Page C1.2 . 26 September 2007                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Public Architecture of Curitiba

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Across the fabric, planned farsightedly and progressively with the leadership of a generation of politically engaged designers — led famously by architect Jamie Lerner, first appointed mayor in 1971 — many innovative and exciting public building projects have helped turn one challenging location after another into an array of civic jewels. This resourceful, economical program has been a key dimension of Curitiba's successful development of real urban quality.

At the Museo Oscar Niemeyer, 2002, by Oscar Niemeyer (who is poised to turn 100 on December 15, 2007), the architect combines three strong elements: dancing, expressively Brazilian curves; an exuberantly sculptural landmark icon; and the reserved, minimalist, and Modern treasure box. The simple material palette of white concrete, yellow tile, and blue-sky-reflecting glass effectively leaves the shapes to do the talking.

Fine granite has been quarried in and around Curitiba for generations. The inner mines have played out, or been pushed out by development, often leaving behind postindustrial hazards including sheer cliffs surrounding water-filled excavations. Several of these have been reclaimed as community cultural and open space assets with elegant design interventions.

The Eye Museum is one of twelve stops along the carefully designed Tourist Line bus route (used very much by locals and other Brazilians as well), which loops around the city, connecting these special sites. Another stop, the Ópera de Arame, or "Wire Opera," 1992, by Domingos Bongestabs, in the Parque das Pedreiras, sits inside one of the city's reclaimed quarries, approached by a matching causeway across the quarry pond, which is picturesquely fed by waterfall.

The Wire Opera is built with a gossamer armature of small metal tubing that supports sheet acrylic for enclosure. Spun like a child's toy construction of minimal parts (while at the same time entirely designed), it sits beside the recovered reflecting pond and waterfall like an actual act of imagination as much as a building. One only hopes that the performances given within the structure achieve comparable degrees of creative, theatrical alchemy.

Built of retired utility poles, like an exuberant spiral jungle-gym, the Free University of the Environment, another 1992 work by Domingos Bongestabs, also rests in a reclaimed quarry pit, with a pond beside the building. Approached on a boardwalk through the lush greenery of Bosque Zaninelli, ramps and stairs wind up through the pole framework of the Free University to reach the clifftops and field above.

In Parque Tangua, at yet another of the twelve Tourist Line stops, the Poty Lazzarotto Garden, 1998, the public park structure itself sits poised atop the high cliffs formed by a pair of huge quarry pits. Here, the still water is a classic symmetrical reflecting pool, with a tongue flowing out beneath a bridge of the viewing structure and then breathtakingly into space. The building itself is somewhat contrived and bland, but at sunset, for instance, the landscape, structure, and water in combination become something spectacular.

Other conscious deployments of public architecture are far from the tourist loop. A series of satellite libraries, providing neighborhood Internet access and local access to a variety of city services beyond books and media, are styled as "lighthouses of knowledge." Each is designed differently, but all incorporate a small-but-literal lighthouse as part of the building form.

The symbolism is heavy-handed, but perhaps still charming as a way of highlighting these public library outposts amid the complexity of diverse urban neighborhoods.

The express bus tube stations themselves are high-design urban elements, both in terms of human factors and visual impact. Utilitarian but elegant, part of the civic identity of the sometime Ecological Capital of Brazil.

In most of Curitiba's public architecture of the last 30 years, shape and color rather than expensive materials have been used to express the art of the community as something accessible and affordable — an architecture consciously of the commons, rather than of the castle.

Amidst the outstanding success of technical planning, and in the fullest spirit of Ian McHarg's classic planning guide Design with Nature, Curitiba's public architecture helps to remind us that beauty in the manmade remains fundamental in our connection with the soul of a spirited place.   >>>

Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

Kevin Matthews is Editor-in-Chief of ArchitectureWeek.

Special thanks to Candace Nelson for her assistance in the research for this article, to our friends and contacts in Curitiba for all their kindness, and to Brazilian Marble and Granite for travel support.

 

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Benches along the edge of the massive plinth at the museum look out over a sculpture garden.
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While white predominates at the Museo Oscar Niemeyer, a vivid yellow pier supports the "eye."
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Long entry ramps flow around the glass-and-steel observation tower that punctuates the entry to the site of the Museo Oscar Niemeyer in Curitiba, Brazil.
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Curitiba, Brazil, is a dense city of over a million and a half, with numerous mid-rise and high-rise buildings.
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Several public buildings in Curitiba, including the Ópera de Arame by Domingos Bongestabs, have been built in abandoned granite quarries.
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Open balconies surround the theater space at the Ópera de Arame, or "Wire Opera," allowing views of the reclaimed quarry.
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The theater space at the "Wire Opera" is covered with an acrylic panel dome that offers some minimal protection in the open-air theater.
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In Curitiba, like many Brazilian cities, the samba really does play all night.
Photo: Kevin Matthews / Artifice Images

 

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