Carmen Portinho and the Vanguard of Modernism in Brazil

In the early 1920s, a time when women could not even work without their husband's authorization, Carmen Portinho started an engineering course at the Polytechnic School of the University of Brazil. At the vanguard of the profession, as one of the first three women to graduate as engineers in Brazil, she was opening up a field in a space dominated entirely by men.

Carmen Velasco Portinho was the daughter of a gaucho father and a Bolivian mother. She was born in 1903 in Corumbá, Mato Grosso do Sul, a border region, and only 8 years later she moved to Rio de Janeiro with her family. Before emerging in the profession, she became known as a suffrage leader fundamental to the conquest of the female vote, of those who travel by small planes, spreading flyers to call on women to join the feminist struggle. A visible boldness that permeated all the activities she developed, incorporating women's rights in different instances, from professional encouragement to project details.

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Carmen Portinho. Wikimedia Commons licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Among her great social achievements, it is worth mentioning the creation of Women's University Union in her own home in 1932, a place where women could seek support in the career they chose, helping to raise awareness of the importance of technical preparation and intellectual development – after all, as Carmen herself stated, political emancipation would be useless without economic emancipation.

As her first job in her career, Carmen was invited to take over the directorship of Works and Traffic at Rio de Janeiro’s City Hall, the country's capital at the time. A public office in which she suffered numerous episodes of demoralization for being a woman, but where, despite this, she stood out with important projects such as coordinating the implementation of electric power grid in public schools, a fact that made it possible to open night courses.

Although always very discreet, Carmen had an irreverent and audacious personality, which came out when she led construction teams with hundreds of workers with whom, according to her, she learned to appreciate a nice cachaça. However, despite her career in civil construction, it was at the beginning of the 1930s that Carmen officially took up the field of urbanism, becoming the first woman in the country to obtain the title of urbanist promulgated by the Universidade do Distrito Federal. To this end, it was customary for the student to defend a thesis and, in Carmen's case, the chosen theme reverberates to this day in Brazilian history. The engineer and, from then on, urbanist presented the “Preliminary Project for the Future Capital of Brazil in the Central Plateau”.

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Museu de Arte Moderna. Imagem cortesia de CAU/BR
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Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro. Foto © Centro de Documentação e Pesquisa do MAM

Based on a study carried out in 1892 by a commission charged by the Brazilian government to define the ideal place where the construction of the new capital of the country would take place, Carmen studied the climatic and geographical conditions of the central plateau, finally choosing the same region. that 20 years later would be defined by Lucio Costa for the foundation of Brasília. The similarities, however, do not stop there. Carmen, an assiduous enthusiast of the modern movement, followed Le Corbusier's precepts to the letter for the design of her project, creating a kind of Ville Radieuse, defending the protagonism of residential areas, green spaces, density, buildings built on pilotis and garden roofs. When confronted about the great similarity between her project and Lucio Costa's, Carmen credits the similarity to the fact that both used as a basis the same research on the place and the same precepts of modern urbanism. Carmen's project was the prototype of the functional city defined by CIAM's. Such boldness made her a precursor of the idea of building an entirely modern city in Brazil and the recognition of that is a debt that history owes to Carmen.

Shortly after founding the Brazilian Association of Engineers and Architects (ABEA), Carmen began a study program in England in 1944, and found a war-torn London. However, in the midst of the chaotic and desolate scenario of the time, the engineer was touched by the way the public power was conducting and prioritizing popular housing. Determined to follow the path of popular housing, Carmen arrived in Brazil and established a partnership with Affonso Reidy, who would become her work and life partner until his death in 1964. Together, they were responsible for several projects that marked the history of modern architecture in the country, among them Pedregulho housing complex, in Gávea, Rio’s Museum of Modern Art and their own houses in Jacarepaguá and Itaipava.

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Conjunto Residencial Prefeito Mendes de Moraes (Pedregulho). Image Cortesia de EAD/PUCV

The affinity between the couple, manifested through these great works, was equally reflected in their concern with social issues. In the Pedregulho project, for example, in addition to the bold form and urban insertion, it is possible to see a series of initiatives related to the comfort of the population, such as the total separation between the circulation of cars and pedestrians, protecting children. It is also in this project that Carmen was able to introduce the concept of Neighborhood Units, designing a self-sufficient complex that houses a school at its heart, as well as a health center and commercial units. Regarding this sensitivity, it is worth highlighting Lucio Costa's speech when he stated at one point that the role played by Carmen in the conception of Pedregulho extrapolated the technical demands of an urban engineer, she was there to “teach how to live”. In it, Carmen's activism is once again intertwined with the professional role she played, clearly materialized through the automated collective laundries that, as Gropius had already proposed, symbolized the emancipation of women by relieving them of domestic burdens.

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Conjunto Residencial Prefeito Mendes de Moraes (Pedregulho). Foto © Pedro Mascaro

After these projects, she was still director of MAM, art critic and director of Escola Superior de Desenho Industrial (ESDI) for over 20 years. Carmen Portinho lived until 2001, and in her almost a century of life she left an unprecedented professional and social legacy through a militancy that genuinely reached all spheres of her life.

Reference: RISÉRIO, André. Mulher, casa e cidade. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2015.

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Cite: Ghisleni, Camilla. "Carmen Portinho and the Vanguard of Modernism in Brazil" [Carmen Portinho e a vanguarda do modernismo no Brasil] 01 Feb 2022. ArchDaily. (Trans. Simões, Diogo) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

Conjunto Residencial Prefeito Mendes de Moraes (Pedregulho). Foto © Pedro Mascaro


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