Tim Abrahams

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Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?

Architectural Review March 2016

The Brazilian aristocrat Maria Carlota Costallat de Macedo Soares is best known outside her native country for her intense, tragic love affair with one of the greatest poets of the late 20th century, Elizabeth Bishop. However, in Brazil, Dona Lota, as she was known, is remembered as the architect and designer of what she had hoped would be Rio de Janeiro’s Central Park. Although she is referred to as an architect, Macedo Soares did not study the subject. She did however work for the artist Candido Poltinari. Using this unlikely artistic education, her extraordinary capacity for hard work and, it must be added, the advantages of her birth, she turned herself into an Olmstead of the tropics.

Sadly this was not all that Bishop did. She also drank heavily.
The informal training she needed to create Flamengo Park was underway when she met Bishop in 1951. The irrepressible Dona Lota was building a new house, ostensibly designed by the architect Sergio Bernardes. In fact the house is better described as a result of an often fractious collaboration between client and architect. Macedo Soares was already a key figure in bringing together Brazil’s modernist artist and architects by this time and had discovered the young architect in this context. She wasn’t about to be overawed by him however. So while the pioneering use of steel frames may have been the first of many technical innovations that Bernardes introduced to Brazilian modernism, the relationship between the lush vegetation of the hills above Rio and the external landscaping were undeniably Macedo Soares.

As the writer Carmen Lucia de Oliveira puts it in the novelisation of Macedo Soares’ life with Bishop, Flores Raras e Banalíssimas: “The house would express Lota’s passionate ideas about modern architecture. It happened that Sergio had his own passionate ideas about modern architecture. The result was fireworks when the two of the sat down to discuss the project. He had the degree in architecture but she was Lota de Macedo Soares”. In many ways the house was her real design training. Working closely with Benardes, arguing with him tooth and nail over every decision, she gleaned a great deal of knowledge which she would use in the years ahead.

The house is a masterpiece. It was where Bishop largely wrote Questions of Travel, the collection which announced her as one of the greatest poets of her age. “"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come / to imagined places, not just stay at home?” writes Bishop in the title poem. Both book and house share a strange combination of familiarity and ceaseless inquiry into new possibilities. Whilst modernism was elsewhere being enlisted in the construction of the new state of Brazil, here it is being tested for domestic use. The house, so full of warmth and personality, is also a laboratory for new ways of building. It announced Bernardes as a major talent and gave Macedo Soares the belief that she could work on a major scale.

While Bishop will invariably dominate any consideration of Macedo Soares’ life, more important in the consideration of her work was her friendship and professional relationship with the conservative politician Carlos Lacerda who was elected governor of Guanabara State in 1960. Recognising in her some very strong organisational skills as well as a vision, he offered her a position in his administration on her election. What happened next is the stuff of much myth making. De Oliviera describes it thus: ‘“Tell me what you want,” he said. Lota pointed to some rubble directly in front of the governor’s apartment. “Give me this fill this aterro (landfill). I’ll make it into a Central Park.”’

It would be an odd tour guide who insisted that Flamengo Park was an obligatory stop on a whistle stop tour of Rio de Janeiro. The public space to which they would no doubt draw the visitor’s attention to would be the world famous beaches of Copacabana or Ipanema. However, the Aterro do Flamengo as it is popularly known or, more officially the Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes Park is the largest leisure area in Rio de Janeiro, offering 120 hectares of ingeniously planned and planted parkland and thereby representing a defining moment in Brazilian modernism. The myth that it was bequeathed in an act of sudden largesse to Macedo Soares is engaging but untrue. It would be just as true to say that Lacerda realised it was the perfect visual expression of his campaign promise to improve sanitation and health throughout the city.

Flamengo is not only a beautiful facility for Rio, it also represents an important moment in the history of urban planning. Far from being a place of escape from the city like Olmstead’s tree-lined Central Park, or a retreat into a pre-urban past such as Hyde Park in London, Macedo Soares’s design for the Flamengo, built on land reclaimed for the sea as part of a marina project and sculpted with the earth from the flattened embraces modernity. Two modern highways run through it, although it could have been more. The first years of the project was dogged by constant obstructions from the Superintendency of Urbanisation and Sanitation (Sursan) who bitterly resented the intrusions of a non-professional women in the work.

Indeed, the roads help form the ingenious plan of this graceful littoral park. The first zone sits between the road nearest to the buildings and the expressway and contains car parks and sports facilities (cunningly Macedo Soares suggested that the football pitches be of irregular sizes to discourage professional teams from co-opting the facilities). The second strip sits between the lanes of the expressway itself and is effectively a series of plantings designed with a deep perspective so that they can be appreciated from a car travelling at speed. The third strip, between the expressway and the water of the bay, refers to the beach.

The scale of the park is huge. It incorporated into it not just an existing Gallery of Modern Art but also an airport. Nor did Macedo Soares make it easy on herself. She brought the best minds of her age into its design. She put together a team of eight architects including her old sparring partner Bernardes. She also found Ethel Bauzer Medeiros; who had studied the new field of recreation in the United States. She also gave the botanist and landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx one of his first big commissions, tasking him with introducing the species he had discovered on his trips into Amazonia to a public park constituted of salty and sandy soil. Realising that Burle Marx was a genius she had him plant 11,600 trees from 190 native and non-native species.

The process was brutal. Macedo Soares was goading and corralling the prima donnas of Brazilian modernism and on the other hand she was fighting its antiquated bureaucracy. The political support from Lacerda was not as steady as it might have been. He was only able to appoint her as an advisor and she was left largely to work the system. And whilst, Macedo Soares doggedly stuck to her political master’s expressed intent to root out corruption, Lacerda found out that the scale of graft within the city meant that he had to make more pragmatic decisions on that regard himself. Her domestic life grew difficult. Because of work demands, Macedo Soares needed to be in the city that Bishop hated. “While she saves the doomed city of Rio, I shut myself up with my air conditioner and try to forget it,” wrote Bishop in a letter to her fellow poet Robert Lowell. Sadly this was not all that Bishop did. She also drank heavily.

Two years after completing the park, Macedo Soares had a mental breakdown and killed herself and the blame was laid by the Brazilian’s family squarely at Bishop’s feet. The poet herself, wracked with remorse, allowed them to. However, it would be fairer to refer to Macedo Soares own obsessive nature which was manifested throughout the design and execution of the massive project. A far more prosaic reason could also be the fact that she caught typhoid in 1964 and was left in a vulnerable physical state afterwards. Regardless of the cause, it was a tremendously sad end to a life which had been spent in the pursuit and creation of true beauty.