The Latent Forces of Popular Culture
Lina Bo Bardi’s Museum of Popular Art and the School of Industrial Design and Crafts in Bahia, Brazil

Ana Carolina de Souza Bierrenbach
publication date: 02.2019

This text deals with the experience of the Museum of Popular Art (MAP) and the School of Industrial Design and Handicraft, designed by the Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, in Salvador (capital of the state of Bahia), Brazil. Such a “school-museum” is based on the capture and transformation of latent forces that exist in Brazilian popular culture.

In the late 1950s, the Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi[1] executed a series of drawings of objects to be used in her proposal for the Museum of Popular Art (MAP) and for the School of Industrial Design and Handicrafts to be located in an area called “Solar do Unhão,” in Salvador, the capital city of the state of Bahia, in the northeast of Brazil.[2] These formed the basis for components of her museum design, including a chair with a wooden base and woven straw seat, a table with a wooden trunk-like base, from which project small articulated cylinders, also made of wood supporting the table top, and finally—the most potent of these objects—an imposing staircase situated in the main hall, which used the same material and the same system of articulated fittings often found on ox carts that have existed in the country since the colonial period. The chair, table and staircase provide clues to the architect's intentions for the school-museum and its connection with the latent forces of Brazilian popular culture—especially those specific to Brazil’s northeastern region, brought to light by Lina Bo Bardi.

Among the aspects of Brazilian popular culture that interested her are the handicraft objects produced by the most impoverished section of the country’s population, the production of which was motivated by everyday needs. Like the oxcart, they are objects of daily use: furniture, household goods, toys, clothes, religious objects, etc. Bo Bardi was central to uncovering their existence. These utilitarian, religious and ludic objects usually were produced using materials, techniques and procedures known in the territory; some were made from the discarded leftovers from industry and consumer waste. In fact, the architect's attention was drawn by both the precariousness and potential these objects display. She stated that such populations sought to meet demands that could not be satisfied from existing industrial production, that wasn’t available throughout the country and which, in any case, was inaccessible economically and inadequate, from both an utilitarian and an aesthetic points of view, to the real needs of these marginalized populations. Bo Bardi acknowledged the importance of this production within the Brazilian Northeast, stating: “There I saw freedom. The lack of importance of beauty, of proportion, of [all] these things, but [I saw also the] presence of another profound meaning.”[3] 

All this encouraged her to create a documentation center for northeast popular handicraft. It was her intention to trace and catalog the production of such objects, to establish who produced them (whether individuals or groups), how they were made (techniques, materials and procedures), where they were made, and how and who used them. At first, the scope of this research was centered on three northeastern states: Bahia, Ceará and Pernambuco. Bo Bardi herself made expeditions across the northeastern territory in search of such objects. The architect’s next step was to create exhibitions and museums in which knowledge about the existence of such objects and the contexts they inhabited could be spread. To this end, Bo Bardi took advantage of an invitation to assume the directorship of the Museum of Modern Art of Bahia (MAMB)—an institution where she was allowed to conceive numerous didactic exhibitions and courses on modern art. At the same time, she also dedicated herself to the creation of a Museum of Popular Art (MAP) in the same city, an institution that was accessible to community at large and charged no admission fee. Circumstances led to both museums having a common headquarter for a period of time,[4] at a site restored by Bo Bardi herself: an agro-industrial complex begun in the seventeenth century, known as Solar do Unhão.[5] 

The first opportunity to disseminate traditions of popular northeastern handicraft and their context took place outside Salvador, with the exhibition Bahia no Ibirapuera, held parallel to the 5th Bienal de São Paulo in 1959. There, the production of common and objects for daily use was displayed, drawing attention to the capacity of mankind’s inherent capacity for aesthetic expression, using extremely limited resources. Bo Bardi stated that these were “important examples for modern industrial design.”[6] 

The second occasion was the Civilização Nordeste exhibition at Solar do Unhão itself, which was inaugurated at the end of 1963. This exhibition (with craftsmen from Bahia, Ceará and Pernambuco) presented many objects which were the fruit of a very specific creative capacity found among the northeastern population, aiming to meet their daily needs with the most limited of means: “raw material: garbage,” Bo Bardi wrote in her exhibition text. “Each object scratches the limit of nothingness, of misery.”[7] 

But the architect’s proposal was more ambitious: she intended to create, in addition to the museums, a school of industrial design and handicraft, rendering her mapping of techniques, materials and procedures used in northeastern handicraft an essential undertaking. Her idea was to use this knowledge to conceptualize an authentically Brazilian form of industrial design production, one able to satisfy the real needs of the population. One must understand that it was not her intention to keep intact the system she called “pre-craft”[8] but to couple its bases with the modern industrial system, making possible the transformation both of forms and materials while also keeping intact the creative capacity of the population, as well as the “deep structure of those possibilities.”[9] 

One of the key issues for Bo Bardi was to narrow the gap between creation, execution and use. She believed the creation of objects had to articulate design, production and consumption in such a way that they conformed to a more coherent and potent cultural totality. The architect intended to develop a course of two years including both theoretical and practical knowledge, thus enabling students to overcome the hierarchical distinction between conception and execution. Conceivers and producers, in her view, had to work together and exchange their respective areas of expertise in order to create objects that would meet the real demands and desires of Brazilian society. Bo Bardi wanted to create prototypical objects that could be scaled up to industrial production, a notion encompassing both Brazil’s existing industrial base as well as possible future industrial systems. In this sense, it is necessary to emphasize Bo Bardi’s efforts to render her proposal feasible, a task undertaken principally by fostering connections between her school-museum and the various governmental bodies which sought to promote the industrial development of Brazil’s northeastern region, which up until that moment remained in an initial stage.

The proposed layout of Solar do Unhão’s physical space also indicates the content of the school proposed by the architect. Solar do Unhão consists of a series of structures designed at different times, which assumed different uses throughout its history. Among these buildings, the mansion stands out. It initially housed the family of a rich landowner on its upper floors, with the lower floor reserved for slave quarters.[10] On the upper floor, around the aforementioned staircase of embedded wooden pieces, she intended to host exhibitions of popular handicraft, while on the lower floor, in the former slaves quarters, a popular restaurant was to be built, equipped with the tables and chairs mentioned previously. The old church would house an auditorium for lectures as well as a library; in the old pavilions, several experimental workshops.[11] On a big open square near the sea shore, there would be facilities for events: parties, dances and concerts. Just outside Solar do Unhão, beneath arches supporting an avenue bordering the building, Bo Bardi imagined a market for selling objects produced at the School.[12] Her proposal was to make the Solar do Unhão open to Salvador, interfering with and receiving interference from the city at large.

Bo Bardi’s conception of the museum-school made clear that her understanding of popular culture could not be understood as what she termed folklore—a lifeless representation of popular conditions. Rather, she understood popular culture as practical, dynamic and transformative action, capable of interfering in a positive and effective way in the life of the population, both those who produced handicraft and those who consumed it.

Bo Bardi’s aspirations were quickly thwarted by the military coup of 1964. The exhibition Civilização Nordeste was perceived as a critique of the miserable circumstances in which much of Brazil’s population lived, and ended up being banned by the dictatorship. The conditions for realizing both the envisioned popular arts museum and school of industrial design and crafts were no longer. The time where one could hope had come to an end and Bo Bardi was obliged to set aside her work, leave Bahia and return to São Paulo. MAP was transformed into a handicraft center for tourists that generated profits, not problems. For its part, MAMB was also affected by the imposition of military rule, receiving an exhibition of what was termed “subversive art,” a clear indication of the change of course that had been imposed on the country.

But Bo Bardi’s experience with hybrid museum-schools did not begin with her work in Bahia. In the early 1950s, Bo Bardi had the opportunity to participate in the structuring of the Institute of Contemporary Art in São Paulo (IAC), connected with the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP). The museum was founded and directed by her husband Pietro Maria Bardi in 1947. The idea was that the museum should play a didactic role, capable of stimulating the public’s appreciation and understanding of contemporary art, the same sort of mission planned for MAMB. With this aim, the IAC was created, in which Bo Bardi played an important role as coordinator of the industrial design course.[13] The intention of the course was to train technical professionals who would be able to know “the materials, their properties and possibilities and therefore, the useful and expressive forms they require,”[14] in order to develop and produce modern objects capable of being reproduced industrially. In addition, it should be emphasized that the course had to foster both the social function of future design professionals and that of industrial design itself, encouraging its intended popular reach.[15] The IAC had a short duration, lasting only from 1951 to 1953. One of the factors that led to the course’s failure was that there were, in fact, few connections made to industry, especially with regard to the placement of professionals trained by the course.[16] 

There are similarities and differences between the experiences of the IAC and the School of Industrial Design and Crafts. Both shared the intention of reducing the distance between the development and execution of consumer products, aiming to stimulate a linkage through existing industries in São Paulo and incipient ones in Bahia. But in both instances, these connections were never consolidated. But there were also differences. During her time at the São Paulo school, Bo Bardi had not yet come to realize the potential of Brazilian culture and the possibilities of assimilating its materials, techniques and procedures in order to create objects of an authentic national design character, as was the case with her proposal for the Bahia school. In addition, during her Bahia experience Bo Bardi had the advantage of her prior experience in São Paulo. It was only in Bahia that she had come to realize it was not only a matter of the impact of the products on society but that the interconnectivity of the school-craftsmen-industry triad could provide some real means to transform the society in a territorial scale, also providing the products that the population truly needed.

Further connections can be drawn between these Brazilian experiments and those occurring at other schools internationally. In the case of the IAC, there is a clear relationship with the Dessau period of the Bauhaus, as well as at American Institutes, like the New Bauhaus (ITT Institute of Design) in Chicago.[17] Following the Bauhaus’s pedagogical program, the IAC also aimed to provide a form of training that brough together creation (design) and execution (production), stimulating a mode of team work between craft production and industry. However, according to Ethel Leon, there are no references in the IAC's discourse to the democratizing and utopian role of industrial design, something that is a main component of the Bauhaus education system.[18] 

With regards to the Bahia school, there are also many connections with the Bauhaus proposal, as well as the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm (HfG). According to Eduardo Pierotti Rossetti, both schools aimed at enhancing relations between the craft and industrial spheres through experimentation with various techniques and materials in order to create design prototypes that could be adapted to industrial production. However, the relationship between craft and industry inculcated at these schools lies not only in the dimension of products but also in that of “producers” who were trained to be inserted into the field of industrial production.[19] Both objectives aimed to transform social reality.

But according to Bo Bardi, there were dissonances between the proposals the European and North American schools were based on and her school in Bahia. The formers were more abstract in how their stated aims could be pursued, while the Bahia school was intended to be more connected to real circumstances and local demands. Bo Bardi claimed “... a school like Bauhaus or Ulm, metaphysical-experimental, would be useless in a young country like Brazil … with strongly primitive and earth-bound factors, very modern factors.”[20] 

Over time Bo Bardi realized that the latent forces of popular culture she had detected when she first moved to Bahia in the late 1950s were being eliminated by the processes of industrialization that were carried out in Brazil over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, often in an abrupt and disruptive manner. Brazilian industrialization ended up manufacturing products unrelated to popular techniques, materials and procedures. Superfluous, non-durable products were made; products that were designed to be quickly consumed and disconnected from the real needs and aspirations of citizens. It was this new social reality of consumption which spurred Bo Bardi’s later criticism of the Bauhaus, which, according to the architect, ended by forsaking its initial goals of transforming reality through art, ideals that became, in the end, phantasmatic and utopian.[21] 

In the Brazil of today, a significant part of the population still exists in miserable and squalid conditions, using a variety of improvised survival strategies to get by. Contemporary forms of bricolage include the production of everyday objects. Thus, Lina Bo Bardi’s clear denunciation of the mistake of adopting Western forms of industrial production to Brazilian circumstances continues to resonate. The latent forces of popular production that might transform Brazil’s reality continue to be suppressed.





  1. ^ Lina Bo Bardi (born Achillina Bo, 1914) was born and raised in Rome and studied architecture at the Rome College of Architecture. In 1946 she married the art critic and journalist Pietro Maria Bardi, moving to Brazil with her husband the same year and subsequently becoming a naturalized Brazilian. In Brazil, her professional activity was concentrated in two states, São Paulo and Bahia. Bo Bardi’s contact with the city of Salvador in Bahia began in 1959, when she was invited to teach an architecture course at the School of Fine Arts of the University of Bahia. She remained in the city until 1964, when she returned again to São Paulo. During the 1980s she had a second opportunity to work in Salvador.
  2. ^ Northeastern Brazil comprises nine Brazilian states, among them Bahia, Ceará and Pernambuco. It remains one of the poorest areas of the country, exacerbated the regularity of severe drought conditions.
  3. ^ Bo Bardi, cf. Marcelo Ferraz, Lina Bo Bardi, Charta/Instituto Lina Bo and Pietro Maria Bardi, Milan/São Paulo 1993, p. 153. Translated by the author.
  4. ^ MAMB was founded in 1960. Until the inauguration of MAMB/MAP in Unhão, the museum occupied part of the burnt-out ruins of the Castro Alves Theater before sharing space with MAP at Solar do Unhão.
  5. ^ To see more information about the experience of MAM, MAP, the School of Industrial Design and Handicraft and popular culture for Lina Bo Bardi, see Ana Carolina Bierrenbach, Os restauros de Lina Bo Bardi e as interpretações da história, MAU-UFBA, Salvador 2001, PhD thesis; Lina Bo Bardi, “Arte Industrial,” in: Diário de Notícias, Salvador, 26 October 1958; Lina Bo Bardi, “Cultura e não cultura,” in: Diário de Notícias, Salvador, 7 September 1958; Lina Bo Bardi, “Cinco anos entre os broncos,” in: Mirante das artes, São Paulo November/December 1967; Juliano Pereira and Renato Anelli, “Uma Escola de Desenho Industrial referenciada no lastro do pré-artesanato: Lina Bo Bardi e o Museu do Solar do Unhão na Bahia,” in: Revista Design em Foco, Vol. 2, No.2, July/December 2005, pp. 17–27.
  6. ^ Bo Bardi, cf. Ferraz, Lina Bo Bardi, p. 134.
  7. ^ Isa Grinspum Ferraz, Tempos de grossura: o design no impasse, Instituto Lina Bo e Pietro Maria Bardi, São Paulo 1994, p. 35. Translated by the author.
  8. ^ For Bo Bardi, the word craftsmanship bore a relation to the guilds of skilled workers that existed for much of European history, while the word pre-craftsmanship refers to more precarious and sporadic condition of work. (Bo Bardi, cf. Ferraz, 1994, p. 26.)
  9. ^ Bo Bardi, cf. Ferraz, Tempos de grossura, 1994, p. 21.
  10. ^ Sugar mills were the economic base of Brazil during the colonial period. Ordinarily landowners had a few salaried employees, but it was slave labor that made sugar production feasible. (Bo Bardi, cf. Ferraz, Tempos de grossura: o design no impasse, 1994, p. 35.)
  11. ^ USES OF PAVILION ONE: stone, iron, metal, glass, ceramics workshops, painting and drawing classrooms, etc.; USES OF PAVILION TWO: lace workshop, textile workshop with looms, leather workshop, woodwork, woodcut and lithograph, stamping on farm or paper. USE OF PAVILION THREE: MAMB collection; USE OF PAVILION FOUR: direction and administration of MAMB and MAP.
  12. ^ Lina Bo Bardi, “Museu de Arte Popular da Bahia de Todos os Santos,” pp. 23, in: Mirante das Artes, No. 06, November/December, 1967.
  13. ^ The first premises MASP were in the center of São Paulo (7 de Abril Street), on three floors of a building designed by the architect Jacques Pilon. This is where the IAC course was held prior to the construction of permanent premises on Paulista Avenue.
  14. ^ Bo Bardi, cf. Ethel Leon, IAC: Instituto de Arte Contemporânea. Escola de Desenho Industrial do MASP (1951–1953), FAU-USP, São Paulo 2006, PhD thesis, pp. 59–60.
  15. ^ Bo Bardi, ibid., p. 35.
  16. ^ Ibid., p. 67.
  17. ^ Ibid., pp. 133–134.
  18. ^ Ibid., p. 75.
  19. ^ Eduardo Pierrotti Rossetti, Tensão Moderno/Popular em Lina Bo Bardi: nexos de arquitetura, MAU-UFBA, Salvador, 2001, PhD thesis, p. 76.
  20. ^ Bo Bardi, cf. Rosseti: Tensão Moderno/Popular em Lina Bo Bardi, 2001, p. 73.
  21. ^ Ferraz, Tempos de grossura, 1994, p. 13.

External view of Solar do Unhão – the mansion and some pavilions 2015.

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