When the great utilitarian architect Le Corbusier visited Brazil in the 1930s, he was to have a profound effect on Brazilian design. Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer are perhaps the two greatest Brazilian modernist architects most famously responsible for the planning and building of Brasilia in the 1950s. It comes as no surprise, then, that architect Marcio Kogan, one of the leading lights in Brazil today, hails these two along with the likes of Affonso Reidy and Lina Bo Bardi in his pantheon of great national architects.
One of Niemeyer’s most famous creations is the beautifully modest Palácio Da Alvorada, the President’s residence in Brasilia. Being the capital of Brazil, it is comparable to Washington DC, but whereas the White House is a gesture of power and grandeur, Da Alvorada is egalitarian and open. No walls hide the Palace from view, and anyone can peer into the grounds that surround it. Glass is a big feature, and windows make up a large part of the building, a symbol of political transparency – though one perhaps not reflected in the reality of the country.
Looking at Kogan’s work, the Palácio Da Alvorada is an obvious point of reference. The recently completed Panama House, for which Kogan’s firm won a series of awards, including the 2009 Chicago Athenaeum International Architecture Award, is itself too a prime example. Its rectilinear design is in keeping with modernist ideals, with its unapologetic horizontal and vertical contours.
Another reference point is Mies Van De Rohe, who is most famous for the Barcelona Pavilion. This box-shaped creation blurs the lines between interior and exterior. Kogan follows suit here with Panama House, through open spaces, a lack of visible doors and discreet glass panes.
Kogan says he is ‘modestly revisiting’ modernist architecture, and that he is concerned with sticking to their ideology of simplicity and function. The odd paradox in modernist architecture, and the modernist movement in general, is that its obsession with utility over ornament has actually become an aesthetic in itself. When I ask Marcio whether he believes function is more important than beauty in buildings, he responds tellingly with a quote by Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes: ‘May the ugly women forgive me, but beauty is fundamental’. He hereby implies that beauty and function are inseparable; or rather that beauty is just as important a function of a building as, say, its structural robustness. He adds, ‘I like simplicity, something that the “starchitects” have completely forgotten. I am a born rationalist, and do not believe in gnomes.’
For Kogan, then, the beauty is in the simplicity. It’s hard to disagree when looking at some of his work. Many of his houses have an almost therapeutic effect, with the open-space minimalism helping to declutter the mind. In his Laranjeiras House the sense of openness is continued through the use of glass doors that can be hidden in the stone walls when opened. Where one sees a departure from the modernist ideals by Kogan is in the softening of the sharp rectilinear constructions with the addition of materials such as wood panelling.
Perhaps the reason why Kogan stands out from other architects in the country, and indeed the world, is that he is unable to separate the arts and culture from building and design. Kogan says, ‘During my years at school, I never really looked closely at the work of the great architects. I had always thought about cinema, art and literature. When I graduated and began working, I discovered that I was totally ignorant of my new profession. I believe increasingly in multidisciplinary formation. It is important for the architect to understand all that is happening around him, from a Hussein Chalayan fashion show to the social problems that intensely afflict us.’ Many of his works, such as Paraty House, look like film sets, and when you look at Quinta’s House, for example, it is reminiscent of David Hockney’s painting, A Bigger Splash.
While Kogan is extremely successful and well respected in Brazil, he is not one to bask in his own glory. In fact, he is exceptionally self-critical, which seems to be a characteristic he shares with many other successful people. ‘When I visit a project that has recently been completed, my reaction is never to say: “Wow! It’s great!” I look at any detail and think: “If we had done it a different way, it would have been better.” I hope none of my clients read this!’
Since the 1990s, neo-modernism in architecture has been gathering pace due to a reaction against the often illogical and eclectic nature of postmodernism. But where many other neo-modernists err towards modernist pastiche, Kogan has reimagined the movement’s ideals within the context of the 21st century. One important change has been to translate the modernist ethic within the residential context. The modernism of the past was mostly concerned with the construction of large-scale projects such as the Seagram Building in New York, designed by Mies Van de Rohe and Philip Johnson. The majority of Kogan’s work has been concerned with suburban dwellings for those who can afford him, such as Panama House or Du Plessis House. His growing office, MK27, now numbers twelve architects, as well as collaborators from around the world, and has won countless awards since the firm’s inception in the 1980s, including the Dedalo Minosse in 2008 and the Barbara Cappochin of the Padova International Biennial in 2007.
However, Kogan is keen to expand his horizons, and has already ventured out into larger projects. One of his most successful attempts is the Fasano Hotel in São Paulo that he designed along with Isay Weinfeld. It manages to mix the spartan utility of 1930s design with a modern sleekness, using graduated setbacks as it climbs higher, culminating with a conspicuously large clock at the top. Although Kogan is interested in getting involved with larger projects such as social housing, he declares that the Brazilian government makes it an incredibly arduous task.
‘In Brazil, the work to design public buildings is extremely wearying and often humiliating. Architecture is seen as something that is entirely superfluous or worse, that the cost of the grand buildings could interfere in the scheme of corruption exercised by the political class.’
Kogan claims that, in Brazil, it is almost impossible for aspiring architects to succeed in the state sector. He says, ‘All the public projects that attempt to utilise state intervention are quickly repressed by the government in power.’ This hopeless situation has perpetuated the problem of poverty and crime that is rife in overcrowded cities such as São Paulo. If the people in power are more concerned with lining their own pockets while the poor go hungry, then the thought of social-housing projects involving quality architects appears a distant hope.
But interestingly, in the light of the global recession and the urgent need for sustainability, neo-modernist designs by architects such as Kogan are appearing to be the way forward. When asked what his thoughts for the future of architecture are, Kogan says, ‘After this crisis that we have just experienced, I sense indications of a search for a simpler world. Simplicity and sustainability will be the words of the future.’ But he jokes, ‘Hermès and Louis Vuitton will probably prove my prediction completely wrong.’