There is a facile way of thinking about the history of Brazilian culture, because every time one meets the temptation to interpret the country as an exemplary territory, one whose particular episodes have a meaning above all elsewhere, in other countries, for other people.
This only perpetuates the tradition of expropriation of Brazilian history, often replacing its reality with projections of meaning that have their origins and value above all in Europe.
Therefore Brazil, besides being a real place, is also a cultural category for us. Its contemporary significance comes from many factors, including its essence as an artificial nation, but also one with a very strong ethnic identity. An example of the negative effects of globalization, but also of the negative excesses of localism, yet also a laboratory for the positive potential of both. A poor country that is nevertheless one of the seven greatest economic powers in the world; a strange economy based on music, entertainment, fiction, soccer, carnival, narrative.
A country with a strong identity, but also elusive, ambiguous, mysterious, the result of a great hybrid nation where the majority is composed of a set of minorities. An optimistic, happy country, but one that is also sad and full of anxiety. We might put it this way: Brazil is a model of the world, because it is both a literary place and a complex historical phenomenon, syncretic and multiracial, that lives in the miraculous balance of continuous change. All this resembles what is now happening in the Occident, with many positive consequences, but also leading to many tensions and conflicts. If Europe has colonized Brazil, the opposite is also true: for many years, in Europe, wild nature, the backdrop for projects by Le Corbusier, has been Brazilian in character, like an ideal garden designed by Roberto Burle Marx. Uncontaminated, flourishing, scented nature we wished would surround the reformed, orderly city after modern industrialization. Optimistic, vital nature, like the deep green world of the Amazon. Heir to the noble traditions of the Enlightenment developed during the 18th century by the European Jesuits, in the 1960s the German designer, a colleague of Tomàs Maldonado at Ulm, thought that design might be a valid tool of regeneration of the independence of models of local developing, free of occidental hegemony.
So he moved to Brazil for twelve years, implementing a government plan for the spread of design schools. In that same period Victor Papanek was developing, for the Third World countries, a fascinating theory on alternative technology, hypothesizing a development model based on the rejection of occidental technologies and socialist models, consisting in the use of local, humble, primitive techniques seen as being naturally rational precisely due to those traits.
The theories of Bonsiepe, like those of Papanek, made reference to the eternal idea of Brazil as a New World, the land of possible alternatives to the corruption of occidental history. Their noble project was twice as abstract because it was proposed in a country that was shifting from a premodern to a postmodern condition, without passing through the phase of modernity… A failure proven by the fact that these programs intended to promote the development of Brazilian design, during the 1970s and 1980s, did not produce one single designer.
The new Brazilian design, like that of the Campana brothers, was paradoxically born in the moment in which European rationalism went into crisis, and Brazilian designers were able to tap into the deepest (non-ideological) roots of native culture, anthropological myth, the shamanic role of objects, the magical polytheism of forest dwellers, that – as Pierre Restany had glimpsed in his “Manifeste du Rio Negro ou du Naturalisme Intégral” – reproduce not European culture, but the existential condition of contemporary man, immersed in an integrated space of technologies, information, immaterial presences, of which man, like the Indios of the Amazon, never manages to have an external, overall view.
Like fish in the sea, who can never see the sea…
Brazil as a model of the world
Guy Bonsiepe (School of Ulm) and Victor Papanek (1927-1998) tried, but in vain. Because the new Brazilian design, led by the Campana brothers, taps into the deepest roots of anthropological myth, native culture, the shamanic role of objects, the magical polytheism of the forest.