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Fifty shades of gray: Scales of action and valuation of apparent concrete at the University of Brasilia, Brazil




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The heritage site of Brasília includes interesting buildings in apparent concrete that have successively been through reforms in the cladding and covering of their façades. The most frequent kind of renovation, used as often in residential architectures as in the official architectures of the city, is the full painting of the structures in different shades of gray. Usually, it is the social displeasure at the marks of aging on the material that motivates the choice of such a strategy, but a different situation occurs at the University of Brasília: structures in apparent concrete are being painted gray in order to cover artistic manifestations or political graffiti made by campus' own users. The present article investigates such occurrences and researches what are the relevant architectural values taken into such choices.

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Subjectivity in Heritage appreciation

Prevailing conservationist practice derives from a philosophy of heritage that has been amply debated across the past two centuries. This discipline has been shaped by theoretical debates regarding the incumbencies and limits of the preservation and recovery of monuments. The heart of this discussion, as much now as it was before, refers to the means of identifying and balancing the cultural values associated with a specific site. It is exactly from that critical judgement that the preservationist can propose a policy of the use and maintenance of any historical or artistic object.

The contribution of Alois Reigl [1] was a specifically important conceptual development, by identifying the relative and transitory character of architectural judgement. In his essay The Modern Cult of Monuments (1903), the historian lists the different modalities of appraising an asset, first alleging that besides a memory-value, of testimony of the past, it possesses also a present-day value, in such that it attends to the specific material and spiritual needs of a determinate socio-cultural context. Each of these attributes will include other specific modes of appreciation, briefly explained next.

Memory-Value comprises two aspects. The first, of age, is made evident through the admiration and nostalgia caused by admiring an ancient and aged object. This refers to the appeal to sensitivity caused by the recognition of nature's burdensome effect over all material things. The second, of history, refers to the ability of heritage objects to transmit to the present the intellectual content of a given artistic movement of the past. As such, it is about the uplifting of mankind's creative ability. It is in that value that the much explored notion of historical document originates.

Present-day value, in turn, also manifests through two other great aspects of value. One, of use, is based around the functional character of heritage in how it relates to its users' daily needs, whose physical well-being must be considered a priority. Another, of art, is present in all monuments that manifest through themselves the predominant cultural spirit, that corresponds to the demands of a modern artistic want – or kunstwollen. The most innovative aspect of the rieglian view is exactly how it relates to the subjective character of this aspect of valuation:  recognizing that there is no absolute aesthetic canon, the relative art value will always depend on a contemporary judgement, which may or may not be shared among different social groups.

From the second half of the 20th Century onwards, the heritage preservation practice in the West has been largely oriented towards the material valuation of assets, making their physical attributes the main object of analysis and action of conservationists [2]. The famous postulate of Cesare Brandi [3] refers exactly to that conduct: we can only restore the material of a work of art. In contemporary times, however, this materialistic tendency has been fought inside the heritage studies. Andrzej Tomaszewski [3] defends that the integration between the physical and symbolical spheres is a decisive factor for the future of the preservationist practice, needful of a greater approximation towards semiotics, iconology and myriad social sciences. The author also states that Riegl did not fully recognize that monuments serve as backdrop for events that may affect the shared imaginary of a community, giving them a new memorial aspect.

 Apparent concrete’s coverage in Brasilia

In what concerns specifically modernist architecture, the maintenance of heritage values is more complex in relation to that architecture that involves cultural assets of earlier periods, as these are more easily evaluated on their attributes of historicity and antiquity. The absence of a culture of maintenance and the low technical performance of modern construction lead, often, to social discontentment around these architectures.

From all modern materials, that whose maintenance of its original aspect presents the greatest debates is, probably, apparent concrete. According to the specialist Heinemann [4], the public at large does not consider it a necessity to preserve the original appearance of the material, mainly due to the low social acceptance of signs of wear and tarnishment. Apparent concrete, thusly, is not given an antiquity value. This rejection leads to “patching” by means of different coverings and paintings, actions that are often operationally irreversible.

The modernist complex of the brazilian capital city possesses interesting examples of coverings in apparent concrete. Maybe the most iconic of its monuments, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasilia, exalted its own structure in concrete for about sixteen years (Fig.1a), when, in 1989, it was painted completely in white (Fig.1b). Here we can speculate as to a double aesthetic interest: an internal one, towards harmonization with the artist Marianne Peretti's stained glass panels, included during the same renovation works, and an external one, to unifying the visual aspects between the cathedral and the bell tower, as the tonalities between the two structures were visibly discrepant. Today, its appearance in all white is locally and internationally recognized.

The most amply executed strategy in Brasília, however, is the painting of structures in different shades of gray. This is evident in many residential buildings, beyond some of the city's most prominent monuments. The Dom Bosco Sanctuary, designed by Carlos Alberto Naves, is one of these. Built between 1963 and 1970, the building integrated the collection of the city's iconic buildings, standing out due to its rustic striped concrete look (Fig.3a). It can be supposed that the texture of its surface, with a greater potential for the accumulation of humidity and degrading materials, contributed towards the decision to cover the material (Fig.3b).

Such occurrences corroborate Heinemann [4] when she identified a social disregard for the buildings' natural aspect in aged apparent concrete. In the case of the frequent painting works in gray, we can intuit a conservationist intent in not choosing another color that would be dissimilar to the original tonality of the material. The paradox resides, however, in the use of such a strategy towards a supposed look of preservation.

 The case of the University of Brasília – UnB

The UnB is a great example of the physical and symbolical implications of apparent concrete architecture in Brasília. Differing from the previously quoted examples, the painting strategy that is evident in the halls of the Central Institute of Sciences (ICC), locally known as the big worm (minhocão), is not motivated by the material's visually aged appearance. The marks of the passing of time are starkly visible along the structure, mainly in the naked and uncovered beams and pillars of the central corridor (Fig. 4a). Neither is tonal uniformity the focus of this maintenance, intended to cover interventions made by the facility's own users in a localized fashion. The majority of the crosses between the two blocks present paintings in gray in the porticate structure, especially in the wider passages. In many of those, we can find the reoccurrence of politically engaged graffiti, such as Marielle is present  (Fig. 4b).

Generally, the operational praxis in cities is the sporadic repainting of the surfaces and façades. When executed upon apparent concrete, however, both the graffiti and the corrective paintings involve more complex, practical and symbolical questions, especially on UnB’s campus. Taking stock of the recurring practice of painting over apparent concrete in Brasilia, it is pertinent to collect several diverging readings of heritage preservation in order to promote the debate and, potentially, avoid a future and complete coverage of the material in the University. In order to do that, a brief historical overview of UnB's physical and social constitution will be presented, followed by the recognition of the the rieglian historical values and also the social memory’s values present there.


[1] A. Riegl, O culto moderno dos monumentos: a sua essência e a sua origem, Perspec, São Paulo, 2014.

[2] A. Tomaszewski, Tangible and intangible values of cultural property in Western tradition and science, in: Proceedings of the 14th General Assembly of ICOMOS, International Council on Monuments and Sites, Paris, 2004.

[3] C. Brandi, Teoria da Restauração, Ateliê, Cotia, 2004.

[4] H.A. Heinemann, Historic Concrete: From Concrete Repair to Concrete Conservation, Ph.D. thesis, Technical University of Delft, Delft, 2013.

[5] H. Weinrich, Il prezzo del tempo, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2006, pp. 5-15.

[6] K. C. Alberto, Formalizando o ensino superior na década de 1960: a cidade universitária da UnB e seu projeto urbanístico, Ph.D. thesis, Universidade Federal do Rio De Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, 2008.

[7] A. R. Schlee, Nem tão vitrineira, nem tão tola, X Seminário Docomomo Brasil, Curitiba, 2013.

[8] M. F. P. Coelho, L. M. Bandeira, M. Veloso, Três olhares, um só foco: a sociologia na Universidade de Brasília, Sociedade e Estado, v. 31, Brasília, 2016, pp. 921-938.

[9] M. Halbwachs, A Memória Coletiva, Centauro, São Paulo, 2006.

[10] R. V. Zein, A. R. Marco. Paradoxos do valor artístico e a definição de critérios de preservação na arquitetura, inclusive moderna. Arquitextos, Vitruvius, 09.098, São Paulo, 2008.

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Maíra Oliveira Guimarães (Brazil) 5359
Scientific production

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