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Proceedings (peer-reviewed)

Title of proceedings New Worlds: Frontiers, Inclusion, Utopias, ed. Claudia Mattos and Roberto Conduru
Place São Paulo: Comitê Brasileiro de História da Arte (CBHA), Comité International de l’Histoire de l’Art

Open Access


When, in 1857, the imperial government in Rio de Janeiro launched an international competition for a theater, 25 entries from the Americas and Europe arrived in time by the deadline of October 1858. The project by Gustav Waehneldt, a German architect established in Rio de Janeiro, won the first prize, the project by the London office of William John Green and Louis de Ville ranked second, and the project by Samuel Sloan from Philadelphia ranked third. While the theater was never realized, and its construction site, then the Praça da Acclamação, was kept as a park, the awarded projects and other surviving ones allow discussing the architectural preferences of the Brazilian imperial government in relation especially to the European contributions. As I will argue, the European competition entries for this South American theater reveal a particular degree of projections about what it is that makes Rio de Janeiro a Brazilian city and its life one in an imperial context. Some of the projects had an interesting afterlife. This was the case with the project by Green & De Ville, and particularly with the project by Gottfried Semper, professor of architecture in Zurich at the time of the competition. Semper’s competition entry arrived too late in Rio de Janeiro to be taken into account by the jury. However, his project as well as the project by Green & De Ville were shown afterwards at architectural exhibitions, and have been widely discussed. Green & De Ville’s design was received mostly favorably by the architectural press, but was also criticized for being a "not strikingly original building in the Palladian style". This critique relates to a central article of the competition program that "no copies or slavish imitations of other theaters" were admitted. Instead, the program asked for constructions that made use of "the modern system, adapted to the climate of Rio de Janeiro". This article of the competition program implicitly contains conflicting requirements for the new theater of the Brazilian capital, on a formal level as well as in a political perspective. The call for "the modern system" of theaters applied to their technical equipment that had to include means of air ventilation and a fireproof construction, then thought to be found in the use of iron. The wish to adapt the technological requirements "to the climate of Rio de Janeiro" could have been understood as the call for a site-specific design. And the criterion for an original design that won’t be a copy of existing theaters could have been seen as the call to find an architectural expression for the specific Brazilian form of constitutional monarchy and independence from Portugal Dom Pedro II still was cherished for at that time. Conflicts had to arise on the formal level of architecture in so far as models for imperial theaters were then to be found only in the different degrees of adaptations of Greek and Roman architecture. The competition program seems to display a consciousness of the historicist situation in architecture around 1850. Indeed, the competition projects also give proof of different modes of coping with an architectural historicism that applied not only to references to historical architecture such as the architecture of the Renaissance, but also to contemporary architectural accomplishments. Thus Gottfried Semper worried that his project might be considered to be a copy of his Dresden opera. His proposed solution contains features also to be found in variations in the awarded projects, namely features that characterize the project not only as a historicist one, but also as properly eclectic project. Semper reused the basic design of his Dresden opera, supplemented with an exedra in the façade directed to the huge place, that formed the Emperor’s exterior loge and was adapted, in a miniaturized form, from Bramante’s Cortile del Belvedere. In addition, Semper prolonged the exterior pilaster strips of the auditorium as freestanding pillars that surmount the entablature and connect to flying buttresses serving as support of the iron roof structure. This solution combining Renaissance and Gothic architectural features, raises the question in what measure the competition for an imperial theater in Rio de Janeiro was favorable to designs of a hybrid character. Was Rio de Janeiro particularly receptive of architectural proposals that tried to answer its specificities with an explicit renouncement of any sort of 'pure' designs in stylistic terms? Were the competition entries trying to account in any way for a Baroque heritage of Brazilian architecture, namely a specific ‘mixed’ form of Baroque? Were the project proposals trying to answer the problem of displacing European architectural forms to a South American capital? And did they show any awareness of political implications in choosing certain architectural features? I propose to discuss these issues in a comparative reading of the awarded projects, adding to them particularly Semper’s contribution – not because it were to be seen as a most convincing answer to the above mentioned issues, but because it provoked particular revealing responses in reviews during the second half of the nineteenth century. As a matter of fact, Semper’s hybrid design with its "exceptional, strange forms" was supposed to have been provoked by the "foreign, exotic setting" of the planned theater. Richard Wagner, whom Dom Pedro II asked to compose an opera for Rio de Janeiro in 1857, reported that Semper’s contribution was discussed as to be something special given the presumed fact that it was destined for a "black audience". Other European critiques agreed that his project would transpose the beholder to "the opulent soil of South America”, and that the theater’s "architecture is breathing tropical opulence". Assessments such as these get relativized by a critic’s idea that Semper’s theater project might form a "veritable imperial" monumental decoration for the "vast places of the new urban quarters of Vienna". Thus in conclusion, I will discuss in what measure these responses transpire as much a longing for exotic places as they reveal a certain will to assert an European hegemony on global questions of architecture.