AD Classics: São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) / Lina Bo Bardi

AD Classics: São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) / Lina Bo Bardi, © Pedro Kok
© Pedro Kok

When Lina Bo Bardi received the commission to build a new museum of art on São Paulo’s Terraço do Trianon, she was given the job under one condition: under no circumstances could the building block the site’s panoramic vistas of the lower-lying parts of the city. This rule, instituted by the local legislature, sought to protect what had become an important urban gathering space along Avenida Paulista, the city’s main financial and cultural artery. Undeterred, Bo Bardi came up with a solution that was simple and powerful. She designed a building with a massive split through its midsection, burying half of it below the terrace and lifting the other half into the sky. As a result, the plaza remained open and unobstructed, and in 1968, the iconic São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) was born.

© Flickr user Juliana Magro © Pedro Kok © Flickr user Rodrigo_Soldon © Flickr user Carol^-^ +9

© Flickr user Rodrigo_Soldon
© Flickr user Rodrigo_Soldon

From the beginning, the project was rife with political overtones. Bo Bardi, who oversaw nearly every part of the building’s design, construction, and administration, initially secured the museum’s prime location through a “backroom deal” that she negotiated herself with the local governor. [1] However, as the project evolved, it became increasingly clear that her vision for the museum would not belong to the politicians and the city’s cultural elite. She would instead attempt to cater to the populist view that the museum and the site on which it stood should belong to the people and the city. Not only would the museum return the same amount of public space that it borrowed, but it would embrace the radical notion that a museum could both exhibit culture and serve as a stage on which it was created.

© Pedro Kok
© Pedro Kok

The MASP’s monumental aesthetic is the result of an ingenious engineering scheme whose structural clarity dominates the building’s formal language. Two enormous pre-stressed concrete beams, resting on equally massive piers, traverse the length of the site in parallel and suspend a voluminous box containing the museum’s main exhibition and administrative spaces. This upper section is connected to the below-grade levels through a glass elevator that takes visitors on a journey between the museum and the city and back again, intentionally challenging the idea that artwork can exist in disconnect from the people that create it and imbuing the visiting experience with political meaning. 

Bo Bardi extended this discourse on art and politics into the main galleries, where for years a modernist open-floor plan radically redefined the hierarchies between works of art. Visitors were released from the elevator into an unmediated field of suspended paintings and required to meander between pieces without a clear sense of progression. As one scholar described it, “each artwork was shown to be its own site, a display mode that attested both to the migratory destiny of the pieces, but also, and more importantly, to a lack of institutional framing.” [2] The pieces, which were strikingly mounted on glass panels grounded in heavy concrete blocks, appeared to float in the air, intensifying the liberated chaos of the exhibit and cheekily mimicking the floating form of the building. Bo Bardi’s husband, who was the longtime director of the museum, preserved this arrangement until his retirement in 1990, when it was tragically abandoned in favor of a more conventional solid-wall display system. It was just one example of the way in which the architect attempted to force visitors to reexamine preconceived notions of art.

© Pedro Kok
© Pedro Kok

In the gallery and with the building as a whole, Bo Bardi repeatedly prompts a powerful dialogue between lightness and mass. From the terrace, for example, the weight of the building is intuitively obvious, but as a sensory experience it is notably missing. The great structuralist Herman Hertzberger wrote that “when underneath the building, you feel absolutely no sense of oppression due to the immense presence above you.” [3] By a different account, "pedestrians who walk on the plaza beneath the galleries feel nothing of the weight of the structure overhead, but rather sense that a cloud has passed in front of the hot Brazilian sun and given them a delightful moment of coolness." [4]

© Flickr user Carol^-^
© Flickr user Carol^-^

Much of this tension exists due to the building’s juxtaposition of modernist and brutalist elements. On the one hand, the elegant glazing and open floor plans responsible for the visual levity of the museum belong firmly in the International Style tradition. On the other, the colossal concrete piers and structural systems belong to the brutalist movement, which was in its heyday at the time of the museum’s construction. Rather than shy away from the contradictions posed by these disparate elements, Bo Bardi draws attention to them, painting the piers bright red and thinning out the floors and elongating vertical elements of the façade to visually dematerialize their width. The effect of the interplay of these ideas is dramatic, and the building’s innovative rethinking of conventional aesthetics hearkens to a uniquely Brazilian tradition of concrete modernism that includes Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Burle Marx.

© Flickr user Rodrigo_Soldon
© Flickr user Rodrigo_Soldon
© Flickr user Juliana Magro
© Flickr user Juliana Magro

Although the museum is not without controversy or critics, it succeeds in faithfully delivering the vision of Lina Bo Bardi by serving both as a museum and as an informal gathering place for the residents of São Paulo. In this sense, the MASP is a testament to the power of architects to promote egalitarian values and social responsibility and through design. The building exemplifies the best of the brutalist effort to improve the urban condition through architecture and serves as an elegant critical essay on the political dimensions of art.

[1] Buergel, Roger M. “’This Exhibition Is an Accusation’: The Grammar of Display According to Lina Bo Bardi.” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry, Issue 26 (Spring 2011), p. 56.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hertzberger, Herman. Space and the Architect: Lessons in Architecture 2. 010 Publishers: Rotterdam, 2010, p. 106.

[4] Anyone Corporation. "Lina Bo Bardi: Museo de Arte de São Paulo." ANY: Architecture New York, No. 5, Lightness (March/April 1994), p. 24.

Location to be used only as a reference. It could indicate city/country but not exact address. Cite: David Langdon. "AD Classics: São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) / Lina Bo Bardi" 13 Aug 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <http://www.archdaily.com/537063/ad-classics-sao-paulo-museum-of-art-masp-lina-bo-bardi/>