FALL 2017
Challenges and Dilemmas
By Fernando Diniz Moreira
The Brasília Cathedral

Modern architecture occupies a prominent place in Brazil’s cultural heritage. Brazil was one of the first countries to enthusiastically embrace modern architecture and to legislatively protect modern buildings. Yet today, protection of this heritage remains inadequate.

Remarkably, some buildings were protected shortly after their completion. The Ministry of Education and Health (MES), designed by a team chaired by Lucio Costa (in consultation with Le Corbusier), opened in 1945 and was listed in 1948. The Church of Pampulha, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, was completed in 1944 and listed three years later. The Museum of Modern Art Flamengo Park, designed by Affonso Eduardo Reidy and Roberto Burle Marx, was registered two years after it was finished in 1962. Finally, the Brasília Cathedral by Niemeyer was initiated in 1958 and completed only in 1970, but listed in 1967, before completion. These buildings were listed for various reasons: to mark the ascendancy of one architectural trend as representative of modern Brazil (MES); because it was suffering from unexpected deterioration (Pampulha); because it was threatened by highways and nearby developments (Flamengo Park); and, finally, as a way to force completion (Brasília Cathedral).

Early protection can also be explained by the prominence of those involved in heritage and modern architecture. The Getúlio Vargas regime’s mission to build a modern Brazilian identity demanded the engagement of artists, writers, journalists, sociologists, historians, and architects in nation building. Heritage became a strategic tool in this process. The National Institute of Heritage, created in 1936 by intellectuals with modernist convictions, was chiefly involved in formulating this identity, establishing an apparently paradoxical relationship between the heritage system and modern architecture.

After these notable early listings, few occurred in subsequent decades. At the turn of the twenty-first century, most modern buildings listed at the national level were affiliated with the Carioca School of Rio de Janeiro. Later listings expanded to include buildings by São Paulo architects. In addition, the early Burle Marx gardens in Recife and a group of thirty buildings by Niemeyer were also listed. Only recently has the Brazilian system of preservation moved from a focus on rarity to preserving more significant buildings of the twentieth century.


While architectural masterworks are slowly gaining appreciation, the bulk of Brazil’s modern heritage is undervalued and at risk. In large Brazilian cities, many houses from the 1950s through the 1970s have been replaced by high-rise developments. Institutional and commercial buildings are also being renovated. After about forty years, a building enters its first cycle of renovations—but if it is not yet listed or recognized, these renovations, however simple, may eliminate important features.

As elsewhere, Brazil’s modern heritage poses many challenges. These include the rapid functional obsolescence of these buildings, resulting from changes in the ways buildings are used; the problems caused by use of new materials without knowledge of their longterm performance—as well as use of traditional materials in new ways, improper construction, and poor detailing; the view of the patina as a dirty stain in modern buildings, not as a natural sign of aging; the absence of a culture emphasizing maintenance; and insufficient social recognition of this architecture along with the distance in time required to assess significance.

Issues with concrete illuminate these challenges. Concrete was the main material component of Brazilian modern architecture because it offered new spatial and plastic opportunities, with new possibilities for expression on its surfaces. Between the late 1960s and early 1980s, exposed concrete was widely used, symbolizing the growth, modernity, and monumentality valued by local elites. Today, many of these buildings need repair and conservation, including structural renovation, which affects the exposed concrete areas and, consequently, their authenticity. The dismal appearance caused by moisture has convinced some owners to cover building surfaces with ceramic tiles or other kinds of cladding.

While modern architecture conservation in Brazil has been undertaken for more than thirty years (with considerable experience accumulated), the field has not yet achieved conceptual maturity. Renovation and updating, instead of conservation, are most common when dealing with Brazil’s modern architecture.

Exterior and interior views of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo

Among the great heritage losses are sports buildings. Many of these buildings—some of the most remarkable architectural works of Brazil’s modern era—have been severely transformed or totally destroyed. Their problems were not simply their materials. The new requirements of sports federations and governments, which included new legislation on accessibility, safety, and parking, contributed to these changes and losses. In hosting the 2014 World Cup, Brazil had to ensure that its stadiums adhered to standards imposed by FIFA, which included many elements not previously required. As a result, many Brazilian stadiums, including those in Natal and Brasília, were destroyed or were “modernized,” as in Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, and Fortaleza.

Other significant buildings that have been treated questionably include the Planalto Palace (the president’s headquarters), one of Niemeyer’s first buildings in Brasília. Over the years, its interior was repeatedly altered, with Niemeyer himself conducting a major renovation and expansion between 2009 and 2010. Besides modernizing the building’s systems, he reorganized the internal spaces and altered most of the stone cladding and flooring. He constructed a tower in the back of the building to house a new stairway, severely affecting the lightness and balance of the original design. A renovation of the Alvorada Palace (the presidential residence) similarly changed its original aesthetic.


Despite these various challenges—as well as shortage of funds, public sector bureaucracy, and a general lack of appreciation for conservation—Brazil still provides examples of more appropriate interventions in modern buildings.

A masterwork by Lina Bo Bardi, São Paulo’s Museum of Art, became a city landmark with clearly recognized social, artistic, technological, and architectural values. Construction lasted several years with many stoppages and errors that created numerous problems addressed by interventions in 1969, 1973, 1978, and 1985. However, the interior modifications carried out between 1994 and 1995 compromised the social and artistic values of the original exhibition space. A return to the original scheme in late 2015 reflected an understanding of the importance of the exhibition format created by Bo Bardi.

Completed in 1969, the University of São Paulo School of Architecture and Urbanism encloses a vast internal central atrium, materializing what its architect, João Batista Vilanova Artigas, considered an environment that would ensure fluidity and interaction. The building is made of concrete, and the roof beam is covered with 960 translucent domes that provide illumination. Early on, the concrete slabs presented problems involving moisture infiltration, which led to serious deterioration, compromising the building’s use and cultural values. Despite waterproofing efforts in 1988 and 1994–95, the problem persisted because of water retention inside the beams and in the slabs’ center (due to a construction error), generating an excess load and worsening the damage. The weight of the layers of waterproofing aggravated the problem. The 2009 and 2010 master plan promoted several studies and efforts that have temporarily remedied this. Currently, an extensive research and restoration project funded by the Getty Foundation’s Keeping It Modern initiative seeks to identify a solution.

Built in 1937, the Olinda Water Tower by Luiz Nunes reconciles the influence of European rationalism with concerns about its appropriateness for local conditions. It stands out for the novelty of its solution, with an entire facade of hollow bricks (cobogós). A 1970s intervention on the building attempted to mitigate corrosion by encapsulating the pillars (making them much more robust) and modifying the cobogós, which were cracking; however, this diminished the elegance of the concrete structure and the authenticity of its material. In the early 2000s, a controversial intervention added a viewing platform at the top of the building, requiring installation of an exterior elevator. Although a clearly distinct structure, the elevator impaired the appearance of the original building. On the other hand, this intervention successfully introduced a new use that added public accessibility.

Planalto Palace in Brasília

The Brasília Cathedral incorporated the values of monumentality, authorship (Niemeyer), and integration of the arts, architecture, and technology. In 1987, seventeen years after the cathedral’s completion, a first renovation fully replaced its clear glass with stained glass by artist Marianne Perreti, introduced a more efficient system to affix the glass to the metallic structure, and painted the porches white. Between 2009 and 2010, internal stained glass and external glass were replaced again by other, high-performance glass, while maintaining Perreti’s design. The interventions favored the architectural meaning since the original materials had deteriorated and were compromising the integrity of the building.

Inaugurated in 1975, the headquarters of the energy company CELPE (designed by Vital Maria Tavares Pessôa de Melo & Reginaldo Esteves in Recife) had by the early 2000s a high degree of deterioration in the concrete elements composing the brise-soleil system of the facade. Facade work conducted in 2009 and 2010 was sensitive to the building as a heritage asset; tests were performed so that new pieces fit with the originals, and while several brises were redone, there was no substantive disjuncture between the old and new concrete. Although some original material was lost, the gains were significant; deterioration was halted, and transmission of the original aesthetic values was achieved.

The many other cases of modern building restoration include some successful ones and others that have irreversibly affected a building’s values. A study of these cases indicates a lack of clear and established criteria and procedures. Many problems originated with the absence of a process to assess the values of these buildings. If a building’s values are not recognized by society and those responsible for the building, this failure is reflected in the intervention approach. For any architectural heritage asset, an intervention is a critical act. With respect to modern architecture, some have understood this, while others have simply sought to remake rather than preserve or restore.


A response to these challenges should include not only public awareness campaigns but also training of professionals in the conservation of modern architecture. Currently, Brazil lacks undergraduate programs in architectural conservation. Those working in building conservation are primarily graduates of five-year programs in architecture and urbanism. All programs include conservation concepts, but unfortunately not concepts applicable to modern architecture. To gain expertise, young architects turn to master’s and PhD programs, including those at the federal universities of Bahia (UFBA), Minas Gerais (UFMG), and Pernambuco (UFPE), as well as the University of São Paulo. These programs study conservation theoretically, but they offer little opportunity to practice, except in the master’s program at UFBA. A course exclusively on modern architecture conservation was offered in 2009–10 by an independent organization, the Center for Advanced Studies in Integrated Conservation (CECI), and UFPE, with the support of ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) and Docomomo Brasil.

Conservation courses specifically addressing modern architecture should promote greater understanding of the value of modern buildings, especially those considered ordinary, and they should develop students’ communication skills to engage users and communities associated with buildings. They should encourage dialogue between the various professionals involved with conservation, since their different viewpoints need to be brought to consensus in arriving at a thoughtful approach. In addition, courses should promote a better balance between theory, practice, and current demands, so that buildings remain in use, particularly those that do not yet have heritage recognition. While respect for the authenticity of materials is important, courses should not overestimate their value, since materials themselves do not define the essence of modern architecture; attention must also be paid to the way materials are arranged and the space they create. Modern architecture conservation should avoid extremist approaches to authenticity and instead consider space and design intentions. Finally, courses should enhance expertise in the properties, degradation, and recovery of materials.

We need to encourage professionals to recognize the value of modern architecture, identify its values, understand its problems, and achieve consensus on its conservation. For these goals, practical and scientific knowledge is necessary, but prudence, sensitivity, and pragmatism are also required.

Fernando Diniz Moreira is an architecture professor at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco in Brazil.