Hans Ulrich Obrist on Curating a Floating Homage in Lina Bo Bardi's Glass House

Hans Ulrich Obrist on Curating a Floating Homage in Lina Bo Bardi's Glass House
Lina Bo Bardi's Casa de Vidro ("Glass House"), São Paulo
(Courtesy of Nadine Johnson & Associates, Inc.)

Although perhaps not universally known, the late Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi was a well-loved and influential force in tropical modernity and a champion of Brazilian artists. Arguably the best-loved of her works is the 1951 Casa de Vidro, or Glass House, of São Paulo. In its transparency and elegance it appears almost weightless; the glass expanse floats on stilts springing from a hillside, and like an inverted greenhouse, it’s shrouded by jungle foliage. The Roman-born architect designed it for herself and husband Pietro Maria Bardi on the edge of the Mata Atlãntica rainforest. Built only five years after she immigrated from Europe, its Corbusier-like pilotis and wrap-around glass seems to echo the remnants of her European sensibilities.

The Glass House was Bo Bardi’s first architectural work, and her death there in 1992 symbolically brought her life full-circle. While she lived, it was where the likes of Gió Ponti, Alexander Calder, John Cage, and Roberto Rossellini would gather, and beyond her death, its legacy as a meeting place for intellectuals continues. The second installment of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s “The Insides Are on the Outside,” the latest of his intimate in-house exhibitions, opens there today.  ?

Harkening back to his curatorial debut (which took place in his kitchen), Obrist has gathered 34 contemporary artists and architects for a group show of site-specific works, or “discrete interventions,” that unfolded in two parts. In September, the exhibition’s so-called “Prelude” featured works by Calder, Gilbert & George, and others: SANAA’s Kazuyo Sejima, who paid homage to Bo Bardi’s work during the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, designed a floating set of bookshelves that would better match the lightness of the house than the existing library. Additionally, as a reenactment of the Bardis’ married life, Cildo Meireles installed a machine that periodically disperses a coffee smell and a recording of a voice very similar to that of  Bo Bardi’s husband repeating, “Lina, va fare un caffé.”

“Whenever people went for dinner at the house and the conversation went to politics, [Pietro Bardi] would say ‘Lina go make a coffee,’” Obrist explained. “They would always disagree on politics because he was much more right, and she was much more left.”

Today, additional works by the likes of Koo Jeong-a, Norman Foster, Pablo León de la Barra, and others have been added. Olafur Eliasson, riffing on the title, has installed mirrors within the house to reflect the visible exterior. Nearby at Bardi’s SESC Pompéia, a concrete factory converted to a multi-purpose cultural center, Dan Graham has built a pavilion on the roof, and Adrian Villar Rojas, Pedro Barateiro, José Celso Martinez Corrêa have installed videos featuring footage of the house.

While the artists hail from wildly diverse backgrounds, generations, and aesthetics, what they have in common is an admiration for this house and Bo Bardi’s legacy as an “artist’s architect.” They were either contemporaries of hers who knew her in real life, or had at one point or another mentioned her to Obrist as a source of inspiration. In the way that Obrist’s 2008 “Everstill” exhibition in the Granada house of poet Federico García Lorca sought to connect art to poetry, the Glass House show is meant to connect art to architecture within a domestic space. And while Casa de Vidro serves as the location, it certainly doesn’t serve as the backdrop. We spoke to Obrist about the artists’ intentional interplay with the architecture, Bo Bardi’s multi-disciplinary appeal, and how the works, like the house itself, “verge on the immaterial.”  

Many modernist houses stand alone as attractions, and I think we both agree that this house is a work of art in itself. What prevents these “discrete interventions” from being distractions?

You can come and see the exhibition or the house or both. Douglas Gordon made the title. That’s his piece. Some [pieces] are present in the exhibition, but interventions like his or Cildo Meireles’ are on the verge of the immaterial. The goal is not unsettling the house, or making it no longer readable, but bringing it back to life through the smell of coffee. The house is the protagonist when, after the protagonist dies, somehow the house is still there.

When you work in a domestic space like this, what separates the act of curation from decoration?

First of all, when an exhibition happens in a domestic space, the scale is very different and it produces more intimate works. It’s not that the artists bring in works to decorate the house, but they work really in the context that they believe is necessary. Many of these works are contextual interventions. They add another layer. These houses are conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk; artists play with the different functions and structural elements of such a house. It aims at subtlety. The house becomes a trigger, or production space.

In the past, you’ve called Bo Bardi an “artist’s architect.” Which of her attributes do artists most often mention as being influential?

She’s not only an artist’s architect, she’s also an architect’s architect. Kazuyo Sejima always considered her to be a hero in terms of this idea of defying gravity. The weightless feeling of her architecture is almost immaterial. This house is hovering above the trees.

[Bo Bardi’s] blurring of the inside and outside is mentioned a lot, and so are her harmonies of light, geometries, the apparent weightlessness. There’s also her thinking of art institutions. At the Museu de Arte de São Paulo alongside the Avenue Paulista, she did all these display experiments with glass features. Her SESC Pompéia is a favorite building of many artists. On the roof, Dan graham [built] his first outdoor pavilion in Brazil. He considers her a key inspiration.

Norman Foster was probably the most surprising artist on the roster. What will he be doing?

Norman Foster has never been to Brazil before this experience. There’s a whole archive of Lina Bo Bardi drawings, so he’s going to connect his daily practice of drawing to her daily practice of drawings. He also visited Oscar Niemeyer. Oscar was so delighted. They had known of each other, about each other for such a long time, but never had met.

Obviously, creating site-specific works like these requires physically fitting them into the space. What kind of problems does that pose for the artists?

The French collective Oulipo made a whole literature out of constraints. Constraints can be interesting for curating. In the Lina Bo Bardi house, it’s very open. At the same time she was a great collector. It was fascinating how she accumulated a lot of objects, a lot of found elements which she brought into the house, of course in addition to her own designs. We start with her accumulation and artists respond to that. They’re responding to her life, actually, with sound pieces, mirror pieces. It’s not just hanging a drawing or painting on the wall; Juan Araújo’s paintings on the dining room wall mirror the number of original works [the Bardis] had when they lived in the house.

Each of these houses has extraordinary possibilities. The oscillation between inside and outside is one of the assets, or one of the great strengths, of this house that becomes a great vehicle for artists to produce work.

Given your emphasis on intimacy, where does a little show like this fit into the big art scene? The trend seems to be towards filling entire atriums with one installation. 

When I started curating in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the art world started to grow, and it started to be in more big venues. It’s important that those exist. It’s about diversity. But in some kind of way, there need to be different experiences or different spaces. The experience that I had at the very beginning in the kitchen should not be lost. It’s always connecting to the first exhibition in some kind of way. We live in a context of globalization, and the danger is maybe the homogenizing effects of globalization are affecting work. If you look at 19th-century museums, you have big panorama-size rooms and then you have tiny little cabinets of work. That’s something you shouldn’t lose. 

“The Insides Are on the Outside,” organized in part by Brazilian retailer Iguatemi, runs through May 30.