Gerson Castelo Branco is a self-taught architect from the state of Piauí in Brazil. His architecture is a collection of references and experiences that he describes as "an expression of freedom," the Paraqueira.
We architects, always so formal, often use the term international to describe what in reality is just another renowned way of building. The architecture of Gerson Castelo Branco is not: it is original and fits anywhere on the planet without losing its essence, which reveals a pure, untouched and, therefore, one-of-a-kind, unique Brazilian country. - Olga Krell, architect and journalist.
This statement demonstrates the unique way in which Gerson Castelo Branco conceives his works: far from academic canons and languages. His architecture is inspired by nature, respecting it, and focusing on the users' well-being. His work has been compared to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in a publication by the Architectural Digest in September 1995. Following a conversation with the architect, we gathered part of his trajectory which, despite being published in several countries, still does not have the proper recognition.
A self-taught architect
Gerson Castelo Branco was born in 1948 in the city of Parnaíba in the state of Piauí, northeast Brazil. Early in his childhood, he discovered his connection with the field of arts, and very early on he realized that "every system was inverted, the intention was to manipulate, [at school] when we were more daring with any kind of innovation, there was some scrutiny. My eyes were not on girls, they were on boys, this created an extremely uncomfortable situation in such a backward city." When he was 18, he left his family home and arrived in Salvador, the capital of the northeastern state of Bahia. When he came across the Bay of All Saints, the "fantastic colors" of the steep slopes and local population, he found himself introduced to a Brazil he didn't know, "an intense Brazil." He took a university entrance exam for architecture but was accepted in his second option, Fine Arts. "It was incredible to be there, Novos Baianos, Carnaval of Bahia, everything was very intriguing, new customs, new culture, however, it was very difficult to have the resources to stay in the city."
It was the brother of a friend, who was living with Gerson, that commissioned his first architectural work proposal: a renovation in the city of Teresina, Piauí. The project was successful and soon came another request from the same client to design a project from scratch, according to his desires. During that time, Gerson was interested in subjects such as astrology and extraterrestrial phenomena and started to be influenced by the architecture he saw in Salvador, which featured elements such as gardens that invaded the spaces and pools very close to the houses, that impressed him and led his way in the field of projects.
After three and a half years, without graduating from Fine Arts, Gerson returns to Fortaleza, the state capital of Ceará, northeast Brazil, where he meets his brother Cabeto, in his family home.
We were very modern in our behavior, I don't know if this is the right word, but we were the reference of different people in that conservative city of Fortaleza, I looked at all that, and I could not live there anymore.
So he decides to go on a trip to the Andean countries, in which he acknowledges that, despite his Christian upbringing, he was having his values put to the test. This experience carried him into a new phase in his life and work.
The beginning of the Paraqueiras
When returning from his trip, he decided that he could not live in Teresina, where he had works of his own being built, nor could he return to Fortaleza. For this reason, he chose to go down the coast of Piauí and settled in a fishing village 30 km away from Parnaíba, his hometown. There, Gerson recognized a kind of behavioral freedom between the fishermen and the women, who carried out the handicraft work. It was a behavior that could not be found in urban centers. He came across a sexual fluidity and non-judgemental approach that provided "the possibility of being creative regardless of the rules of the system."
The community was protected by a few sand dunes and small lagoons. Gerson settled in a fisherman's hut, made of Taipa (rammed earth), and with low ceiling height. Inspired by:
My grandmother's recipe for high ceilings, with half walls and ventilation circulating in all rooms.
He did a renovation in several stages, knocking down a wall and lifting a roof to make room for a mezzanine.
Carnaúba - a material that was being discarded in the demolition of warehouses in Parnaíba and therefore very cheap - was picked for structural purposes and also for panels and revolving doors, in order to create integrated spaces and to dialogue with other local textures such as the cattail and monkey vine mats, also used to make walls that provide natural light.
The staircase was inspired by Lina Bo Bardi's iconic stairs at Solar do Unhão, and this design becomes an element that he will incorporate in most of his future projects, as well as the permeability between the interior space and the surroundings. This hut, in particular, had a bathroom with a large window facing a pathway for the fishermen, who interacted with Gerson while he was taking a bath.
On a trip to Fortaleza, he was introduced to Olga Krell, who at the time was developing Claudia magazine and was interested in publishing the photographs of this renovation. Since then, his name started to get national recognition from several different publications, aiming to promote an architecture beyond those from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
And so was created what would become the first Paraqueira - the name he calls his architectural works. The inspiration for this title comes from the nickname he received in his teenage years, Paraca, because they say he "looked like a parachute, always opening up to life." "Since I was the Paraca, feeling good about life, these architectures could be the Paraqueiras, that's where this expression came from," he explains.
From boycott to recognition
In the early 1970s, Gerson was asked to design a house to be built on Praia do Futuro, in Fortaleza, where "there was nothing but flying objects at that time." The project consisted of a regular brick house in the shape of a sail. However, the city government did not allow the construction, which he considers a boycott of his work at the time. Fortunately, around the same period, one of his neighbors requested a project which allowed him to adapt the design for a new plot of land.
Finally, the house was built on another beach and was included, amongst forty projects selected by Oscar Niemeyer, in the book Art in Brazil, organized by Pietro Maria Bardi.
From this moment on, Gerson's career was divided into two types of work: more urban projects carried out in Teresina - where no architect was working at the time, allowing him to pursue several lines of projects in the city such as bank agencies, factories, landscape designs, and plazas - and another type of architecture that he considers "totally carefree regarding concepts and rules established by architecture schools." Always accompanied by an engineer who was responsible for the structures and construction.
Gerson tells us: "Because I traveled a lot, on the roads I noticed something that ended up opening my head to timber resources, many trucks were carrying them, I looked at that and thought 'is no one using this?'" He cites names such as Severiano Porto, Zanine Caldas, and Cláudio Bernardes, but insists that there was hardly a sense of alternative architecture. By combining the local peculiarities of Piauí, with his memories of his grandmother's house, the experiences on the beach and the climate, Gerson begins to adopt a style in which the roofs are shaped like tall sails and, due to the possible influence of Burle Marx's work in Brasília, always includes water in his environments, resulting in a natural dialogue between the houses and their surroundings, a way of sheltering part of nature in architecture.
When asked about his creative process, Gerson states: "I am absolutely sure that it is nature. For me, creating is a stone, it is a tree, it is the very definition of terrain, which can change, bringing whatever reference, literally a process of transmission of nature through thought, imagination, from the electric field to the magnetic."
The architect goes on to say that he likes to ask the energy fields for permission before making a project for a specific location. About his project in Loiba, Spain, he says that it was "very full of crosses everywhere, a land where people were protecting themselves from witches, I have to ask them for permission, I believe they exist, and they do exist! So I ask for permission to arrive." As for the work process, he indicates that most parts of his projects are carried out on the drawing board.
As an example of creation, he cites his own house, in Viçosa do Ceará:
"I had already made many hang glider roofs on the coast of Teresina. So, this time, I decided to make a roof with enough space to fit three floors: the ground floor, the second floor as a living area, and the third floor where the bedrooms are. The first thing I did was the sleeping cabins, which I call Camarinhas, composed of two wooden beams attached to the sides, divided by babassu stems that sustain awnings and curtains from one side to the other. I welcomed many friends, groups of couples, and I used to say 'look, let's get settled, but don't move around too much and don't have sex. If you're going to have sex, arrange it!', everyone laughed, enjoying a unique energy field."
These spaces are literally integrated, open, with no concern for anything established by the concepts of morality and behavior. There was no promiscuity, but the human being living in freedom with nature itself. For me that was the fundamental point.
Gerson says that during his career he felt very confident about doing his work despite the differences from what had been proposed. In the 1970s and 1980s it was easier to let people be carried away and even today some clients are extremely open and ask for concepts, ideas, and shapes. However, he faces today more difficulties in this sense due to the "decoration trade fairs, the saturated market, a huge number of professionals being trained together with suppliers who are paying them commissions, prostitution in the business. It is no longer the client who pays the architect, but the supplier, who also sustains this great catwalk of architecture, fads, finishings, and determines what should be and what shouldn't."
When giving lectures in several Brazilian universities, I felt bothered by the old-fashioned nature of architecture schools, by the constraints they impose on the minds of young people in Brazil. A lack of self-direction, a subordination to the market, to materials.
In general, one can say that Gerson expresses his dissatisfaction with the current scenario of architecture, just as he was unable to see himself inside the city, "getting along normally, I have spent my whole life hiding, looking for shelter on the beach, in the countryside." Finally, the lack of academic background, the non-subordination to the ruling market, the societal castrations opposed to the freedom and proximity to nature he experienced, together with the way he appropriates the climates, are some of the main factors that helped to shape his character and way of thinking the spaces. Without a doubt, it is a unique way of approaching architecture and has a lot to teach us.