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Comments (12) Posted 08.11.08 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Glen Cummings

Athos Bulcão, The Artist of Brasilia


Concrete relief, Teatro Nacional, Brasilia, 1966

In 1956, Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek was sworn into office, boasting a campaign promise to deliver half a century of progress in the space of five short years. In an effort to move power away from the corruption which had come to dominate Brazil’s then-capital, Rio de Janeiro, Kubitschek’s initial project was to create a new capital: Brasilia.

A master plan by Lucio Costa was selected for the design of the new city, and Oscar Niemeyer was asked to design all the principal buildings along the city’s monumental axis. Although Brasilia would come to incorporate the efforts of numerous artists and architects — including Bruno Giorgi, Alfredo Ceschiatti, Marianne Peretti and Niemayer, among others — it is the abstract interventions of Athos Bulcão that created the subtle visual voice of the city.





Athos Bulcão by Roberta Falcone

Athos Bulcão was a public artist, interior designer, muralist, furniture and graphic designer (slideshows of his work here), who collaborated with Oscar Niemeyer and others to define Brasilia — one of the 20th century’s most radical and controversially received urban experiments.

It was Niemeyer who brought Bulcão to Brasilia, having met him as early as 1943. The two had previously collaborated on several projects in Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro; indeed, throughout his professional life, Bulcão collaborated with architects and foundations that sought him out for the exceptional visual motion created through his graphic work, and for the skills he had developed as an artist and collaborator. (Prior to embarking on Brasilia, Bulcão had been employed by the Ministry of Education and Culture in Rio, illustrating books and record jackets, designing sets and costumes for theatrical productions, and occasionally exhibiting his work at the Instituto de Arquitetos do Brasil.)



Wood and iron dividing wall, Palácio do Itamaraty, Brasilia, 1967

In Brasilia, Niemeyer designed buildings: Bulcão designed surfaces. Bulcão once likened their relationship to that between filmmaker Federico Fellini and composer Nino Rota: Bulcão worked to create graphic moments inside of Niemeyer’s volumes — which might mean designing a room divider, a bas-relief or a tile composition to cover a wall. At times Bulcão’s work calls to mind the math-play of Max Bill, or the generative iterations of Sol Lewitt. Bulcão’s orientation was not so much artistic as architectural, and the net effect is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Because of accelerated construction schedules and, in some cases, certain deliberate architectural choices, Brasilia’s buildings have a rough and an unfinished quality. Bulcão’s work responded to this roughness by introducing elements that were at once extraordinarily simple and extremely refined. The surface of Teatro Nacional is perhaps Bulcão’s most visible work in Brasilia, a cityscape of white volumes rising from the ground at 30 degrees as it embraces the enormous pyramidal shape of the building. The result is a disorienting mix of space and place, of unusual form and incongruous scale.



White marble relief, Palácio do Itamaraty, Brasilia, 1966

Palácio do Itamaraty contains Brasilia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and offers the highest density of Bulcão moments: a white marble relief that vacillates between flatness and dimensionality; a barely discernable pattern in the stone floor; a jacaranda and metal screen that bounds the space and acts as counterpoint to Niemeyer’s much-photographed spiral staircase. The screen (think Charlotte Perriand meets Piet Mondrian) ultimately reveals itself as something more complex: a visual game of patterns and spaces that refuse to repeat.

Bulcão Bulcao considered Brasilia his home for the remainder of his life, establishing himself as the de facto visual presence in the Federal District. Known as “The Artist of Brasilia,” Bulcão died on July 31 at the age of 90, and left behind an astonishing body of work. Little known outside of Brazil, Athos Bulcão is an unrecognized design master.

Tile pattern, Ingrejinha Nossa Senhora De Fátima, Brasilia, 1957
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Comments (12)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

Very interesting. Many thanks. The slideshow is delightful.
boblet
08.13.08 at 12:56

Very interesting to see the relationships between designer and other contemporaries (ie:Fellini).
B.McGuigan
08.14.08 at 01:10

A couple of observations that seem to be woven into this article and I would like to point out because I find them interesting:

Bulcao’s work as individual artist is not as good as his work as collaborator or contributor to other people’s work. (I assume that’s why the article does not mention Bulcao’s work outside of Brasilia).
Bulcao's tile and marble murals in Brasillia are a delightful contribution to the city's architecture but closer to decoration than to art. (it’s hard not to see his tile walls as an updated version of the traditional azulejos that were brought to Brazil with Portugues baroque architecture)

Ultimately it seems to me that what is truly remarkable about Bulcao’s work is that it uplifts Niemeyer’s sometimes bombastic architecture by adding scale and subtlety to it. (in the same way that Burle Marx’s gardens do).

I wonder why, unlike Burle Marx and Niemeyer, Bulcao has remained almost completely unknown…
et
08.14.08 at 03:29

How does Bulcao's commitment to Communism show up in the style of his work? This seems like a contradiction. First, he is doing Federal projects. Second, his work is abstract.
In other countries speaking to masses usually means more narrative or figurative work. Especially in the US, isn't abstraction the preference of the monied elite? In Cuba all the post revolution art is...
Jaime Zarafonetis
08.14.08 at 05:10

The Design Observer is being featured on Five Star Friday:
http://www.fivestarfriday.com/2008/08/five-star-friday-edition-19.html
schmutzie
08.15.08 at 02:25

Wow! I just adore "Concrete relief." It's pretty fantastic with the palm trees in contrast.
porter
08.18.08 at 09:23

Nice article. As many commented here, Athos' works are delightful. Indeed. But Niemeyer, in my humble opinion, is all about kitsch formulas and raise grey concret jungles - yes, with exceptions. Brasília is really inappropriate for human beings, and just an artist as Athos could made it almost livable. I doubt you, Glen, could move to a place where no one can take a single walk nor see any green. About "avoiding corruption", the new capital resulted from over-invoiced contracts, payed with the corruption money. Actually, we (brazilians) are still paying for it, Brasília just isolated and protected dirty politicians from constant vigilance.
Brazilian guy
08.18.08 at 04:19

Cool! Fantastic article.
The work of Athos is unknown Brazilians' own. Thank you for rescuing the work and disseminating this important artist.
Mateus
08.19.08 at 03:51

Thanks for the article. I've always been curious about Brasilia, but more about how it functions as a designed city rather than the art. As someone who's never been to Brazil, the things we outsiders hear about the city is it's rigid plan, it's ultra modern architectural style and it's failure as a livable, likable place. Now that would be an interesting Design Observer subject.
Kevin Perera
08.21.08 at 02:37

ball routine, condense. color>
faiseestoto
08.28.08 at 01:22

Interesting. And depressing. So much money spent on an end product that is sterile and stunningly *un*creative. You have to visit to appreciate the end result's cold elitist aesthetic.
joe
08.28.08 at 08:39

astounding cialis buildings cialis kaufen unsymposiumally
fendHendFrort
08.29.08 at 12:10


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Glen Cummings is a graphic designer based in New York City. He has taught at Yale University School of Art since 2002 and is a founding partner of MTWTF (aka Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday).
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