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