When I was scooting around Airbnb looking for a place to stay in Belo Horizonte, the first thing I noticed about the city was its striking city plan. This led to some googling.
Brazilian urbanist Aarão Reis designed the city in the 1890s. At that time, the people in Minas Gerais (the state that BH is in) had decided to move their capital city from the old 18th-century town of Ouro Preto to a new city -- one less associated with former colonial rule -- that would become Belo Horizonte. Fascinatingly, it is composed of a grid of large avenidas with a smaller grid superimposed at a 45-degree angle. This makes for some really tricky intersections to cross where four streets converge!
Fast forward to the 1940s, when Juscelino Kubitschek, then-mayor of Belo Horizonte (who would later become president and commission Brasília), wanted to renovate the new-ish capital city. Kubitschek decided to create an entirely new neighborhood in the Brazilian modernist style. Impressed by Niemeyer's Grande Hotel de Ouro Preto (more on this in an upcoming blog post!), Kubitschek asked the 31 year old Niemeyer to create Pampulha on the banks of an artificial lake north of the city center.
Niemeyer designed a casino, dance hall, yacht club, church, hotel (unbuilt), and a weekend house for Kubitschek in Pampulha.
The Casa do Baile (1942), or dance hall, is a little jewel of a building. In essence, it is a cylindrical volume with a roof slab that peels off and extends horizontally to form a curving canopy, following the edge of the lake. Large curving glass doors open out onto a patio. The play between the artificial and the natural is at once subtle and overt: the building seems to blend so seamlessly with the setting -- until you remember that the lake, too, is designed. And not to be too heavy handed, but the reflections of the water "dancing" on the underside of the canopy are pretty fantastic.
In more recent years, Niemeyer created a couple wall drawings in the Casa do Baile that posit the project of Pampulha as the precursor to Brasília.
Visiting what was once the casino (1942), now a modern art museum, permanently solidified my knowledge of the word "fechado" -- it was closed for an exhibition change-over. Before my uber left (at which point I would have been about an hour and a half walk from the buildings on the other side of the lake!), I took some quick photos of the exterior. Later, across the lake I looked back at the building and its (do I even need to say it?) Burle Marx-landscaped gardens.
A gentleman named Wagner showed me around the yacht club (1942), which I unwittingly waltzed into thinking it was a tourist site like the other buildings. But no! It is a functioning private swim and tennis club. The yacht club building is famed for its use of a "butterfly roof," which would become a trope of mid-century modernism. The butterfly roof, truly a roof leak made to order, inverts a traditional pitched roof form into a V-shape.
Originally, boats could dock on the lower level, and the upper deck was apparently meant to make you feel as if you were out on the water on a boat.
The iconic Igreja de São Francisco de Assis is made up of of self-supporting reinforced concrete domes of varying sizes, the largest of which serves as the nave of the church. The building's form and Cândido Portinari's accompanying murals were so unusual at the time that after the church was completed in 1943, the archbishop refused to consecrate it, deeming it "unfit for religious purposes." It wasn't consecrated until 1959. The blue and white Portinari tiles gesture toward the blue and white Portuguese azulejos that I mentioned in my last post on the baroque church in Rio de Janeiro, Nossa Senhora da Glória.
I think the Igreja de São Francisco de Assis is a good example of how many of Niemeyer's works seem to evade scale. Out of a "typical" city context, and with such inventive forms, it is so hard to predict the size of the works before you see them in person. This church is actually pretty small!
Even when Niemeyer's buildings are in an urban setting, such as the residential building he did in Belo Horizonte (in the photo gallery below), they still confuse. The building looks taller than it is; one would expect each horizontal band to represent a building floor, but there are actually three bands per floor, so it is not as tall as it appears. (Thanks Renato for pointing this out to me!)
Back in the Centro, Renato and Isadora, my lovely hosts in Beagá (Portuguese for "B-H") pointed me toward some great spots. Here are some of my favorites: Casa Bonomi for breakfast, the Mercado Central for all things Minas Gerais, and Guaja, a new co-working space where Isadora works with a hip, hip bar. I will never forget stargazing with them from Praça do Papa and seeing the Southern Cross constellation -- only visible regularly in the southern hemisphere, always pointing southward.