Lina Bo Bardi, SESC Pompeia, São Paulo, 1977. Photo: Nelson Kon

The Woman in the Glass House: Lina Bo Bardi and the Pritzker Prize

Architecture is a profession that has long struggled with major gender inequities in spite of recent strides. Significantly, there is growing awareness among architects that prizes like the Pritzker Architecture Prize, one of the field’s top accolades and largest monetary awards have played a crucial role in overlooking women’s contributions and widening the achievement gap between women designers and their male colleagues. This summer, Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) is showing its collection of works by many of the Pritzker’s 42 laureates. The show inevitably reflects how the prize has changed along with the contemporaneous architectural thought—from parametricism to postmodernism to progressive approaches to social housing. At the same time, viewing so many of the winners side by side also provides an opportunity to consider how little has changed. As it happens, of the 42 laureates, only three are women: Zaha Hadid (2004), Kazuyo Sejima (2010), and Carme Pigem (2017). Of those, only Hadid was awarded the prize in her own right—the other two were awarded along with their male partners.1 

As we’ve seen, recent shifts towards engaged and politically driven approaches to design have impacted the Pritzker Prize, which has anointed designers like Alejandro Aravena—who designed innovative social housing in Chile and Mexico—and Shigeru Ban—who elevated the use of cardboard in disaster relief architecture in Japan. But feminist critiques of the Pritzker Prize run deeper than the disparities in who wins. The prize promotes the outdated image of architectural genius as a lone wolf, an idea that is at odds with the collaborative nature of architecture practice. In 2013, a petition initiated by students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design urged the Pritzker committee to at least retroactively include Denise Scott Brown in the prize awarded solely to her professional partner and husband, Robert Venturi. The petition garnered over 20,000 signatures and was co-signed by a number of Pritzker winners, only to be ultimately denied by the prize committee. The Pritzker may be evolving to recognize more charitable architects, but there is still no award for Scott Brown, who had published an article decrying the sexism of architecture’s star system two years before her husband received a Pritzker Prize for work they did together.2  Overlooking women is a recurring problem for the prize; in 2012, Wang Shu was awarded the Pritzker Prize without his wife and partner, Lu Wenyu.

Even if the 2013 Scott Brown petition didn’t sway the Pritzker jury, it had ripple effects worldwide. Remarkable women architects—both past and present—are gaining recognition in all aspects of the field, from design to academia and research. It has spurred curators, writers, and filmmakers to help change the discourse by celebrating women architects like Irish Modernist Eileen Gray, who has been neglected by most accounts of the modern movement. It also drove other major architecture award programs to revisit criteria that prevented acknowledgement of women’s contributions. In 2014, for example, the American Institute of Architects not only amended the criteria for their Gold Medal prize to extend eligibility to partnerships, but also awarded the medal to the first woman in its history, posthumously honoring the prolific California architect Julia Morgan. It has also encouraged architects to become more vocal in identifying women and minority architects who have been overlooked for top accolades.3  Beginning in 2019, the British collective Part W (external link) has drawn attention to the fact that only one woman (Zaha Hadid) has won the RIBA Gold Medal individually in the award’s 171-year history. Their crowd-sourced campaign (external link) is building an alternative list of 171 winners, one award-worthy woman for each year of the medal’s existence.

Four imaged stitched together of participants in Part W's alternate Gold Medal winners, holding up hand-drawn signs with the names of alternate winners on them.
Nominations for UK-based collective Part W’s initiative to build an alternative, all-women list of RIBA Gold Medal winners. Of the 170 Gold Medals since the prize was established in 1848, 165 have been awarded to men and three to male-female partnerships. Zaha Hadid is the only woman to win the award on her own. Courtesy: Part W

With all of this momentum, it is quite fitting that this fall, CMOA will follow its Pritzker exhibition with a showcase of the Italo-Brazilian polymath Lina Bo Bardi, the woman “awarded” the 1982 RIBA Gold Medal in Part W’s revised history. With impressively original buildings throughout Brazil, Bo Bardi is a striking example of an accomplished architect who has been entirely overlooked by the system of architectural awards, having never received a single one during her lifetime. She may be ineligible for the Pritzker—which is only awarded to living architects—but she unquestionably exemplifies the prize’s goals to “push architecture and architects into the public’s awareness and to support the notion that buildings have a real influence on people’s lives.” It is no wonder a 2011 article by The Globe & Mail critic Lisa Rochon asked “How was Bo Bardi missed by the Pritzker?”4  That her work in architecture—along with furniture design, exhibition design, jewelry design, criticism, curation, preservation, and education—was unheralded in her lifetime speaks to the double standard in how the field assesses women’s contributions. Even if she once declared herself an “antifeminist,” her career offers a model that the male-dominated star system is not ready to acknowledge.

Bo Bardi’s imaginative career expands far beyond her buildings; her criticism and curatorial practice influenced the larger cultural discourse in Brazil. After studying architecture in Rome with virtually no women role models, she defiantly broke into the male-dominated field, training in the Milanese studio of noted Modernist Gio Ponti. In Milan she was part of a community of designers who questioned rationalism, seeking alternatives once the style had been embraced by the fascist regime. After immigrating to Brazil in 1946 with her husband, the art dealer-curator Pietro Maria Bardi, Brazil offered Bo Bardi a “new place for utopias”5  and inspired her fresh approach to Modernism.

Bo Bardi sought to reflect the society and culture of Brazil in her buildings without relying on a singular formal or stylistic approach.6  Her Modern architecture emerged from what she found enchanting about Brazil: local climate, materials, and lifestyle.7  She advocated for what she called arquitetura pobre (simple architecture), the use of natural materials and traditional building methods in a more simple, humble, and restrained Modernism that reflected everyday Brazilian culture. In this way, she took a more anthropological approach to architecture than her colleagues Niemeyer and Paulo Mendes da Rocha, who were awarded the Pritzker in 1988 and 2006, respectively.

A view of the back of house with large glass windows designed by Lina Bo Bardi, in a lush green setting.
Lina Bo Bardi, Casa de Vidro, São Paulo, 1949–50. Photo: Nelson Kon

While Bo Bardi was not a prolific builder, her built work is iconic. In 1949 she began work on her first built project on the outskirts of São Paulo, an International Style–inspired Glass House (Casa de Vidro) that hovers in a forest canopy, raised on elongated, slender columns with a glass-encased courtyard that allows trees to penetrate the open-plan living area.8  The Casa de Vidro complicates the Modern model by juxtaposing it with vernacular building techniques in the back of the house.

Her 1968 Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) is a monumental and muscular building located on São Paulo’s prominent Avenida Paulista.9  An essay in glass, steel, and concrete, Bo Bardi suspended a heavy 2-story glass-encased gallery above an open plaza that she envisioned enlivened by children, circuses, and street musicians.

Lina Bo Bardi, Museo de Arte de São Paulo, São Paulo, 1968. Aerial view. Photo: Nelson Kon

One of her later works, SESC Pompeia—a cultural center for a working-class community grappling with the loss of industrial jobs—is a particularly poetic project. Bo Bardi transformed the concrete shell of a shuttered factory with elegant, simple moves: a water pond that flows through an open plan under a soaring saw-tooth roof, bold furniture she designed, irregularly shaped windows enclosed by traditional wooden sunscreens, and vast exposed waffle-slab ceilings.

Lina Bo Bardi, SESC Pompeia, São Paulo, 1977. Photo: Pedro Vannucchi
Lina Bo Bardi, SESC Pompeia, São Paulo, 1977. Interior of factory converted into a cultural center, showing shallow meandering water feature. Photo: Nelson Kon

Even her lesser-known projects show a search for an authentic Brazilian Modernism. Her 1957–58 Cirell House, for example, is covered in small stones, elevating common materials as ornament. She applied this ethos at an urban scale to a design for a cooperative community for rural workers displaced by hydroelectric dams in northeastern Brazil, and pioneered adaptive reuse of existing buildings before it had been embraced elsewhere.

Lina Bo Bardi, Casa Valeria Cirell, São Paulo, 1957–58. Photo: Pedro Vannucchi

Bo Bardi is also becoming recognized as an accomplished cultural critic.10  She edited many publications, wrote columns in newspapers, and organized an impressive number of exhibitions designed to foster greater appreciation for design in Brazil. She got her start early; in Milan at only age 30, Bo Bardi became editor of Domus and used writing to convey the critical stance her work would take in her adopted homeland. One of her most heralded essays, “Bela criança” (Beautiful Child), compares Brazilian architecture to a beautiful child, “young: it didn’t have much time to stop and think.” To create a space for the needed critical reflection, Bo Bardi curated hundreds of exhibitions throughout her career that called for a re-evaluation of popular and folk traditions in Brazil, and their integration into modern design. Like the first Pritzker laureate, Philip Johnson, Bo Bardi’s exhibitions spread her outlook on design. While Johnson proselytized a machine aesthetic through exhibitions like the 1934 Machine Art exhibition in New York, Bo Bardi helped found the Museum of Popular Art in 1963, showing her dedication to developing a holistic, authentic ethos of design rooted in local know-how.

Within the last decade, Bo Bardi has thankfully been getting her due outside of the prize system. A number of retrospective exhibitions have shown her inspired drawing and built work in museums around the world. These in turn have generated a series of richly illustrated monographic publications by major publishing houses that invite deeper engagement with her designs, drawings, and writing. The recent boom in popularity inspired historian Barry Bergdoll to suggest—with a dash of irony—that Bo Bardi has been promoted to the rank of a “posthumous Starchitect.”11 

Like many architects honored as Pritzker laureates, Bo Bardi’s multifaceted career makes her work difficult to pin down—and that much more interesting to explore. What is now clear is that Bo Bardi was not only an architect of significant buildings, but also a public intellectual, writer, theorist, set designer, curator, furniture designer, educator, and mentor who shaped subsequent generations of Brazilian designers.12  Accordingly, Bo Bardi seems to be the paradigm of an undercelebrated women architect that feminist activists have long yearned for. Yet, in typical Bo Bardi fashion, she also complicates any straightforward configurations.

In her last public lecture in 1990, Bo Bardi explicitly declared herself an “antifeminist” and said that her gender never held her back in her career. “In Brazil,” she said to an auditorium of architecture students in São Paulo, “I’ve always done what I wanted, without restrictions, even as a woman. That’s why I say I’m a Stalinist and an antifeminist.”13 

Does such a stance disqualify her from a feminist recovery? What does it mean if a heroic woman architect refuses to represent her gender? It certainly doesn’t disqualify her from the ranks of Pritzker Prize, whose laureates have been accused of Nazism, sexual misconduct, and complicity in human rights violations. Such questions are worth considering further. Regardless, Bo Bardi’s moment in the limelight is overdue.


Additional Information

Influencers: The Pritzker Architecture Prize is on view in the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art until October 20, 2019.

Lina Bo Bardi Draws will take place November 23, 2019–March 29, 2020 in the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art.



Endnotes

  1. “The Pritzker Architecture Prize,” accessed May 1, 2019, https://www.pritzkerprize.com.
  2. See Denise Scott Brown, “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture,” in Architecture: A Place for Women, eds. Ellen Perry Berkeley and Matilda McQuaid (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 237–46.
  3. The first Black architect to win the AIA Gold Medal, Paul Revere Williams, was awarded posthumously in 2017.
  4. Lisa Rochon, “Outside the Pritzker Prize Boys’ Club,” The Globe & Mail, April 2, 2011.
  5. Zeuler R.M. de A. Lima, Lina Bo Bardi (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 40.
  6. Sabine Von Fischer, “The Horizons of Lina Bo Bardi: The Museu de Arte de São Paulo in the Context of European Postwar Concepts of Architecture,” in Lina Bo Bardi 100: Brazil’s Alternative Path to Modernism, eds. Andres Lepik and Vera Simone Bader (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2014), 103–104.
  7. Lepik and Bader, Lina Bo Bardi, 49.
  8. Philip Johnson, the first Pritzker Prize laureate, and Bo Bardi completed their revered glass houses within several years of each other (Johnson’s Glass House was built 1947–49 and Bo Bardi’s Casa de Vidro in 1949–52), and both designs recall Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (built 1945–51). Marie-Paule Macdonald, “Lina Bo Bardi (exhibition),” Parachute: Contemporary Art Magazine (January–March 1998): 48–49; Vera Simone Bader, “From Italy to Brazil: From Vernacular Building to Modern Architecture,” in Lepik and Bader, Lina Bo Bardi, 92.
  9. Zeuler R.M. de A. Lima, Lina Bo Bardi, 120–121.
  10. In part thanks to the recent publication, Stones Against Diamonds, a collection of Bo Bardi’s writing published by the Architectural Association in London.
  11. Barry Bergdoll, forward to Lina Bo Bardi, ed. Zeuler R.M. de A. Lima, viii.
  12. Bergdoll, Barry, “The Non-Conformist: Barry Bergdoll on the Architecture of Lina Bo Bardi,” Artforum International 53, no. 10 (2015): 334.
  13. Lina Bo Bardi, “An Architectural Lesson,” Stones Against Diamonds (Architectural Association: London, 2013), 114.