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Ana Vaz Milheiro, Nos Trópicos Sem Le Corbusier: Arquitectura Luso-africana no Estado Novo

Lisbon: Relógio d’Água, 2012
Ricardo Costa Agarez

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  • 1 A Construção do Brasil: Relações com a Cultura Arquitectónica Portuguesa, Porto: Faculdade de Arqu (...)
  • 2 The research project Os Gabinetes Coloniais de Urbanização: Cultura e Prática Arquitectónica was i (...)

1Nos Trópicos Sem Le Corbusier: Arquitectura Luso-africana no Estado Novo examines the circulation of architectural cultures and actors in and between the historically-related contexts of Portugal, Brazil and the former Portuguese colonies in Africa, during the first three quarters of the twentieth century. This generously illustrated, Portuguese-language volume is a collection of ten essays written by Ana Vaz Milheiro between 2006 and 2011, and previously published either in the proceedings of the conferences in which they were originally presented or as contributions to online magazines, collective works and exhibitions. The author, a well-known architectural critic, historian, disseminator and educator in Portugal, has been specialising in the cultural exchanges between her home country and its former overseas territories: the (post-colonial) mutual influences of Portugal and Brazil on each other’s architectural processes in the twentieth century were thoroughly dissected in Milheiro’s doctoral dissertation, published in 2005,1 after which she broadened the scope of her interests to include the parallel developments in the architectures of metropolitan Portugal and its African possessions during the country’s dictatorship regime known as Estado Novo (1933–1974). The latter route has been largely grounded on a large-scale, multidisciplinary research project on the Portuguese government’s planning and design actions in/for the African territories of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cabo Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe, focusing on the architectural and urban-design cultures that informed the official practice of the so-called colonial planning offices.2 The essays gathered here bring together these two moments (sites) of Milheiro’s trajectory—Brazil and Africa—, unified under one encompassing thesis that emerges regularly, albeit often broken down into a rich array of variations and shades: that the most progressive, outspokenly modernist architectural practices of Portuguese building programmes in Africa were to some extent shaped by the intense cultural exchanges between the metropole and Brazil, since early in the twentieth century and particularly after the modernist blossoming of the South American country in the late 1930s; and that the African experience, in its awe-inspiring extension and intensity, provided not only an outlet for Portuguese modernist architects that Portugal’s European confines did not permit—a proposition that has become “conventional wisdom” in Portuguese architectural culture—but also the grounds for experiments combining tropical architecture, national and regional identities and “African character” (“africanicity”) which, Milheiro suggests, grant a degree of originality to the (African) Portuguese case.

  • 3 This view, still prevalent today among Portuguese architects, was initially created by the post-wa (...)
  • 4 E.g. in Ricardo Agarez, “Metropolitan Narratives on Peripheral Contexts: Buildings and Constructs (...)

2Portuguese architecture’s post-revolutionary critique of the 1980s, traumatised by over four decades of dictatorship, created a narrative in which the history of post-war modernism in Portugal was one of political resistance and struggle to overcome nationalist conservatism, underlining the heroic (and therefore rare) quality of modernist works against the backdrop of a largely mediocre, backward-looking contemporary built environment.3 To view the African stints of metropolitan architects as much-anticipated escape valves to a culturally repressive milieu— ignoring the extraordinary, mature modernist development that many parts of the country underwent, only recently being investigated4—has unsurprisingly been made to chime with that fundamentally black-and-white narrative. This idea persists throughout the contemporary “rediscovery” of modernist built heritage in formerly-Portuguese Africa, accelerated since the turn of this century: after a “period of grief” brought on by the convoluted (and particularly tardy) process of de-colonization, mass-repatriation from the African territories and, finally, independence recognition (1975–1976), which took a heavy toll on the social, demographical and emotional fabric of the country, architects and scholars started to (re)turn their attention to the new nations and record their built environment as a sort of Portugal’s “modernist other”. A string of attractive publications started exploring this architectural manna, prompting stupefaction in younger generations of architects and a wider public: some played more clearly the key of nostalgia, still powerful given many families’ ties with the African project (e.g. Ana Magalhães and Inês Gonçalves’s Moderno Tropical: Arquitectura em Angola e Moçambique, 1948-1975, Libon: Tinta-da-china, 2009), while others relied on the career accounts of important modernist actors (e.g. José Manuel Fernandes’s pioneering Geração Africana: Arquitectura e Cidades em Angola e Moçambique, 1925-1975, Lisbon: Livros Horizonte, 2002).

  • 5 “Between Materiality and Representation: Framing an Architectural Critique of Colonial South Asia”, (...)

3Milheiro’s Nos Trópicos Sem Le Corbusier adds to this series and, while not deviating entirely from that narrative, contributes some important nuances and enriches it considerably. The volume’s enticing title—which would translate as In the Tropics Without Le Corbusier—, borrowed from the last essay in the collection, already hints at the author’s determination to advance our understanding of the architectural production in Portuguese Africa: it would have gone beyond the mere replication of modernist solutions for tropical challenges (be it through the Brazilian impact on Portuguese designers or the lessons learned by some of these on the course on tropical architecture at the Architectural Association in London in the 1950s) and incorporated concerns that preceded, and in some cases overruled, those formal recipes. While the first half of the book, subtitled Moderns, is devoted to constructing the bridge to Brazil (especially the first three essays), the second half (Suave Moderns, citing a popular caricature in architectural jargon that refers to Portuguese regime architecture of the 1940s as “Suave Portuguese”) deconstructs it, to some extent, by devoting equal attention to less clearly modernist, and therefore more complex, urban and architectural products. Such objects condensed decades of previous practice in colonial settlements, architectural and ethnographic discourses inherited from the nineteenth century and still prevalent in the metropole (e.g. the specific features of the “Casa Portuguesa”, the Portuguese House, and its translation in colonial settings), and comprehensive, nation-wide public facilities programmes (colonies included) that introduced pragmatic demands and procedures to be negotiated with international architectural trends. The importance of Milheiro’s revision, made particularly evident in this second half of the book, is in that it is grounded on her extensive use of archival material and oral history. She has been working closely to important designers of the period, still living or only recently deceased (“Pancho” Miranda Guedes, Fernão Lopes Simões de Carvalho, Francisco de Castro Rodrigues), exploring their testimonies and private papers, and she has most significantly been coordinating a team of experts and researchers, within the “colonial planning offices” research project, that for the first time has given itself the task of investigating the archives of the colonial administration’s planning services. Documenting an impressive array of pieces of “civil service architecture and planning” (buildings, urban plans, prototypes, studies), unearthing the identity, training and architectural culture of their designers and occasionally that of other agents of the colonial built environment (craftsmen, builders, planners, officials, bureaucrats and politicians), Milheiro’s team was able to move beyond the realm of stereotypes and superficial panoramas that affects some literature on Portuguese African architecture and, as Peter Scriver and Vikram Prakash put it, work closer to “the grain of the colonial archive and local records,” avoiding “sweeping existentialist assertions” and shedding light on a ‘frame of practices only partially determined by the norms and intentions of the architectural discipline itself.’5 Milheiro’s texts are, to be sure, only a first step in this direction, and much remains to be done: local archives of the African countries studied are not used in the book, and many of the agents mentioned there, both local and metropolitan, require further study, as do the more-than-likely connections and exchanges these agents established with those operating in other colonial territories (e.g. Congo, South Africa, Tanzania). On this particular, a significant challenge for Portuguese architectural history remains in overcoming a certain “navel gazing-ness”—a penchant for confining the framework of research to strictly Portuguese(-related) contexts and narrowly architectural themes—and engage with questions and approaches from a wider scholarship on modern architecture in Africa that integrates building with social and economic histories across territories and continents. But Milheiro’s research project, of which this book is but one product, has raised the profile of Portuguese scholarship on the architecture of the colonial period, and allowed for funding and expertise to be devoted to the study, archival treatment and safeguard of essential source material for the on-going revision of Portugal’s recent history.

  • 6 This is the case of Ana Tostões, who leads a parallel, large-scale research project on African-Por (...)

4The relevance of this contribution, however, is dimmed by two of the book’s shortcomings. One is the lack of an introduction, which would provide a comprehensive frame for the research, account for previous and related projects, summarise the author’s concerns and aims, and essentially tie together ten essays whose coherence within the whole is not always clear. This would have been an opportunity for Milheiro to strengthen and clarify her fundamental arguments and explain the individual role of each essay in constructing such arguments. The other, of a more generic nature, is the fact that the book is published in Portuguese only. This may seem a natural choice since this work’s aim seems to have been to redress, as indeed it does, acquired knowledge and advance Portuguese-language scholarship on the subject. But the striking “invisibility” of the Portuguese case within international scholarship on African modern architecture will persist, countering the growing interest in it at home and despite the best efforts abroad of other important scholars,6 until researchers-authors such as Ana Vaz Milheiro start to publish in English and to penetrate the largely Anglo-Saxon preserve of architectural history studies on Africa. With a background of serious research and powerful ideas behind her, Milheiro seems better prepared than most to take on this challenge.

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1 A Construção do Brasil: Relações com a Cultura Arquitectónica Portuguesa, Porto: Faculdade de Arquitetura da Universidade do Porto, 2005 (Seris 1. Ensaios, 18).

2 The research project Os Gabinetes Coloniais de Urbanização: Cultura e Prática Arquitectónica was initiated in 2009 with a grant from Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (PTDC/AUR-AQI/104964/2008) and is based at Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (iscte) in collaboration with Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical (iict) and Instituto da Habitação e da Reabilitação Urbana (ihru), bringing together officials and scholars from these three public bodies. The project is grounded essentially on the archival collections of the Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino (ahu, the “Overseas Historic Archive”) and of the Instituto Português de Apoio ao Desenvolvimento (ipad, the “Development Aid Institute”). Other than Nos Trópicos Sem Le Corbusier, the project has resulted so far in the publication of Ana Vaz Milheiro and José Luís Saldanha, Luís Possolo: um arquitecto do Gabinete de Urbanização do Ultramar, Lisbon: ciaam – Centro de Investigação em Arquitectura e Áreas Metropolitanas, 2012.

3 This view, still prevalent today among Portuguese architects, was initially created by the post-war modernist generation itself and later extended to the historical account of the period. See e.g. Nuno Teotónio Pereira, “O Combate pela Arquitectura Moderna em Portugal. Um contributo Açoreano”, Atlântida, no. 1, 1999, p. 229–238; and Ana Tostões, Os Verdes Anosna Arquitectura Portuguesa dos Anos 50, Porto: Faculdade de Arquitetura da Universidade do Porto, 1997.

4 E.g. in Ricardo Agarez, “Metropolitan Narratives on Peripheral Contexts: Buildings and Constructs in Algarve (South Portugal), c. 1950”, in Ruth Morrow and Mohamed Gamal Abdelmonem (eds.), Peripheries: Edge Conditions in Architecture, London: Routledge, 2012, p. 209–224.

5 “Between Materiality and Representation: Framing an Architectural Critique of Colonial South Asia”, in Colonial Modernities: Building, Dwelling and Architecture in British India and Ceylon, Abingdon: Routledge, 2007, p. 12.

6 This is the case of Ana Tostões, who leads a parallel, large-scale research project on African-Portuguese architecture—EWV-Visões Cruzadas dos Mundos: Arquitectura Modernana África Lusófona (1943–1974)—in Instituto Superior Técnico and has been presenting its results in international conferences; and of Madalena Cunha Matos, who has been publishing her research on the African former colonies in international journals (e.g. “Colonial Architecture and Amnesia. Mapping the Work of Portuguese Architects in Angola and Mozambique”, OASE, no. 82, 2010, p. 25–34).

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Ricardo Costa Agarez, « Ana Vaz Milheiro, Nos Trópicos Sem Le Corbusier: Arquitectura Luso-africana no Estado Novo »ABE Journal [En ligne], 3 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2013, consulté le 27 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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