Lúcio Costa

Architect, Brazil
Lúcio Costa (b.Toulon, France 1902, d. Rio de Janeiro Brazil 1988)
played a seminal role in introducing modern architecture and urbanism to
Brazil. A dedicated teacher, he often included talented younger designers
in important projects. Costa tempered modern European methods with
local materials, building techniques, and vernacular design traditions, thus
contributing significantly to the development of a modern Brazilian
expression. During his lifetime he fostered appreciation for Brazil’s
unique architectural heritage and was active in the historic preservation
movement, particularly in his later years.
As a 1924 graduate of the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro, he
participated in the neo-Colonial movement. His promise as an articulate designer in that
style helped secure his position as the director of the Escola in 1930 at age 28. Yet
Costa’s interests in such European modernists as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and
Le Corbusier were further galvanized by the latter’s brief visit to Rio in 1929. Costa soon
became a major force for the dissemination of the ideas of Le Corbusier and CIAM
(Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) in Latin America. His reforms at the
Escola included appointments of progressive architects to the faculty to teach modern
design. Costa hired São Paulo-based modernist Gregori Warchavchik to teach
architectural composition, and the two established a local practice from 1931 to 1933.
Although popular with students, the new appointments soon aroused the enmity of the
traditional faculty. By year’s end they forced Costa’s resignation. A six-month student
strike ensued, resulting in the retention of many reforms. With Warchavchik, Costa’s
work demonstrates a decidedly International Style flavor. Their innovative Vila Operária
apartments (1933) in Rio’s Gamboa district with its flat roofs, terraces, and facade of
angled volumes is equal to the best European work of the period.
Despite his commitment to progressive social and architectural ideologies, Costa
steadfastly held that contemporary architects had much to learn from Brazil’s colonial
heritage. Rather than simply copy the past, he sought a modern expression for Brazil’s
architecture, one taking into account the country’s climate, landscape, and unique
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melange of indigenous, European, and African cultures. Costa’s neo-Colonial designs
attested to his beliefs. His residence (1942) for Argemiro Hungria Machado in Rio,
although in a traditional style, evinced rational planning and clarity in massing. The
house surrounded a patio and garden, with internal spaces opening freely onto sheltered
external ones. Costa’s residential architecture best characterizes the continuing dialogue
in his thought between modernist theory and local building techniques and traditions.
Costa’s first major commission to draw international attention was his
collaborative design for the headquarters (1936–43) for the Ministry of
Education and Public Health. Disregarding the results of a competition
dominated by traditional architects, Minister Gustavo Capanema requested
Costa to create a design expressing the progressive agenda of his new
ministry. Costa formed a team of local architects, many his former
students, and later secured Le Corbusier’s participation as a consultant. Le
Corbusier’s three-week visit produced two projects, including one for an
alternative site. The Brazilian team (Oscar Niemeyer, Carlos Leão, Jorge
Moreira, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, and Ernani Vasconcelos) developed one
of these projects for the original site, with significant changes by
Niemeyer. Ricardo Burle-Marx designed the gardens with indigenous
plants, and Cândido Portinari ornamented the exterior with traditionalstyle
tiles. The Ministry constituted one of Brazil’s earliest and most
important modern public buildings. Its native translation of the Le
Corbusian idiom drew widespread attention from the international
architectural press and was much imitated after World War II. Costa again
collaborated with Niemeyer on the Brazilian Pavilion at the New York
World’s Fair in 1939, thus continuing the synthesis of Brazilian and
modernist forms encapsulated in the Ministry building. Costa’s designs for multiple dwellings demonstrated his concern for more comprehensive
planning. His Parque Guinle complex (1948–54) included three of six projected
apartment blocks in a verdant setting, closely following ideas suggested by CIAM in the
Athens Charter. The horizontal slab apartments, ranging from seven to eight stories,
included single- and double-level units, open communal areas on the interiors, and
parking at ground level. As usual the architect incorporated indigenous building materials
and forms, including wooden louvers and ceramic tiles. Costa’s design won the award for
multifamily habitations at the First Biennial Exposition in São Paulo in 1953.
The architect’s winning design in the 1956 international competition for the Pilot Plan
of Brazil’s new capital secured his fame as an architect and planner. The cross-shaped
organization of Brasilia carefully divided major functions into two main zones, one
official and the other mainly residential. The plan, often likened to the shape of an
airplane, both recalls and far exceeds the scale of Washington, D.C., because of its
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monumental axis. This axis terminates in the Plaza of Three Powers, encapsulating the
three branches of government. At the opposite end, government is countered by the mass
media in Costa’s television tower. The “wings” contain apartment blocks interspersed
with small shops, restaurants, and churches. A theater, bus station, shopping malls, and
hotel and banking sectors stand at the intersection of the two axes. Although much
criticized, this city of two million inhabitants presently enjoys lower crime and many
amenities lacking in Brazil’s other crowded urban centers. Costa’s unrealized design
(1968) for the Barra de Tijuca, a suburban beach resort in Rio, offered a comprehensive
development interspersing park spaces and conservation areas with private residences on
a regional scale.
Costa’s lifelong involvement with Le Corbusier has sometimes obscured his central
role in Brazilian modernism in the international arena. Although frustrated by Le
Corbusier’s efforts to take credit for ideas developed by Brazil’s young designers, Costa
remained loyal, collaborating with Le Corbusier in the design of the Brazilian Pavilion
(1956) at the Cité Universitaire in Paris and as an architectural consultant from 1950 to
1953 for the team overseeing the UNESCO seat in Paris. The lack of any major study in
English to date has impeded a broader appreciation and understanding of Costa’s
important contributions as architect, writer, and teacher in the development of modernism
in the mid-20th century.

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