homem Brasileiro (Monument to the Brazilian Man) in the Palacio Capanema. Vargas believed that the monument ought to reflect the purpose of the Ministry of Education and Health, which existed to improve the lives of the Brazilian people. Antônio intended to capture the vast array of races, ethnicities, classes, and histories that constitute the Brazilian people in a single sculpture. He therefore decided to portray his figures as multiracial, which speaks to the mestizagem imagery that Vargas exported around the globe. Furthermore, he sculpted his figures nude in an effort to universally represent humanity (Figure 6).
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Snider, Colin. “Get to Know a Brazilian – Getúlio Vargas.” Americas South and North. August 26, 2012. Accessed May 6, 2015.