Fearless Forms: The Fluid Creations of Joaquim Cardozo

Andre Tavares


Joaquim Cardozo – the structural engineer for Oscar Niemeyer’s (1907-2012) most audacious concrete buildings – is better known for his contribution to Brazilian literature than for his works as an engineer. His poetry reveals the ambiguous relation between “misunderstood” European models and regionalist convictions. In fact, if we look closer at his constructive solutions for the technical problems presented by Niemeyer’s designs, we will see instead of “reason,” a large measure of improvisation, cunning tricks and intuitive solutions. In the early twentieth century, German reinforced concrete manuals were the foundation for engineers like Emílio Baumgart (1889-1943) in southern Brazil, or Joaquim Cardozo (1897-1978) in the northeast. From these manuals engineers learned to mix steel and cement producing reinforced concrete buildings. Contemporarily, in the world of literature, Franco-Swiss poet and writer Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961), in his 1924 escape from Paris, turned out to be fundamental to Brazilian modernist poets such as Mário de Andrade (1893-1945) and painters such as Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973): Cendrars showed them how to become tourists in their own country. For them, through this new foreigner condition, it was possible to rediscover Brazil and (freed from the colonial past) be delighted with the «genuine» and virile expressions of nature and popular culture. All of this happened while Ricardo Severo (1869-1940) – a wealthy Portuguese republican nationalist settled in Sao Paulo – developed a strategy to adopt neo-colonial architectural forms which inspired different modern reinventions of popular culture. Lucio Costa’s (1902-1998) revision of Modern Architecture and Monteiro Lobato’s (1882-1948) Sacy Pererê – the “tiny devil” from his children’s books – served as examples, although altered as they were inspired by Severo’s ideas. These examples show how “misunderstandings” where crucial to these (and other) transatlantic migrations of knowledge. These misinterpretations were finally orchestrated in a peculiar architectural synthesis in 1943’s Brazil Builds exhibition, in New York. As a result, the originality of Brazil’s Modern Architecture is commonly understood as the development of a specific language in a particular culture, resulting concrete technology evolution. Joaquim Cardozo approach to concrete technology engages the cultural debates of the period, ensuring coherence between cultural ideas and building forms. In his early works, technical solutions were the guidelines to create architectural forms that later he considered “too much European”. In a similar way as Cendrars, Severo, Costa or Lobato, Cardozo tried to place himself in a complex set of social practices that defined a new Brazil. To do so, and following his literary interests, he progressively abandoned the strictness of technical knowledge adopting more intuitive building solutions. Arguing that technological advances could explain his creations, Cardozo used its peculiar way to conceive structures less due to technical solutions than to cultural ambitions. By looking at incoherencies in building practices, I reveal how architectural strategies are related to the social and the cultural debate in which they are immersed. Joaquim Cardozo’s work in poetry and in building is a good example of the foggy border between architectural and social practices.


concrete; reason; improvisation; literature; technique

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