We expect architecture for art to complement the work it houses. Often it goes further and plays down its own character to serve as a supposedly neutral container but the result is usually sterile. The Adriana Varejão Gallery designed by Rodrigo Cerviño Lopez demonstrates no such suppression of architectural identity, but shows that architecture, especially to house the work of a single artist, and resulting from intense dialogues between artist and architect, is powerfully equipped to provide a body of art works with a context that is articulate and full of surprises.
The Gallery is part of the Inhotim Centro de Arte Contemporãnea, in Brumadinho, a village 60 km from Belo Horizonte in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil, the brainchild of Bernardo Paz, a local mining industrialist. Instead of housing his exceptional collection of contemporary art works (from 1970s to the present day) in one building, Paz has to date commissioned and had built ten pavilions which are laid out in a beautifully landscaped 35 hectare park to showcase some 500 works by over 100 artists including Cildo Meireles, Vik Muniz, Hélio Oiticica, Paul McCarthy, Zhang Huan, Adriana Varejão and others. Inhotim’s Tropical Park has areas designed to guidelines proposed by the celebrated landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, and includes so many botanical species, it is one of the largest in the world.
Every year a new exhibit is put together by Inhotim’s three curators, making the collection one in constant evolution. The gallery Cerviño designed sets up a strong dialogue with its dramatic, tactile contents by Varejão, one of Brazil’s leading contemporary artists, who is based in Rio, includes paintings bordering on sculpture and silkscreened tiles that are used for insitu walls and furniture. He was given a hillside site in the park with a small slope, typical of the Minas Gerais area, partly surrounded by forest. This setting was formerly used to store containers and already a huge displacement of earth had created a large horizontal plane. He wanted to partly insert the gallery into its hilly topographical setting, incising it in such a way that it would be further recomposed, yet not completely transformed. The building’s structure is simply composed of an irregular retaining wall that becomes load bearing via two beams in the middle and four integrated columns.
Cerviño designed the Gallery between 2003-6, before he joined Fernando Falcon as partner of the São Paulo-based practice Tacoa Arquitectos. He had cut his teeth working as an intern at Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s office, and later collaborated with the architect while partner of Metro Arquitectos including the competition for the New Museum of Contemporary Art in São Paulo and a School of Cinema in Rio. The architect already knew Varejão, who is the wife of Paz, having previously designed her atelier in Rio. When Cerviño first met the client Bernardo Paz, the Inhotim Centro already had six new pavilions, all designed by Paulo Orsine, a local architect from Minas Gerais. In 2008 Paz had ten completed pavilions each celebrating a different artist, the most recent being one designed by Carlos Granada and Paula Zasnicoff, with work by Doris Salcedo and, in March, Cerviño’s Adriana Varejão Gallery, which is 477 m2 as compared to the smaller Salcedo Gallery, just 262 m2.
Cerviño’s commission began after Paz bought two of Adriana Varejão’s works from an exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris: the sculpture “Linda do Rosário”, which looks like it is being eaten by nature, and was based on a building in Rio that collapsed and the polytyph “Celacanto Provoca Maremoto”, a vibrant array of decorative tiles. Tiles are a recurring motif featuring in a rich body of work reflecting interests including abstraction, ruins, monuments, violence, history,
natural sciences and architecture. During the design and construction process, she made further works for the building, expanding “Celacanto” three times in size, painting new works, “O Colecionador” and “Carnivoras”, and others made of tiles depicting 50 species of hallucinogenic plants and local birds. So spaces that were not initially planned to hold works - like the terrace or the roof of the first floor - were adapted during the design phase to take some pieces executed in situ. The artist was involved with the plans from the very beginning, requesting angled walls next to “O Colecionador”, specifying the position and form of “Panacea Phantastica”, a bench made out of the tiles depicting plants and the size of the wall for “Celacanto”.
The Gallery’s circulation was designed as a two-way spiral path connecting two different levels of the park, crossing a shallow pond along the way, and providing moments of expansion and contraction. Firstly, a narrow promenade made of reinforced concrete and aluminium leads to (or, depending on where the visitor begins, from) a plaza in the middle of the square water pond, with “Panacea Phantastica”, the tiled bench. Intended to be a space of contemplation, and well justified in such a beautiful setting, it also has another promenade leading to the building. Here on the ground floor inside the hill, below the 16.7 x 16.7m concrete block of the building, is a gallery displaying “O Colecionador”, a painting of a labyrinthine interior playing on light and shade, and, in a smaller gallery, the sculpture “Linda do Rosario”, each works thematically linking architecture with the body.
A central stairwell leads to the first floor gallery (13.35 x 13.35 m) inside the concrete block dominated by the effervescent flurry of colour and natural forms that is “Celacanto Provoca Maremoto”, with “Carnivoras”, the red plant paintings tucked away on the ceiling at the edge of the room. Cerviño has created some sense of integration between these floors, to give visitors a surprise as they experiences the space, and making sure the lighting is discreet as far as possible.
The main point of integration is behind one of “Celacanto’s” walls, where the visitor is invited to view “Linda do Rosario” from above through a narrow, spotlit double height void, or, if you are on the ground floor, you can see small paintings of red plants on the roof of the first floor. By bordering the staircase in glass visitors also get full visual access to the surrounding galleries as they move up and down. However the spatial experience of the ramp is very different, one that leads to another expansion: the terrace above the concrete block. Here another tiled bench, this time with drawings of birds, “Passarinhos - from Inhotim to Demini”, is the sole installation in an open space in which people can rest and enjoy the view, and then leave via a narrow bridge from the top of the hill. From this panoramic point, which can equally be an entry point for those coming the other way, the path leads to an area Inhotim is currently expanding to accommodate a new lake.
The promenade from nature into the galleries and out again, with its alternation of expansion and contraction of space, is very much aimed at heightening the visitor’s perception. Cerviño does not regard this as a way of slowing people down, but providing preparatory, transitional spaces between the works, which range in tempo from that of raw drama to lyrical lushness.
Rigorously designed, simply detailed, this very personal environment, while avoiding a uniform condition, offers a near-continuous space from start to end, like a kind of experiential spiral that triggers memories of Oscar Niemayer’s work. Here, architecture and art are integrated, but never one compromising the other’s power. Linearity is also not imposed. Looking at the park as a whole, the other pavilions are not laid out in a linear sequence. Cerviño likes the contradiction between the form of the building from outside - a big block of concrete - and the way visitors walk through it, always in different, non-linear ways. This exquisite tension is part of the power of this project, making a pleasurably paced discovery of art - and architecture - the only speed to move at around it and back and forth into nature again.