This was the "crazy" leg of my trip. I flew from São Paulo to Porto Alegre, which is located in the southernmost state of Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul. From there, it was a 7-hour bus to the small southwestern town of Santo Angelo. Cue another 1.5-hour bus the next morning to reach São Miguel das Missões, the ruinous site of a 17th-century Jesuit mission and accompanying Lucio Costa-designed museum, built in 1937. São Miguel is one of the most remote places I have ever been, and I was so in awe of where I was on the globe that I took a screenshot of my google maps location:
The site of São Miguel das Missões is at the crux of my project. It combines a Costa-selected historic site chosen at the onset of Brazil's official national historic preservation program to be representative of Brazil's architectural heritage, with a building designed by him in a modernist architectural language that responds to an existing colonial-era structure. São Miguel das Missões was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
The ruins of the church, São Miguel Arcanjo are completely magnificent -- visually, and for the story they embody. São Miguel is one of dozens of missions that the Jesuits built in the 17th century (the remains of 30 exist today), in a region that comprises present-day southwestern Brazil, southern Paraguay, and northern Argentina. These missions were created at the behest of the governor of the then-Spanish province of Paraguay, who ordered the Jesuits to convert the Guarani people who lived here.
The oft-cited characteristic of the Jesuit communities is that they sought to convert the Guarani without destroying their cultural and linguistic practices. The art and music of this time and place is said to have combined Guarani and European traditions. The Jesuits also created a written form of the Tupi-Guarani language, publishing several works in it on one of South America's earliest printing presses.
Looking at the architecture and the reconstructed plan, however, hierarchies of power are clear (not to mention the privilege given to a written form of language). The model in my photo below shows what is thought to have been São Miguel's layout for its 6,900 inhabitants. Starting at the bottom of the photo and circling around the site counter clockwise, this settlement contained houses for the Guarani; a house for visitors/travelers; a storehouse and workshop space; a cloister, colégio (college/education space), and priests' residence; the church; an orchard and garden; a cemetery, and an orphanage.
The plan surprised me in its lack of a city-like layout. Instead of streets radiating from the main praça as one might find in a typical colonial town, the plan looks like an enlarged open-air church format, with the houses in place of "pews", and larger spaces of power centrally concentrated at one end, like an altar zone.
An Italian architect named Gian Battista Primoli designed the church in 1735, and it is largely what remains of São Miguel das Missões today. In 1750 the Treaty of Madrid dictated that São Miguel and like sites be handed over to Portuguese rule, which did not protect the Guarani from being enslaved. The Guarani War ensued, resulting in 1,500 Guarani deaths, many more sold into slavery, and the decimation of their population. The site fell into ruin.
Costa's modest museum houses 18th-century religious art from the missions that was dispersed throughout the region. In his design, Costa utilized the existing entrance pavilion to the park, adding to it an understated glass enclosure. The open plan and large panes of glass employ some building blocks of modernism -- but I think you have to hunt for the modern aspects in this work. The pavilion's design seems to defer to the church, the crown jewel of the archaeological site. Vestiges of the ruins are worked into the walls of the museum, and the material coloration certainly is a sensitive quotation of the ruins.
When I visited São Miguel das Missões, Costa's museum was under renovation because high winds had blown out the large glass windows. (Art objects have been moved to a nearby location for display.) It was also one of the only days it rained on my trip. It somehow seemed very fitting that I be incredibly aware of the weather and its impact as I walked through these ruinous shells of both baroque and modern architecture.
I stuck around for the somewhat kitschy light and sound show, which recounts the history of the site in 45 minutes (and outside in 40-degree Fahrenheit weather!). It was interesting to see a different type of educational tool -- a way to convey didactic material without covering the site in informational plaques. This is a gaucho sitting in front of me!
Experiencing São Miguel das Missões was certainly a highlight, but seeing the countryside of Rio Grande do Sul was also fascinating. The rolling hills were full of horses, cows, chickens, orange trees, and the occasional lone palm tree. Gauchos, a term used to refer to local ranchers of the region, wandered the town in their traditional attire of blooming pants, cowboy-like boots, hats, and ponchos. I tasted a chimarrão, erva-mate tea drunk from a gourd with a metal straw, and it was even cold enough to cozy up to the fireplace in my pousada.