Sérgio Ferro is a Brazilian architect and painter who was born in Curitiba in 1938. He graduated from the University of São Paulo in 1962 but was jailed by the Brazilian dictatorship alongside his mentor, Vilanova Artigas and his colleague Rodrigo Lefèvre. Ferro was exiled for 30 years and spent a large part of this time in France teaching at the Grenoble School of Architecture. From 1960-1970 he was a member of Arquitectura Nova, a radical architecture group which he formed with Flávio Império and Rodrigo Lefèvre. The group critiqued Brazil's modernist impulse, which they viewed as excluding the vast majority of Brazilians who were living in poverty. Instead they took part in urban actions and proposed strategies that would democratise access to architecture as well as the design and building process itself. They described their work as creating an 'aesthetics of poverty' and a 'poetics of economy' imagining a highly politicised approach to architecture.
Ferro in particular developed this argument of the city not as a place of aesthetic beauty, as the modernists conceptualised it, but as a place of extreme cruelty. His ideas took shape during the 1960s when he was involved in the design of Brasília, the new capital city. The disjunction between the architectural discourse of freedom and democracy that surrounded the project and the reality of the inhuman working conditions on site, were formative for Ferro and his critique of the architectural profession. He witnessed first hand the working conditions on site, the poor pay, lack of food, the dysentery that was rife, and the dangerous building practices that seemed to have no regard for the lives of the workers. Worst amongst these was the construction of Oscar Niemeyer's showcase buildings, the National Congress whose bowl shaped chamber required a huge steel structure under which workers were crushed, and the cathedral from whose concrete ribs workers had to swing during construction. Ferro saw these working conditions as part of a system of organised repression and control, where the work camps were controlled by a constant threat of violence.
These experiences led Ferro to write extensively on architecture as the production of commodity, whose 'modern' practices demanded a division of labour in order to generate the highest profits. For Ferro, this attitude was encapsulated in the architectural drawing, whose exclusive language alienated builders, couching them as ignorant manual labour. The situation was exacerbated through isolating each part of the construction process, which effectively gave architects complete control and removed all agency from those who built their designs. In Ferro's conceptualisation of architecture, the process of designing buildings could not be separated from their construction.
Sérgio Ferro, Arquitectura e Trabalho Livre (São Paulo: CosacNaify, 2006).
Elisabetta Andreoli and Adrian Forty, Brazil's Modern Architecture (London: Phaidon, 2004).
Pedro Fiori Arantes, Arquitetura Nova: Sérgio Ferro, Flávio Império e Rodrigo Lefèvre, de Artigas aos mutirões (São Paulo: Editora 34, 2002).
Valerie Fraser, Building the New World: Studies in the Modern Architecture of Latin America 1930-1960, (London: Verso, 2000).
Styliane Philippou, "The Primitive as an Instrument of
Subversion in Twentieth-Century Brazilian Cultural Practice,"
ARQ: Architectural Research Quarterly 8, no. 3-4 (2004):
Richard J. Williams, "Towards an Aesthetics of Poverty: Architecture and the Neo-Avant-Garde in 1960s Brazil," in Neo-Avant-Garde, ed. David Hopkins (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006).
---, "Brasília after Brasília," Progress in Planning 67, no. 4 (May 2007): 301-366.
"Report on Brazil," Architectural Review, no. 116 (1954): 234-250.
'I lived with workers who participated in that construction.
They told me of a suffering that we understood poorly then:
numerous suicides, workers throwing themselves under trucks,
dysentery almost every day, surrounded, without being able to
- Sérgio Ferro quoted in, Richard J. Williams, "Brasília after Brasília," Progress in Planning 67, no. 4 (May 2007): 301-366.
'…Ferro and his group laid the emphasis on the process of
building. Broadly, it was through identification with building, not
design, that a radical architecture could be achieved. In this
respect, Brasília represented for them everything that had to be
overturned; it was a place that elevated design at the expense of
building, with the result that its realisation involved profoundly
- Richard J. Williams, "Towards an Aesthetics of Poverty: Architecture and the Neo-Avant-Garde in 1960s Brazil," in Neo-Avant-Garde, ed. David Hopkins (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), p. 211.
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