Marcio Kogan, a gaze on contemporary Brazilian architecture
Modernism above all, rediscovered 50 years later with a contemporary approach. And for the love of details, inherited from an engineer father and the previous profession, as a film director. But if we had to describe the architecture of Marcio Kogan with a single sensation, it would be a gust of warm and relaxing wind, that blows from the tropics, through the interiors of his villas always open to the external environment – his trademark – and transported by the optimism of the Brazilian economy.
We meet Mario Kogan and his MK27 team at the Venice Biennale, where he represents Brazil with video installation "Peep", directed by Lea Van Steen. A great black box provided with holes through which to spy on the lives of a family and the house servants living in Villa V4, one of the latest works designed by the studio. With a non-academic and sarcastic gaze, Kogan interprets the theme of shared spaces proposed this year by the Director of the Biennale David Chipperfield. Instead of showing the beauty of his designs, the architect from São Paulo preferred to use them as a theatre with which to narrate the contradictions of contemporary Brazeil in a sharp and ironic way.
Twenty five years ago you used to work as a filmmaker. You directed 13 short movies and one long feature film in 1987. When did you decide to become an architect?
Up to that moment I didn't know if I wanted to become an architect or a filmmaker. I decided to become an architect after shooting the long feature film. It was very clear: during that period in Brazil it was becoming increasingly difficult to produce films. People were not very professional and filmmaking was too expensive, whereas architecture was experiencing a more promising phase.
So since then you are back to cinema for the first time here in Venice. With what intentions?
I wanted to show real life inside one of our architectural projects, with a touch of humor and social critique related to the theme of the Biennale: "Common Ground". I think it's very interesting to show a family living in a house that can afford a team of servants. That's a typical scenario in Brazil.
The installation is divided into 2 parts: in side A there's the point of view of the family, while in side B there's that of the employees. They are living in a common ground with a completely different sense of architecture. For the servants it holds little importance, perhaps it’s just a place to sleep or earn the money they need to survive, whereas for the client it’s quite a fundamental aspect.
Video-installation "Peep" at the Brazilian pavilion of the Architecture Biennale 2012
After a period of recession, Brazilian architects are now producing great works, demonstrated by the fact that the Prisker Prize was won by Paulo Mendes da Rocha in 2006. Today what are the successful principles of contemporary Brazilian architecture?
Nowadays in Brazil there are dozens of very good architects. Most of them are developing and basing their research on the Modernist heritage. What was a taboo until the 1990s became the main strength of our architecture. We are no longer embarrassed about recovering Modernist concepts and applying them as a foundation for contemporary architecture.
From the end of the 30s till the foundation of Brasília, built in 41 months, from 1956 to April 21st, 1960, in my opinion Brazil has produced some of the best architecture in the world. Modernism was very important not only thanks to Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, but also because of other brilliant architects. And this is very interesting because Brazil in that moment was a completely isolated region, a third world country, far removed from everything. But still it was incredibly creative and producing not only architecture but also great music, perhaps the best of that period. It's quite odd.
Riposatevi, an installation designed by Lúcio Costa in 1964 for the XIII Milan Triennale (photo © Gaia Cambiaggi). The project interpreted the theme of “free time” proposed by the Milan Triennale. The idea was taken up again in "ConVivência", which includes "Peep" by Marcio Kogan, curated by Lauro Cavalcanti for the Brazilian pavilion of the 2012 Biennale.
Why do you think this happened?
Brazil doesn't have long-lasting traditions. So we probably feel more free to design, unlike Europe which bears the weight of its history on its shoulders, making things more complicated. Niemeyer himself stated something to this effect, as well as Italian Lina Bo Bardi, one of the most prominent women in the history of architecture.
And when speaking about the present?
Following the foundation of Brasília, the military government took power and a very dark and violent period took place in Brazilian history. However in the last 15 years of good and consolidated democracy, a new era for architecture has begun. Now in Brazil we find a varied offer of quality architecture, and I think everything is strictly related to the favorable economic and social situation which is completely different from that of Europe.
Many architects, generally located in São Paulo are developing very interesting work and the production of architecture in the country is gradually increasing. It certainly is a slow process; it is not something that just happens overnight. Many of these architects are also connected to universities which offer incentives for the younger generations.
Video-installation "Peep" at the Brazlian pavilion of the Architecture Biennale 2012
Are there any disadvantages to being an architect in Brazil now?
I don't think so. Perhaps what's difficult today is to work on projects for the public sector, not just the big ones but also the smaller ones. Years ago good projects were given to architects like Niemeyer, but now things are different and there aren't many public-funded projects to work on.
In fact, during the last 30 years architecture has shifted greatly to serve mostly the private sector, and therefore it frequently expresses the values of an individual or small groups. What do you think are the most important social consequences of this?
If you have a well-running economy, everybody gains from this trend. It's a natural consequence. Only in recent years has the government learned to give importance to architecture. It was different in the 60s with Lucio Costa and Niemeyer. They were architects with very good taste and this doesn't occur so frequently now. Architects are not considered important to the public sector.
Frame of video-installation "Peep", set in V4 House
Considering your portfolio of clients, what are the countries – or cities – that are most willing to experiment?
It's hard to say. We are working on a lot of international projects, currently in Vietnam, Canada and Tel Aviv. Sometimes it’s the client himself who sees our work in a magazine and asks us to design their house: it's a kind of empathy.
Your showroom project Decameron is the winner of the World Architecture Festival 2012 in the "shopping" category. How did you come up with the idea?
The client didn't immediately buy the land. He needed an architecture that would be easy to move somewhere else and that's where the idea of doing containers and other structures that are easy to transport came from. That land was just rented by the client, he didn't want to spend much money there.
You stated you would erase 99% of the city of São Paulo. Yet you are addicted to it. Why?
The city is awful, it’s chaotic, violent, oppressive. But it's very energetic. You feel the energy of our time. And it's true, I’ve become addicted to it. If I lived in a country that was too slow and in which nothing happens, I wouldn't be able to stand it. I need this energy. You can feel a kind of electricity, people work a great deal, but in a good way: they are being productive, creating a new country for tomorrow in which to live better.
Frame of video-installation "Peep", set in V4 House
But in your architecture there is no sign of that chaos and instability. Why?
Yes, my vision is the opposite of what is happening around me. I think it is impossible to build something that is coherent with the city. The architecture here includes styles as varied as Roman Neoclassic, French, Neo Modernist, post-Modernist. So my intent is to create harmony through simple designs that are not so big and aggressive as the city.
The most important lesson you’ve learned from Modernism?
I think the answer lies in the way Modernism has dealt with the Brazilian climate. Thanks to it we have inspiring examples of good ventilation and efficient protections. A good example is the business-center Banco Sul-Americano (South American Bank, currently housing the Itaú Bank) in São Paulo, in Paulista Avenue, designed by Rino Levi, a very important Modernist. This building is considered an example of the best energy performing architecture. It's completely passive. And Levi didn't need to use technology or gadgets to transform it into something sustainable. Here you can see that the very idea of sustainability was already in our culture, before becoming the trend it is today. This is maybe the most important lesson given to everybody by Modernism.
Frame of video-installation "Peep", set in V4 House
What's your design process?
When we compete for a big project, we divide our studio into 5 or 6 different teams, isolating them for a whole day, so as to provide different approaches to solving a problem. The objective isn’t to have a winning solution, but to consider different ways of thinking and, very importantly, to recognize any errors. At the end we reach a consensus which is a mix of solutions that help us better develop the project.
Could you give us an example?
We were invited to participate in a closed-number design competition for a subway entrance in San Sebastián (north of Spain) that we presented during the World Architecture Festival. What was interesting is that all the teams in the office had the same proposal. It's a very small project that can be practically and socially useful to the city. Not in aesthetic terms, because we never think in this way: aesthetic is a consequence.
The project is a kind of rubber block monolith. When interacting with it you have the feeling you can cut it, and by cutting it, it becomes multi-functional. Potentially it has very different uses: it can be a simple flight of steps, a place to play ping-pong, a spot in which to host a party, play music, do presentations or other social activities.
Could you briefly describe your vision as an architect?
My aim is to give pleasure to people. I usually say that I'm sort-of a prostitute for the client.
What is the first thing you try to teach to a member of your studio?
We are a small office of 20 people – 30 years is the average age – I think that is the limit after which you lose control and the quality of work decreases. This is our story: to work well on small scale projects.
One thing that has been very important in our office, in the last years, is to create more creative and collaborative groups. The office is not just me and I like to share my knowledge with other people. It's been a difficult path and sometimes there are projects that I don't like, but I have to respect them because this is the new orientation. I like this kind of reform because it's not a common thing to see in an office. It's not like I'm the boss and they are the architects: it's a real team, a sort of think-tank.
Your next big project?
We are doing something quite different from our portfolio. It's a production for the Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro, a joint venture with the Teatro Della Scala of Milan. It will become a free technical school that will form film and TV industry technicians.
MARCIO KOGAN LIKES...
Reading: Beat and pop American literature. Currently reading Philip Roth, Paul Auster and Amos Oz.
Listening: Caetano Veloso, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Chico Buarque and Marisa Monte.
Watching: Jacques Tati and Federico Fellini.
Sleeping: Casa Camper (Barcelona); Standard Hotel (Miami); Number 16th (London).
Eating: D.O.M. run by Portuguese "genius chef" Alex Atala (São Paulo); Manì Manioca (São Paulo); Fontaine de Mars (Paris).
San Sebastián Underground (in a competition)
Banco Sul-Americano (South American Bank, currently housing Itaú Bank) in São Paulo, on Paulista Avenue, designed in the 60s by Rino Levi
Photos via marciokogan.com.br