The Rigor of the Void – Vazio S/A

Written by architect Fernando Lara (University of Michigan assistant professor), this text was published to present the house Vila del Rey in the latest issue of Argentinean magazine “30-60 – Cuadernos Latinoamericanos de Arquitectura.”
Fernando Lara (1)

“contrary to the complexity of filled space, voids are simple”
Carlos M Teixeira, Em Obras, p. 277 (Cosac & Naify, 1999, 342p).

In order to begin to analyze Carlos Teixeira’s Vila del Rey House (Casa do Vila del Rey), generally speaking, I might say that everything that is done today in Brazil takes reference, in one way or another, from the modern tradition that enchanted the world in the 1950s. Alternately, one could argue that the so-called lost decade crisis (the 1980s) threw out all architectural values and cleared the way for the invention of an absolutely disconnected architecture on the part of the modern generation. One could even say that all that remained of Brazilian modernism was the emptied image of its main transformers or identity generators. However, none of these arguments convinces me, and I prefer to believe in a combination of traditions and dislocations that place Carlos Teixeira one step ahead of this debate. Architect, designer and critic, Carlos Teixeira is one of the few that are able to combine multiple fields of action with rare vigor. In his book “Under construction: History of the Void in Belo Horizonte”, Teixeira does a read on the city where he lives and works as of the lack of, the absence of, what has not been done, what has not been designed.

As I stand before the Casa do Vila del Rey, which is contemporary to the book in question, it seems to me that the theme of the void carries several keys to understand the project. As a synonym for space, the void carries with it a driving force of the design that, in the case of Teixeira’s works, a rigor capable of maintaining coherence even in the face of the inevitable delays of the laborious process of construction. As an opposite of that which is material, the other side of the envelope, the void tells us of habitable space, which is ironic, because it stops being a void when we live in it. The void, therefore, would be a premonition or anticipation of this space. That is, the void as a strategy is its own project, the design of future space.

There are various voids that the Casa do Vila del Rey refers to. The void of the low-density landscape around the house responds by moving away from the street, both horizontally and by being placed in the second half of the terrain and in a diagonal fashion, as well as vertically, since the entryway pavement is 8 meters below the street level. One gets to it by a combination of ramps and stairs in a straight line. Little by little, the house reveals itself to the visitor like a lightly flexed box, with abundant light of the 6 four-by-three-meter windows that face the south. During the day, one can see the valley landscape through the house, i.e., to the void of the landscape, the house responds gently, becoming almost invisible from the point of view of the public space of the street. Thus, it appears emptier than it really is.

In formal terms, the house reveals a careful and rigorous treatment of a flexed and trimmed volume without losing its unity. The light inflection of the main façade seems to react to the visitor, emphasizing the main gateway as a result of a forced invasion. Once inside, visitor/invader is awarded with an almost complete view of the internal volume of the box, in which the plains suspended by the laminated wood structure particularize several functions. At the entryway, the living room and study, below the street level, dining and cooking, above, the boy’s and the couple’s bedrooms.

If, from a distance, the house gave the impression of being invisible by its generosity of opening and luminous transparency, close up, reality is more palpable, heavier. The rough concrete finish of the reinforced wall of the kitchen and the structure of the main façade has an exacerbated materiality for its exposed rebars. The lateral walls (one of which is painted blood red) force a unified reading of internal volume. As if responding to another formal independent logic, the laminated wood structure supports the plains that occur at mid-level from one level to another. From the kitchen level and the eating space, half-levels articulate into the study and the entryway, the boy’s room and the master bedroom are above this. As if lost in the interior void of the house (only some sides of the plains touch the limits of the box), the spaces become defined by the stairs, by the position of the bathrooms, or not defined in any way whatsoever. In the master bedroom, a large movable vertical plain opens or closes it to the rest of the house, like a guillotine wall, the same structure that sustains the different plains overflows into the north side of the building, serving as shade and frame of the valley landscape, which unveils itself beyond the deck. As an almost explicit reference to modernist Niemeyer, the deck winds itself along a second, partially hidden volume where the service areas, atelier and photo lab are located.

However, if the deck makes a direct reference to the architect from Pampulha [Niemeyer] from the 1940s, whose work dominated in the following decades, Casa Vila del Rey dialogues with Brazilian modernism much more in function of the already mentioned logic of the void, of the lack of it. The best and most developed logic it carries is contrary to what made the Brazilian architect famous. Its shape is rigorous and solid, contrary to the levity and permeability of Niemeyer. The finishing is purposely crude, revealing the overcoming of the Brazilian inferiority complex in relation to the dearth of the industrialization of its components or frustration of little qualified labor. In Casa Vila del Rey, the crudeness of the finishing details of concrete-wood made from bent steel sheet and screws or the intentional permanence of wires visible in the reinforced concrete demonstrate that the lack of finishing is an integral part of the project’s process. As a text by Carlos Teixeira himself states, which praises the aesthetic-formal-social qualities of grass, a vulgar Brazilian weed that persists and insists in every empty lot, the unfinished element becomes absolutely beautiful when it is assumed as such. However, not all is unfinished and the best part of the house is the glued wood laminate, which sustains and ties the whole volumetric box together. As still incipient technology in Brazil, in spite of the fact that we produce (and waste in the form of sawdust and fragments) enormous amounts of rough lumber, the use of glued wood laminate inaugurates the construction possibility absolutely coherent with sustainable management of natural areas and digital project possibilities and building construction. In Casa Vila del Rey, besides overlapping the high-tech precision of the concrete’s rugosity and the finishing details, the technology of glued wood also dialogues as Brazilian modernism by the same logic of lack of and void. If it is true that the greatest criticism about Brazilian architecture points to formal exuberance tied to low technological development, Casa Vila del Rey answers the issue with precision: technological refinement, formal rigor and discretion.

(1) Fernando Lara is an architect, Brazilian architecture researcher, and assistant professor at the University of Michigan, USA. ferlara@umich.edu

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