Terra e Tuma, the Brazilian quartet made up of Danilo Terra, Fernanda Sakano, Pedro Tuma, and Juliana Terra, presents a project that defines their architecture of craftsmanship and skill: a discipline of copying and repetition. In this exhibition, they draw on the thinking of Paulo Mendes da Rocha: the idea that architects are condemned to always making the same house, working with the same materials, but in a different way, as happens also in the field of literature. Shameless Copy challenges the current notion that constant innovation, attention-grabbing novelty, and originality at all costs constitute an irrefutable dogma.
The São Paulo-based firm, known for its austere, pragmatic buildings, exhibits eight of its single-family at LIGA. The models, like the building themselves, are presented in a simple and straightforward way: made out of basic, neutral, and grey materials. It is not the beauty of the individual models that counts, however, but rather the relations established between them. Set up as a series, in a darkened space, with very precise lighting, some of them are placed in front of a mirror in which the subsequent model is reflected. These superimposed silhouettes interconnect the projects in a complex spatial relationship, transforming a series of single works into an overview of the firm’s lineage and working methodology.
Copying, Repeating, Constructing, Perfecting
The Exposed Concrete Block Houses of Terra e Tuma
Text by Abilio Guerra
On the tranquil Rua Mipibu, in the middle-class neighborhood of Vila Romana in eastern São Paulo, located on a narrow lot, there is a house constructed with exposed concrete blocks. In the upper part of the second floor, the absence of a roof hints at a prefabricated slab. A trademark sign of the poorer peripheral areas of São Paulo, where concrete blocks and roof slabs betray the unfinished nature of constructions, awaiting future cladding and roofing, here the house clashes with its context for opposite reasons: the solid arrangement of the parts and the general perception that it is well-constructed. The three-tiered beams on the upper floor suggest a virtual façade, with one of the beams serving as a railing, ensuring the safety of users. In the inevitable comparison with other nearby constructions, the sobriety, elegance, and correctness of the prismatic façade reflect the excess of textures, colors, and forms in the neighborhood.
The house on Mipibu (2015) occupies a lot typical of São Paulo, long and narrow (30 meters x 5.6 meters). The strategy for occupying the space is radical: first, the house occupies almost the entire available surface area, while tripling its height with two more floor slabs piled on top; second, plenty of natural light and ventilation are ensured by vertical apertures in the constructed mass. The smaller ones, in the form of slits, located at the corners, next to the divisions, allow light to enter and air to circulate in the kitchen and bathrooms: two larger apertures in the central area connect the bedrooms, common areas, and terrace with the surroundings, in addition to dividing the volume into three parts, interconnected by the corridor, bridge, and passageway, located on the right side for someone coming in.
The design has been conceived from the inside out, as the architects themselves, who belong to the firm of Terra e Tuma, explain, evoking an interesting image to describe the layout:1
Considering the inevitable verticality of the neighboring houses, all attached side by side, the first step was to invert the façades, to think about the project in reserve, as if we were taking off a glove.2
Thus, in this curious inside-out house, the patios take the place of traditional façades, not overlooking the landscape, but rather facing the sky, from where the intense sunlight invades the interior, thanks to the glass frames going from one slab to another. On the ground floor, where the light is more subtle, are the three bedrooms: the guest bedroom looking onto the first patio, then the master bedroom and the child’s bedroom, which open onto the second patio. The unconventional distribution of the program calls for living room, dining room, and kitchen on the upper floor, where the light irradiates throughout the common areas, virtually transforming them into a single large space. The priority of collective appropriation is confirmed by the easy access to two outside areas: by means of a bridge between the superimposed stairways, through the first patio, the front balcony can be reached, protected from the sun by a leafy tree, growing directly out the earth but sheltered within a concrete box concealed on the ground floor; and by means of one flight of stairs leading up to the patio garden, which divides the upper story into installations and equipment on one side ―solar heater, water tank, storage areas, glass doors that function as skylights, etc.― and an open-air common area on the other, refreshed with grass, plants, and a vegetable garden. From here, in the upper part of the building, the surrounding urban landscape can finally be seen.
The aforementioned servant spaces―corridor, bridge, and passageway―are distributed longitudinally, exactly one meter from the lateral wall. On each floor, in the narrow spaces between the circulations and the wall, are the spaces requiring plumbing installations: the bathrooms and laundry room, disguised as closets, and the kitchen, integrated with the dining room. This is an interesting solution, whereby the confined spaces are integrated with the common areas by means of the connection with open circulation. A similar measure for economizing on areas used only occasionally can be observed in the plumbing, drainage, and electrical installations, with exposed metal pipes running along the walls and roof slab. In the garden following the entrance, the double height, the reflecting pool, and the hanging flower pots lend an air of casual disorder within a private context.
Many of the constructive solutions applied in the house on Mipibu, as well as the general distribution strategy, are to be found in the house in the Vila Matilde district of São Paulo. Owing to the long development process of this project—the architects were hired in 2011, but work was not finished until 2015—, this house can actually be considered earlier than the one on Rua Mipibu, and a forerunner to it. The smaller, narrower lot (25 meters long and 4.8 meters wide), which is located in a middle-class neighborhood in the east of the city, obliged the architects to opt for more synthetic solutions: two rooms at the back, one on top of the other, and a single patio to provide light and ventilation. Nevertheless, there are obvious similarities in the spatial distribution: the lateral walls along the entire length of the lot; the service areas aligned compactly along the corridor, bordering on the patio and connecting the two parts of the house; and the use of the upper terrace as an element of continuity with the common areas on the ground floor. And there is the same simplicity in the finishes, with the use of exposed concrete blocks and prefabricated floor slabs, as well as exposed pipes attached to the walls. In both cases—Mipibu and Vila Matilde—the slabs are of prefabricated panels, a solution that works well for relatively small spaces.
The identical constructive and typological characteristics of these two houses, intended for users of differing social strata (in the first case, an upper-middle-class family, all with higher education; in the second, a single mother, a domestic worker, and her son, an unskilled laborer), reveal the architects’ determination to find constructive and spatial solutions fitted to the requirements of a narrow lot, while the specific demands of the inhabitants remain in the background. As it turned out, the final result was an economical construction for the first family (and less than they might have demanded), but a rather costly house for the second family (and more than they had dreamed of).
This ongoing research project, which involves a constant process of verification, experimentation, and development, is exemplified in two more recent projects. The house in the Indianópolis neighborhood, nearing completion in early 2020, occupies an irregularly shaped lot with a maximum width of 6.4 meters and a maximum length of 33.4 meters. The same schema described above applies again, with certain variations: the slightly greater width of the front part of the lot allows for a greater distance between the wall of the corridor and the concrete blocks, leaving a width of 1.6 meters in which to accommodate the bathrooms and the stairway on the ground floor, the spaciousness of which is rewarded with a garden area next to the entry leading to the upper floor. At the same time, the floor slab, with no access to the common areas, is compensated for by the spacious balcony above the roof slab of the corridor and the covering that occupies the irregular back part of the lot. In all other respects, this house is very similar to the other two, with a single patio providing natural light and ventilation to the two bedrooms on the ground floor and to the common areas and kitchen on the upper floor. The exposed concrete blocks and pipes mark out the construction as another member of the same family.
The second more recent project, on which construction has not yet begun, is the house on Rua Cruzeiro, which will occupy a slightly larger lot (23.83 meters long and 7.87 meters wide). The residence consists of autonomous volumes joined by lateral dividing walls, articulated by a corridor alongside the right lateral wall, with the upper floor and terrace accessed by two superimposed flights of stairs running lengthwise along the corridor. On the upper floor of the entrance volume are the common areas and the kitchen in a unified space, which receives light from the front and from the patio; in the back volume, the greater width allows for two bedrooms side by side, but with windows looking onto the back of the lot. The entire ground floor is occupied by a garden area and the garage.
The house on Mipibu and the other three residential projects mentioned here make up a typological series in terms of spatial distribution. Nevertheless, the technical issues involved suggest a kinship with the craft tradition, at least as understood by Richard Sennett in his book The Craftsman. According to the American sociologist and historian, the craftsman is motivated by the simple satisfaction of a job well done, moved by the responsibility of offering to society the best possible result. Ethics and morality go hand in hand, since individual work is always part of the collective activity oriented toward the construction of the common good. According to Sennett, everyday work is characterized by constant repetition and a continual back and forth between doing and thinking. In contrast with the common notion of adherence to tradition, the craftsman finds in experimentation a continual opportunity for innovation. It is this back-and-forth between repetition and innovation that makes the craftsman a master:
The Craftsman explores these dimensions of skill, commitment, and judgment in a particular way. It focuses on the intimate connection between hand and head. Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking: this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding. The relation between hand and head appear in domains seemingly as different as bricklaying, cooking, designing a playground, or playing the cello….3
This idea of the skill that comes of actually doing is in opposition to the romantic notion of architecture prevailing in the twentieth century, with its emphasis on complete freedom of expression, endless creativity, and the myth of the radically new. To the contrary, this skill is not new, nor does it seek to be different in every project it undertakes. It is content with achieving small gains at every step, repeating and reflecting on each work in turn. It is a notion, fundamentally, of practical work, of building. It is there, and not in the sketches or the design, that the real work of making and thinking takes places, as we can see in the “notes” appended to the firm’s executive plans, which reveal the doubts resolved in the course of working: “every note indicated is subject to confirmation in the work” and “the quantitative values are for reference only and must be verified and confirmed in the work.”4
This process can be understood and evaluated in the light of the ancient Aristotelian tradition. The rules formulated by Aristotle regarding the development and internal perfection of an art were applied originally to the theater: “Tragedy advanced by slow degrees; each new element that showed itself was in turn developed. Having passed through many changes, it found its natural form, and there it stopped.”5 In the course time, however, they were appropriated by the rest of the arts, including architecture. Philip Bess, for example, in an article published in 1984, stated that “Aristotelian methodology is inductive. Both rational and highly empirical, it begins with everyday experience and draws conclusions that are provisional, subject to change as more information becomes available.”6
On the basis of these ideas, it can be affirmed that an architectural work belongs to a lineage or genealogy of works that includes numerous architects. Every achievement is in fact collective, made over the course of time. The presence of exposed concrete blocks is not at all common in the modern Brazilian tradition, but it is possible to find successful examples of its use in residential architecture, especially in the walls of reinforced concrete structures. Such is the case of the two projects by Rodrigo Lefèvre and Sergio Ferro (the adjoining Marietta and Ruth Vampré houses, 1962) and the Albertina Pederneiras house (1964),7 both in São Paulo, where the use of concrete blocks involves issues of both visual effect and ethics, since, according the architects, “the use of claddings is a way of effacing the traces of the production and mark of the worker from the finished work, which is to say, that it represents a form of alienation.”8 A second example is the Rosa Okubo house (São Paulo, 1964), where the architect Ruy Ohtake explores texture and modulation inside the building, “with the exception of the bedrooms, where screwed-down wooden panels were used.”9 In the Jardim Guedala house (São Paulo, 1977) by Eduardo de Almeida, “concrete block was used as a modular structure for the organization of the space.”10
In the foregoing examples, we see the same concern with economy, suitability, and, above all, solid workmanship to be found in the projects by Terra e Tuma. Nevertheless, identifying these references does not prevent us from noting particular contributions which, as they are repeated and developed, confer a specific mark of authorship. The owners of the house on Mipibu―the one that, so far, seems best to catalyze the qualities developed in the series as a whole―wanted to live in a “warehouse with the characteristics of a factory” and found their architects by means of an internet search.11 The works to be seen on the Terra e Tuma website reveal an obvious knowhow that immediately appealed to the couple. The material, typological, and environmental characteristics identified in the series of houses defined the way in which they aspired to live.
Alongside the technical issues, the exploration of typologies is structurally inherent to the way the architects think, and the question of the surface area available is always a challenge to be confronted. It is interesting to speculate about how they approach ampler, more spacious lots. In the case of at least three examples, all in São Paulo, we are faced with the solution of a single volume, a geometrical prism with its longest side parallel to the frontal limits of the property. The single-story Lírio house (still under construction) adopts an interesting arrangement for the functional spaces: a private area for the bedrooms in one corner, a work and service area in another, and a common area, illuminated by the other two faces, made up of the kitchen and living room so articulated as to mediate between them. This model, which has been developed and put to the test, with certain variations, by several architects, goes back to the beach house for the Gomes brothers (Ubatuba, 1962), by Rino Levi.12
In the other two cases―the three-story Maracanã house (2009) and the two-story Guaianaz house (2018)―, the stairways, of a single flight, one on top of another, about a meter from the wall or nearest frame (exactly as in the houses on narrower lots), are laid out parallel to the line of the façade. The orientation of the stairway corresponds to the orientation of the constructed volume, demonstrating at once the coherence and the versatility of the approach. The increase in lateral distance ―and the insistence on avoiding intermediate supports― bears on the slab structure. The Maracanã house has floor slabs of prefabricated panels resting on concrete beams. The Guaianaz house, although it maintains its conventional masonry structure, uses prefabricated hollow-core slabs. From a typological perspective, the orthogonal prism of the constructed volume of these two houses has strong similarities with the works of the so-called Paulista school, examples of which are still being produced today. Specifically, in the layout of the volume on the lot and in the position of the stairways along the façade, both of them resemble the recent house designed by Fernanda Neiva and Álvaro Puntoni (São Paulo, 2015), located at the foot of a hill in the Sumarezinho neighborhood, some of the walls of which are of exposed concrete blocks.13
The Jabuticabeiras house (São Paulo, 2019) is a compromise typology, which adopts solutions present both in the house with patios and the single-volume houses. The trapezoid-shaped lot, about as wide as it is deep, is occupied by a square plan, sufficiently large to accommodate the spacious areas commissioned by the owners. The challenge of providing natural light and ventilation to the middle of the large square determined the arrangement of the central patio, a solution often found in Paulista residential architecture, as for example in the houses by Vilanova Artigas and Carlos Cascaldi (Mario Taques Bitencourt II house, 1959),14 Paulo Mendes da Rocha (James Francis King house, 1972),15 and Eduardo de Almeida (Max Delfine house, 1976),16 all in São Paulo. Nevertheless, the spatial layout adopted by Terra e Tuma is quite different. Whereas the houses of Artigas, Mendes da Rocha, and Almeida opt for (respectively) floor slabs, a single floor slab supported on piles, and a single floor slab partially supported on piles, the Jabuticabeiras house rests entirely on the flat ground of the lot. The full occupation of the surface area led to the repositioning of the garden on the terrace, reached by way of an exterior stairway, without any direct connection to the interior of the house.
In all of the examples of houses designed by the firm of Terra e Tuma there is the element of exposed concrete and pipes, the result of an agreement between architects and clients, whereby the commission―sometimes determined by economic restrictions―suggested or demanded solutions present in previous works.17 Neither these material elements nor the typologies handled by the architects of Terra e Tuma are invented or original, but rather copied from other works of Brazilian architecture. The process of repetition or copying fosters the perfecting of the technique adopted and their adjustment to different lots, budgets, and client demands.18 It is this process, and the syntheses that result from it, that lend a degree of originality easy to identify in their work as a whole.
The fact that their works are at once copied and different suggests a detachment from tradition, to be observed in the theory of “the New” formulated by Haroldo de Campos. According to the literary critic, certain important works are hybrids, amalgams, full of contrasts, as they carry within themselves multiple references to striking earlier works. They form part of the “plagiotropic movement of literature,” a kind of “oblique ramification, as the growth of certain plants is designated in botany.” Copying and plundering are part of the creative process: “Thus, my Mephistopheles sings a song from Shakespeare, and why should he not?” asked Goethe―according to Campos―when accused of plagiarism by Byron.19
The residential architecture of Terra e Tuma, produced by relatively young architects, stands out amidst contemporary Brazilian work by its constant quest for perfection in the art of building on behalf of the dwelling (firmitas and utilitas), by the necessary adjustment between construction and environment (tectonics and typology), by its reconciliation of beauty and necessity (venustas and ethics), all achieved while forming part of a tradition (cultural heritage). At a time when architecture seems lost, entangled by the commercial mechanisms of marketing and exchange value, works of this kind are a breath of fresh air.