How Two Photographers Captured the Unique Modernism of Lina Bo Bardi and Albert Frey

This article excerpts from “Albert Frey and Lina Bo Bardi: A Search for Living Architecture,” a book based on a Palm Springs Art Museum exhibition of the same name.

Lina Bo Bardi, Bardi House (Casa de vidro), São Paulo, Brazil, 1949-1952. Courtesy Nelson Kon

Albert Frey and Lina Bo Bardi: A Search for Living Architecture is a book (Prestel, 2017) based on a Palm Springs Art Museum exhibition of the same name that runs through January 7th, 2018. (See our exhibition review here.) Below are excerpts from the book’s chapter “The Poetry of Living: Photography and the Architectural Spaces of Lina Bo Bardi and Albert Frey”; the chapter explores how different photographers have captured the works of Bo Bardi and Frey.

Nelson Kon: Between Utopian Form and the Poetry of Living 

Brazilian architectural photographer Nelson Kon has captured Lina Bo Bardi’s interest in the living aspects of architecture through his multi-layered depictions, including primary images of her personal residence, the Bardi House (Casa de vidro), Morumbi (1949–52). Kon balances the formal aesthetic elements fundamental to Bo Bardi’s design with a visual montage reflecting her diverse mix of nature, folk toys, handcrafts, theater props, models, ethnographic artifacts, historical fine art, Renaissance and Baroque statuary, peasant tools, and modern furniture. Even without including people, his photographs often speak to the lived experiences of personal use. Kon’s depiction conveys the emotional tenor that adheres to Bo Bardi’s spaces as the viewer’s focus shifts throughout his images, gathering together the architect’s collection of objects and the patina of human interactions with the natural world, history, and society that they carry.

In his photograph of the house, taken from the interior of the dining room, Kon produces a visual diptych, dividing the image equally between an interior view and the glassed well at the center of the house. A Ficus benjamina tree grows up through the well from the garden below, linking the inside of the house to the jungle that has grown up around it. The tree anchors the natural elements on the left while a Renaissance statue on the marble table and a modern gooseneck lamp command the foreground on the right as touchstones of the eclectic cultural references within the house. Bo Bardi harmonizes a jumble of cultural references within her modern glass structure, a testament to the diversity of the past and its continuity with the present. Far from the abstract purity usually associated with modernist aesthetics, she organizes this panoply of objects into a rich evocation of human creativity shared by all societies.

Bo Bardi Frey Living Architecture Book
Lina Bo Bardi, Bardi House (Casa de vidro), São Paulo, Brazil, 1949-1952, photograph by Nelson Kon, 2002. Courtesy Nelson Kon

At the same time, Kon reveals the modern structural elements of concrete, support pillars, and steel mullions along with the expansive use of industrial glass to illustrate how the house positions its inhabitants in relationship to the natural setting. In his photograph depicting a group of whimsical animals from Bo Bardi’s folk art collection, walls of glass reveal the proximity of dense jungle foliage enveloping the house just outside the windows (see above immediately above). A photograph of the house from outside makes clear just how much vegetation surrounds the structure, filtering the harsh sunlight through leaves and branches (see article’s lead image). The exterior view in this image presents the house from below, the approach cutting through thick jungle and the main floor rising on slender pilotis, one of which is also visible rising through the tiled floor in the photograph of folk objects. Bo Bardi draws her vocabulary from Le Corbusier’s famous modernist house the Villa Savoye, but his building sits isolated on a sweeping plane as a utopian “machine for living.” Kon’s photograph emphasizes how, in contrast to Le Corbusier, Bo Bardi embeds her building within the natural condition of the landscape as if it were a tree house, consistent with her lifelong interest in utilizing a common vernacular to design spaces for living that embody creative play and childhood experiences.

Nelson Kon’s photograph of Bo Bardi’s innovative museum, Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), 1957–68, reinforces the sense of imposing scale and vision of an impressive technological future inherent in the vocabulary of utopian ideologies. At first glance, the museum appears to retreat from Bo Bardi’s reliance on vernacular design elements in favor of absorbing the monumentalism characteristic of European modern structures. The building, hanging from two giant red lintel supports, is elevated, lifting it above street level and creating a protected plaza underneath its massive presence. Kon’s ground-level point of view at the corner of the building emphasizes the towering concrete pillars in Bo Bardi’s signature red hue. Their imposing mass dwarfs the pedestrians in the foreground, and the strong two-point perspective of the horizontal rectangle, with its grid of glass windows elevated in space, adds to the impression of the building’s length and its rational engineering achievement.

Through his photographic strategies, Kon inscribes MASP within the familiar vocabulary of Brazilian architecture associated with its adoption of the European principles from Le Corbusier, most famously identified with the brutalist aesthetic of the group known as Escola Carioca in Rio de Janeiro. Even more, it appears to recall the spectacular structures of utopian ambition associated with Brasilia, which was being planned and built by Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer at the same time. However, Bo Bardi spent her career challenging the principles embodied by the modernist designs of utopian Brazilian architects. Rather than being aligned with the more abstract political ambitions of those practitioners, Bo Bardi’s vision of modernism encompassed a more human approach to design that looked to the everyday experiences of people and the activities that enriched their cultural lives.

Kon captures that viewpoint in a frequently published photograph taken from the steps of the entrance underneath the museum. In this image, a group of people gathers in the middle of Trianon Terrace, the sheltered public square created by the structure and contracted to landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. The monumental supports that form the pillars lifting the building into the air are reduced in their magnitude to background elements, red accents bearing up the plaza’s ceiling. The building’s mass is transformed into an expansive roof, conveying a sense of compression that locates its inhabitants within a sheltered, human-scaled space.

The rough granite cobblestones paving the square counter the industrial reference of the concrete overhead and recall the historic streets and plazas that were once the center of community life. Similarly, the large stone that marks the entrance at the bottom of the stairway speaks directly to Bo Bardi’s interest in the commonplace. It illustrates her passion for the native rocks and non-precious materials that she used to incorporate natural elements into her designs. The blur of people and traffic on the adjacent sidewalk and street contrasts with the stillness of the plaza and reinforces the space as a gathering place for social intercourse and recreation. In opposition to Kon’s other image of the museum as a monument to industrial engineering and technological supremacy, this photograph replaces that homage to the state’s power with a series of associations that recall human interactions and the impact of spatial experiences on the body. 

Bo Bardi Frey Living Architecture Book
Albert Frey, Frey House II Palm Springs, CA, 1963-64, view from the southeast, photograph by François Halard, 1995. Courtesy François Halard

François Halard: The Poetry of Nature

In 1995, acclaimed interiors photographer François Halard turned his camera to Frey House II (1964), which served as the architect’s final home and studio. Halard, known for his use of materials, textures, and rich color, communicates the poetic relationship between the natural features of the site and Frey’s translation of them into design elements. In this series of photographs, Halard conflates the viewer’s experience of the house and its rocky hillside setting.

Two natural boulders, their striations thrusting up from the frame at a forty-five-degree angle, fill the bottom third of one photograph, occupying the very front of the pictorial space, where Halard’s camera has also positioned the viewer (see image above). Potent signs of the earthquakes that formed the region’s geology, these rocks heighten the emotional feeling of the site’s tenuous physical experience. Moreover, they rhyme the boulder around which the house is built, reinforced by the floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass walls that simultaneously offer glimpses through the structure and reflect the surrounding terrain. Held aloft by parallel steel I-beams, the corrugated-metal roof appears to float above the glass rectangle of the house, contributing to its feeling of impermanence in spite of the industrial materials. Halard is known for his images of interiors that reveal the lives of their inhabitants by finding focus in the juxtaposition of myriad details. Here the photographer uses the house as if it were the camera lens, presenting multiple views of the natural landscape at once through the transparency and reflectivity of the sliding-glass window walls.

Bo Bardi Frey Living Architecture Book
Albert Frey, Frey House II Palm Springs, CA, 1963-64, view from the southeast, photograph by François Halard, 1995. Courtesy François Halard

Another photograph still communicates, in spite of its more conventional vantage point, how Frey incorporated the rocky landscape of the site into his architectural design, wrapping it around the modern structure (see image above).The house ends just beyond the pool at a row of large boulders that emerge from the right edge of the frame and continue to be visible across

the image through the glass walls. A rock garden of natural desert plants along the front corrugated-metal wall leads the viewer’s eye from the left foreground to concrete steps that reveal how the building adapts to the physical demands of the site. An unusual rainy day transforms the concrete patio into another reflective surface, generating a more diffuse light than is typical in the desert. In his monograph where these photographs are published, Halard writes about this relationship between building and site: “It’s the dialogue between architecture and the desert: rock, cement, and steel.” Although produced by discrete experiences, the various associations captured in the photograph combine to suggest how one might experience a design that takes an experience of the environment as its genesis.

You may also enjoy “Inside Alexander Girard’s Little-Known Photographic Archive.”

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