Erasing Walls: Ceramic Tile Murals in Brazilian Modernism

I felt like I was Nino Rota and Oscar Niemeyer was Fellini, it was like I was creating an important piece of music in that work of art.” Renowned visual artist Athos Bulcão uses this comparison between the Italian composer and the film director to refer to the relationship between his work with ceramic tiles and architecture. This fusion between art and architecture marked an important period in the history of Brazil, shedding light on issues such as national identity, the massification of art, and architectural techniques aimed at the tropical climate.

The history of ceramic tiles in Brazil goes back many years before they started being incorporated into the concrete monoliths of modern architecture. It started when Portuguese settlers first arrived in the country and introduced them together with other art forms, which started a process of acculturation featuring true copies of the European empire. From polychromatic patterns to monochromatic shades of blue – an influence of Chinese porcelain, historically associated with the great stability of this pigment, and its properties of withstanding the highest firing temperatures – tiles have left their mark on Brazilian architecture since the colonial period.

However, after a long period of neglect, Brazilian architecture witnessed the revival of ceramic tiles in 1936, when Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier visited the country. According to some authors, the architect became fascinated by the beauty of the tiles at the Nossa Senhora da Glória do Outeiro church, in Rio de Janeiro, and suggested using them in the project of the Ministry of Education and Health, also known as the Gustavo Capanema Palace. In fact, historian Yves Bruand states that this proposal was revolutionary and of significant impact on the evolution of architecture in the country, precisely because Le Corbusier encouraged young architects to use native and traditional elements integrated into the architecture, stressing that the 20th-century style was international, but that this did not imply a rejection of regional elements that would ensure originality.

Clássicos da Arquitetura: Ministério de Educação e Saúde / Lucio Costa e equipe. © Marina de Holanda
Clássicos da Arquitetura: Ministério de Educação e Saúde / Lucio Costa e equipe. © Marina de Holanda

His remark fit like a glove as the country was going through a process of discovering its architectural identity in the midst of a nationalist context, so much so that after the construction of the Ministry, tiles started being used in other public buildings. This contributed to the consolidation and empowerment of the ideals of the government, which encouraged artists such as Athos Bulcão, Candido Portinari, Burle Marx, Djanira, and Paulo Rossi-Ozir to create a new visual language using tiles.

According to Roberto Segre (2006), tiles humanized the abstract vocabulary of architecture, recovering a lost tradition, but also bringing a tropical light to buildings with their shining white finish, thus connecting art with the public and allowing people to break from the automatism of daily life and engage in a natural dialogue with architecture.

If tiles brought exuberance to the planes and volumes of the heavy colonial buildings, in modern architecture they provided grace and fluidity to the geometric designs, working as a mediating element between the static form and the environment. – Roberto Segre 

The high temperatures and humidity levels greatly impact the choice of materials so, the fact that they are perfectly suited to the Brazilian climate, providing good protection for exterior walls that are exposed to heavy rains and intense solar radiation, has also helped to consolidate their popularity once and for all.

Clássicos da Arquitetura: Ministério de Educação e Saúde / Lucio Costa e equipe. © Flickr tot. Used under Creative Commons
Clássicos da Arquitetura: Ministério de Educação e Saúde / Lucio Costa e equipe. © Flickr tot. Used under Creative Commons

Although it is considered a decorative element, tiles had their potential increased when they started to be used alongside the architectural project in a close relationship, often from the very first concepts, thus resulting in unity between construction and finishing. However, despite this inseparable connection, as art became an almost mandatory addition to the projects of the time – which included sculpture, painting, tile murals, etc. – Bruand (1999) emphasizes that architecture had the leading role. It was always the architect who decided which role would be assigned to the painter or the sculptor, placing the work of art in the right place. In other words, the artwork would never affect the structural aspect of the building, and its purpose was to enhance the walls to be more than just simple enclosures.

About the emblematic Capanema Palace, pointed out by many as the first example of modern architecture in Brazil and the first to revisit the use of tiles, architect Lucio Costa who was part of the design team states, that the tiles featured on the ground floor and the smooth pattern adopted in the composition of the large murals clearly had the function of softening the density of the walls to take away any impression of structural support, since the upper block is not supported by the walls, but by the columns.

Six of the seven murals in the project were made by Candido Portinari while the last one is by artist Paulo Rossi, and both have greatly contributed to the team’s desire to integrate the tiles with the other works of art in the building and “dissolve” the walls on the ground floor to ensure that they were not perceived as structural elements, but exclusively as a building envelope.

Clássicos da Arquitetura: Ministério de Educação e Saúde / Lucio Costa e equipe. © Marina de Holanda
Clássicos da Arquitetura: Ministério de Educação e Saúde / Lucio Costa e equipe. © Marina de Holanda

Speaking of Portinari’s work, it is worth mentioning the famous murals he designed for Oscar Niemeyer’s São Francisco de Assis Church, also known as Pampulha Chapel. Different from the Ministry of Education and Health, this time the artist departs from abstractionism and moves towards figurative art. The Pampulha murals are seen as a sequel to the designs in the Ministry, featuring the same pattern of blue and white tiles that echoes the Portuguese colonial style, which given the religious function of the building, seemed all the more natural. The use of tiles in this bold modern project creates an interesting balance between the unique volume and the pictorial scene, working together to build the ambiance of the space.

Another major example of tiles in modern architecture is the Nossa Senhora de Fátima church in Brasilia. This emblematic project by Niemeyer consists of a triangular-shaped building with a concrete roof supported by three columns. The exterior walls of the church are covered with tiles by Athos Bulcão, forming a seamless blue and white pattern. Just like in the Capanema Palace, these tiles are used to accentuate the function of the walls as a non-structural building envelope.

Clássicos da Arquitetura: Igreja da Pampulha / Oscar Niemeyer
Clássicos da Arquitetura: Igreja da Pampulha / Oscar Niemeyer

And finally, one cannot speak of modernist tile murals without mentioning the work of Roberto Burle-Marx, who not only worked as a landscape designer but also created about 100 different murals, probably the most remarkable example being his design for the Clube de Regatas Vasco da Gama, a sports club facility at Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, Rio de Janeiro, in which he covered the back wall with marine motifs, conveying a sense of motion and lightness of water. He also designed the recently renovated murals at the gardens of the Instituto Moreira Salles and the Fundação Oswaldo Cruz.

Roberto Burle Marx's Legacy Reveals The Role of Landscape Architects. © TYBA
Roberto Burle Marx’s Legacy Reveals The Role of Landscape Architects. © TYBA

In this journey through the history of tiles in modern architecture, Maria Cecília Lourenço (1995) explains that there is no doubt that these murals have contributed to modern architecture, either by erasing walls, as Le Corbusier mentioned or by attracting the attention of passers-by, who are somewhat numbed by the scenery of everyday life. The balanced combination of murals and architecture allows the modern symphony to take over the streets and transfer its dreams to the urban environment.