Lucio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer and others,
MES building, Rio de Janeiro, 1936–43.

The architectural emblem of this process is unquestionably the mes. The result of an architectural competition initiated by the energetic 36-year-old minister of culture, Gustavo Capanema, it marked the beginning of the Brazilian state’s long-standing engagement with Modernism. Designed in 1936 by a team consisting of Lúcio Costa, Carlos Leão, Jorge Moreira, Oscar Niemeyer, Affonso Reidy and Ernani Vasconcelos, with the involvement of a painter, Cândido Portinari, and a landscape architect, Roberto Burle Marx, on the exterior, the building indexed the best young architectural talent available in Rio. But it was the involvement of Le Corbusier that attracted particular comment outside Brazil. Invited by the team, Le Corbusier arrived in June 1936, and spent four weeks on the project, during which he worked most closely with Niemeyer. Niemeyer became Le Corbusier’s de facto interpreter, translating the Swiss architect’s ideas for the rest of the team, and it was his involvement on this project that kick-started his remarkable seventy-year career.

Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer and others,
MES building, Rio de Janeiro, 1936–43.

Formally, the mes was an eleven-storey slab on pilotis, set back from the busy Rua da Imprensa in the centre of Rio. Its north-eastern face was marked by a deeply sculptural use of brises-soleil, the south-western face by plate glass. The small park at ground level, landscaped by Roberto Burle Marx, was dotted with Modernist sculptures, while the walls in the shady area under the pilotis sported a cubist design in blue Portuguesestyle tiles (azulejos) by Cândido Portinari. It was not just a building therefore, but a showcase of Modernist visual culture, all the more remark - able for Rio, a city then still making itself in the image of Second Empire Paris. The biggest, boldest exercise yet in architectural Modernism, as word seeped out, it became a worldwide architectural sensation. The initial reaction was uncertain, the architectural historian Yves Bruand has written, with the American journal Architectural Record giving it a somewhat uncomprehending treatment in 1943. But the same year Philip Goodwin provided a rave review in the catalogue Brazil Builds.

Cândido Portinari, azulejos on the MES building.

It was, he wrote, ‘no merely skin-deep beauty’, but a ‘fresh and careful study of the complicated needs of the modern office building’. The system of brises-soleil was ‘startling’, the first of its kind in the world.9 In 1943 the New York Times declared the mes ‘the most advanced architectural structure in the world’. In 1947 the French journal L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui devoted six pages to the mes in a special issue on new architecture in Brazil. By this stage, as Bruand has escribed, the mes had been published in all the major journals worldwide, and had been almost universally praised. Furthermore, it had come to embody a new national sentiment: everything the Brazilian government wished to communicate about its modernizing intentions was materialized in this building. The only discordant note in the early years was provided by the Swiss architect-critic Max Bill, who in 1953 complained about the mes’s highly decorative façade, its azulejos in particular: a ‘dangerously academic’ building, he thought. But it is his puritanical brand of Modernism, not the mes, that now seems out of step.
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