An Architecture of Perfect Imperfection

Lina Bo Bardi

by Zeuler R.M. de A. Lima
Yale University Press, 240 pp., $65.00

Stones Against Diamonds

by Lina Bo Bardi, translated from the Portuguese by Anthony Doyle and Pamela Johnston
London: AA Publications, 132 pp., £15.00 (paper)
Luís Hossaka/Museum of Art of São Paulo Collection
Lina Bo Bardi: Preliminary Study for Sculptures-cum-Stage-Props on Trianon Terrace, Museum of Art of São Paulo, 1965. Martin Filler writes that the masp building, visible in the background of this drawing, is a ‘feat of engineering, with just two gigantic red-painted steel trusses that span and support the two-story glass-walled gallery container longitudinally.’


The hundredth anniversary of an overlooked creative innovator sometimes coincides with the revival of a reputation that is already underway. That has been happening lately with the posthumous lionization of the Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, who was born in Rome in 1914 and died in 1992 in her adopted South American homeland at the age of seventy-seven.

Bo Bardi’s two most important realized schemes are in São Paulo—the Museum of Art (1957–1969) and the SESC Pompeia Leisure Center (1977–1986). They are of such exceptional quality that one can readily understand why their designer has at last been accorded a high place in the male-dominated canon. Intriguingly contradictory but intelligently resolved, her designs are structurally audacious yet uncommonly comfortable, unapologetically untidy yet conceptually rigorous, and confidently dynamic yet suggestively hybrid.

Although her work stands squarely in the Modernist tradition, she rejected the aggressively machinelike aesthetic favored by many of her male contemporaries, and favored a more relaxed and nuanced vernacular approach. However, as her ingenious recycling of a disused factory into the Pompeia complex demonstrates, she could also embrace industrialism’s authentic manifestations and make them invitingly human. This is high-tech that understands everyday needs and uses modern technical advances to serve them.

Some commentators have interpreted Bo Bardi’s newfound popularity as a reaction against the all-pervasive commercialism, rampant celebrity-mongering, and dispiriting lack of social awareness in architecture today. She seems to speak directly to the psychic tensions of our time, as when the architect Kazuyo Sejima of the Japanese firm SANAA, the director of the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, organized a concise Bo Bardi retrospective as the centerpiece of that prestigious international exhibition. Many viewers felt that these decades-old designs easily outclassed the sprawling show’s surfeit of eye-catching but shallow contemporary offerings.

Typical of the esteem Bo Bardi now commands is her inclusion in Jean-Louis Cohen’s authoritative survey The Future of Architecture Since 1889,1 which features a full-page color illustration of Pompeia. She figures prominently in the introduction to Kathleen James-Chakraborty’s new general text Architecture Since 1400,2 which includes two photos of Bo Bardi’s own residence, the Glass House of 1950–1951 in São Paulo. And in Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture, the British architecture critic Rowan Moore devotes an entire chapter to Bo Bardi, whom he calls “the most underrated architect of the twentieth century.”3

A major event in this long-overdue recognition is Lina Bo Bardi, the first full-length life-and-works, by Zeuler R.M. de A. Lima, an architect and professor…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.