Interview With Carla Juaçaba, Brazilian Architect and Former Pianist

Carla Juaçaba breaks the mold of Brazil’s predominantly older, male, São Paulo-based architecture scene on four key points: she’s young, independent, a woman, and based in Rio de Janeiro. Before founding her own firm in 2000, the 38-year-old began her career working for Gisela Magalhães (one of Oscar Niemeyer’s peers) when still an undergraduate. Over the past 17 years, the classically trained pianist has made a name for herself with a slew of residential projects that are as easy on the eye as they are on her clients’ pocketbook. Her design for the Pavilhão Humanidade 2012 in Rio, a giant temporary structure for a United Nations-organized conference on sustainable development, earned her the inaugural arcVision Prize — Women and Architecture (an international award instituted by the Italcementi Group). Always inherently personal and often elegiac, her projects look set to take a more ambitious turn if Humanidade 2012, a current project for Brazil’s first cancer hospice in Rio, or the outdoor chapel structure she designed for the 2018 Vatican pavilion in Venice are any indication. During a recent trip to New York (her first ever), for a lecture at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, Juaçaba met up with the New Museum’s Deputy Director Karen Wong to talk about art, poetry, women in architecture, and why she distrusts the hyper-reality of 3D renderings.

During your recent talk at Columbia the faculty focused a lot on the mathematical aspects of your practice. But looking at your work, I found it more conceptual and poetic than mathematic. It seemed to me as if you’ve been spending a lot of time with artists.
Maybe. (The late artist) Lygia Pape was one of my professors at the school I went to, the Universidade Santa Úrsula in Rio de Janeiro. And to have a teacher who is an artist at an architecture school had a big influence on me. Not many people know that Lygia Pape also worked as a teacher, but she was a very good teacher. She was in charge of all of the exercises for the architecture courses, so it was all very focused on art. Also, my grandmother is an artist. I often hear, “Ah, you’re an architect, but you talk like an artist.” Why do architects have to talk like architects? Architecture is, as you say, poetry. So why not find another language for it? Architects have a way of talking in a particular architecture jargon. And if you don’t talk like them, you’re considered different. But why not talk with poetry?

Would you agree that your architectural drawings have an affinity to musical composition?
Well, I did study the piano for many years. And I still play. At least I try to, even though my architectural practice doesn’t really allow me the time anymore.

During your talk at Columbia, you presented your house projects as if they were one movement after another, a bit like Bach’s Goldberg Variations. You seem to be taking the house typology and making some subtle shifts and pivots in each one, but they still look like a family.
They do, definitely. Maybe the approach is the same each time, but the results are very different. The approach is to understand the perception of the site and work with materials that are indigenous. I always say I have to destroy something on the site to build it. But I don’t destroy anything physically, not even one tree. What I’m destroying is invisible. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I always have to find this nothing, this non-physical presence in a site. That’s the incentive for me to find that very strong “something.” And there’s always a presence, and the thing is to think about that presence.

  1. Vatican chapel, Venice, Italy, 2018. Image by Federico Cairoli

  2. Vatican chapel, Venice, Italy, 2018. Image by Federico Cairoli

  3. Santa Teresa House, Brazil, Rio Janerio, 2017. Image by Clovis Cuhna.

  4.  Santa Teresa House, Brazil, Rio Janerio, 2017. Image by Clovis Cuhna.

When we imagine Brazilian architecture, we tend to obsess over the view, the natural setting of tropical vegetation and/or ocean. While you certainly take advantage of that, there are also many details that point inwards. I’m thinking, for example, of the long slit in the roof of the Varanda House (2007), which lets light enter in a special way and marks the wall like a clock.
It is a clock — a light clock. The wall planes are white and set parallel, and in the end, everything is a support for the light. Not a structure, but a support for something invisible, because if the light doesn’t touch something, it doesn’t exist. Light isn’t the only presence, but it’s the main one in the house.

I remember your saying about one of your projects that, because you were on site so often, you didn’t have time to do drawings.
Yes, that’s something I try to think about a lot. In the case of the Rio Bonito House (2005), I was there with the master builder, a man who took care of everything, and he taught me everything. So why would I be drawing for him? It wouldn’t make sense. He already knows everything, so he drew for me. But it’s completely related to the type of construction I’m proposing. For example, if a house is poured in concrete, it requires drawings that are a lot more precise.

  1. Rio Bonito House, Brazil, Rio Bonito de Cima, 2005. Image by Nelson Kon.

  2. Rio Bonito House, Brazil, Rio Bonito de Cima, 2005. Image by Nelson Kon.

  3. Rio Bonito House, Brazil, Rio Bonito de Cima, 2005. Image by Nelson Kon.

So you only present construction drawings if the construction method demands it? But don’t clients require drawings, if only for documentation or archival purposes?
Take for example the hospice I’m currently working on for the Fundação do Câncer in Rio. The plans for it began with a very abstract way of communicating the drawings, just these lines, and circles. And if you look at that first drawing and the final drawing, they’re very similar. But even if they’re very abstract, the drawings still show you exactly the structure, and how everything is related in the ensemble. I won’t show you anymore, they’re all that’s needed. (Laughs.)

In 2012, you and the director Bia Lessa were commissioned to design a spectacular temporary pavilion on the Forte de Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro. It was entirely made from recycled scaffolding and housed the United Nations conference Humanidade 2012.
Yes. It was Bia who was originally invited to do it, and she then asked me to collaborate as the architect. So I did the structural proposal, and Bia did the proposal for the entire stage design and scenography.

It’s exciting to imagine that artists and architects are making magic together. I thought your pavilion was very strong, confident, and ballsy.
What is ballsy?

Um… to have balls. Cojones?
(Laughs.) Well, I have a friend who, when she saw my Rio Bonito House, said it was the work of a man, not a woman.

No female architect likes to talk about the gender issue in architecture because it can be such a burden, but in 2013 you won the inaugural arcVision Prize — Women and Architecture. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
It’s hard to talk about this like you say. I’d rather not distinguish between architecture made by a man or by a woman. It’s a matter of good or bad architecture. But the history of architecture is so short for women’s work. The university I went to in Rio was founded in 1937 so that women could finally get higher education. That seems like only yesterday! And in that sense, the arcVision prize is a way to celebrate this short history. And with Shaikha Al Maskari, Vera Baboun, Odile Decq, Victoire de Margerie, Yvonne Farrell, Samia Nkrumah, Kazuyo Sejima, Benedetta Tagliabue, and Martha Thorne, the jury was fantastic too.

What’s it like building a practice in Brazil, and especially in Rio? How many people work in your office?
It changes a lot. At the moment I have four employees — it’s actually the first time I have a room full of people working! (Laughs.) Before I was always working from home. But that’s not possible anymore — too many people.

Would you like to work outside Brazil?
I just want to work.

Maybe you’re closer in spirit to Álvaro Siza?
In what sense?

  1. Pavillion Humanidade2012, Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, 2012. Image by Carla Juaçaba.

  2. Pavillion Humanidade2012, Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, 2012. Image by Carla Juaçaba.

  3. Pavillion Humanidade2012, Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, 2012. Image by Leonardo Finotti.

There’s a similar modesty to your work, and you also embrace craftsmanship and working almost exclusively in your home country.
To work in another country is always a challenge. But it’s also a challenge to think about where I am now with my practice in general. I’ve been traveling a lot recently, mostly to give lectures. I went to San Diego last month and I’m very excited to go to Paraguay soon because I think Paraguay is one of the places in Latin America with very interesting architecture at the moment. They don’t have big budgets so they use a lot of brick. Solano Benitez, for example, is very special. He invented a new way of constructing with brick, similar to what Eladio Dieste did.

Do you ever enter competitions?
No. I don’t participate in open competitions. How can you contribute something to people you don’t have a personal discussion with, and whose personal desires you don’t understand? Of course, it’s not impossible, but I just can’t imagine it for myself. And then you always have to submit these terrible, hyper-real 3D renderings. I really hate those! But it’s always the best 3D rendering that wins the competition. If I were to participate it would have to be a closed competition, and it would have to be with black-and-white drawings. (Laughs.)

So how, for example, did you come to be commissioned for the hospice project?
The Fundação do Câncer is a non-profit foundation and they want to build Brazil’s first ever hospice for cancer patients, entirely paid for through donations. The foundation’s director didn’t want to invite architects who are specialized in hospitals to design the hospice, and I think that was very smart of him. He first invited me simply to do a study of the site. I remember him telling me, “Carla, you don’t have to do too much. We just need an image, a 3D rendering or something, to see if it’s possible.” And I said, “No, I have to work a lot to get to that.” So I did research in hospitals, and I talked to many doctors, and also patients. Their advice was very poetic. For example, they told me not to design something with expansive views, but to build intimate spaces instead — they said they’d once visited a hospice that had large windows with views overlooking the sea, and it was a terrible experience for the patients. There was something about the horizon and the feeling of mortality that was very painful. That’s why my design consists of an enfilade of smaller, inner courtyards.

Did you visit any of the Maggie’s Centre hospices in the U.K. while doing your research?
Yes, I visited the one by Richard Rogers in west London together with the doctors from the foundation. It’s such a good space, you just feel comfortable there. It’s very, very nice. It’s in describing projects like these that I find it hard to distinguish between the language of architecture and the language of art. For example, I was explaining that the hospice has this sequence of translucent walls you have to penetrate to enter the building, and the walls are a division. It’s another world behind these walls. In the center of the walls, there’s a small passageway, a connection. My description is more like that of an artist, not an architect. It’s a more sensitive approach to explaining architecture that I think is missing in teaching and in criticism.

But there are architects like yourself who infuse artistry into their practice. Kazuyo Sejima has done it, for example. It’s just that your voices aren’t heard so loudly. Maybe you have to figure out a way to be louder?
Maybe. It’s the same problem I have with 3D renderings — there just isn’t any space left for imagination. Architects have the same way of talking, the same way of communicating. They don’t search for different ways of showing and explaining. The communication is over-real, super-real. That’s why I favor abstract drawings because they’re not abstract in the end, they’re the antithesis of it actually.

What would be your dream project?
I was recently in Tijuana, Mexico, where I went to a favela to visit the Modulo Prep Library by CRO Studio (2012–13) — it’s a very small, but very nice building. Favelas normally don’t have a housing problem, because the houses already exist. The problem is that there’s nothing to offer to the community. There was a line one kilometer long for the library because it was free to enter. It was a beautiful project that changed the community completely. To make an impact a project doesn’t have to be an expensive building. I’d love to do something like that!

Text by Karen Wong.

Portraits by Javier Agustin Rojas.

Taken from PIN–UP 17 Fall Winter 2014/15.