How Jorge Zalszupin redefined Brazilian modernism | ET REALITY


POLISH-BRAZILIAN designer and architect Jorge Zalszupin hated the beach, but he loved the beach house he built in 1972 for his family. Set back from the Atlantic coast in Guarujá, a resort town 40 miles southeast of São Paulo, the 2,842-square-foot white concrete home looks like a block of bleached coral pulled from the ocean. The front door opens onto a spiral staircase that leads to a pair of bedrooms and a lofted lounge; Below, the walls of a sunken living room curve up to a sculptural ceiling. A built-in sofa wraps around a bell-shaped fireplace, its crescent-shaped hearth like an open mouth. Protected from the Brazilian sun that his wife, a housewife named Annette, and two daughters adored, Zalszupin spent entire weekends listening to Chet Baker and Brahms, hunched over mounds of clay that he modeled for chairs and sofas: the furniture that he earned praise in the late 1950s, and for houses that, until recently, were much less well known.

Born in 1922 to a middle-class Jewish family in Warsaw (Jorge was originally Jerzy), Zalszupin narrowly escaped the Nazi invasion of the city, fleeing across the border in 1940 at age 18. While many refugees continued to Palestine and thence to England, he found refuge with his father and his sister in Bucharest, Romania, where he earned his architectural degree and did not arrive in Brazil until after the war. “My father always told me that the Guarujá house was a womb,” says Verónica Zalszupin, 69, his eldest daughter. “Comfort was the goal. He wanted to feel protected.” Nestled among neocolonial huts, brutalist bunkers and postwar glass boxes, Zalszupin’s beach house, now occupied by his youngest daughter, Marina, 66, was the first of a dozen sculpture projects, most of them painted in white, which the architect created. until the late 1980s. (He retired in 1992.) Together, they represent a cheerful, if unintentional, retort to the modernist dogmas that have defined Brazilian design for almost a century: in a country known for the futuristic curves of Oscar Niemeyer and Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s towering concrete masses, Zalszupin’s houses are clearly atypical: organic and earthy, personal and impossible to replicate.

In many ways, they were outliers for him, too. His furniture had played a clear role in the formation of mid-century Brazilian aesthetics, which, with its formal and structural exuberance, expanded the harsh rationalism of Modernism. From the establishment of his studio, L’Atelier, in 1959 until his death in 2020 at age 98, he helped forge the aspirational tastes of Brazil’s upper middle class, particularly with iconic pieces such as the Pétalas coffee table, a flower of molded and layered rosewood. veneer and the Presidential sofa, deeply padded, with a support of curved wooden slats raised on thin steel legs that look like antennas. These pieces highlighted Brazil’s natural abundance and the prosperity that could arise if he took advantage of it.

But their so-called Organic Houses (a term that curators and academics have applied to residential projects only in recent years) emerged from a different paradigm, one that had also begun to flourish in other countries. In the 1920s, when the florid asymmetries of Art Nouveau gave way to the mechanical clarity of the Bauhaus, the Austrian-born American architect, sculptor and stage designer Frederick John Kiesler began to develop his ideas of an “endless architecture.” , which culminated three decades. later in the biomorphic curves of his (ultimately unrealized) Endless House. Around the same time, Mexican artist and architect Juan O’Gorman, an early proponent of functionalism in America, turned toward an esoteric style exemplified by the mid-century Cave House, with its irregular volumes and elaborate stone mosaics. Each inhabitant of these diverse and divergent buildings would become “a nucleus of natural forces, living in emotions and dreams,” Kiesler writes in a 1949 essay. “Every millimeter of its environment is inspiration.”

These concepts never gained much traction in São Paulo, according to architecture professor and curator Guilherme Wisnik, 51. “We are still essentially modernists,” he says. “We never accept pluralism.” But in recent years, young Brazilian designers have begun to question that conviction, taking stock of the innovations of modernism but also the traditions and communities it exoticized and overlooked. As a member of São Paulo’s European intelligentsia, Zalszupin is not an obvious figure to engage in such debates, yet he was always defined by dualities: his twin searches for tranquility and moderation, his fascination with industry, and his love of craftsmanship. . That’s why some have begun to look again at his Organic Houses, places where a great modernist designer raised counterarguments against his own methodology. “Zalszupin is an enigma,” says Wisnik. “We’re still looking for him.”

WHEN the WAR ended in Europe, Zalszupin moved from Bucharest to Prague and then to Paris; His first job was rebuilding the port of Dunkirk, France. The conditions were terrible. “I could no longer bear the idea of ​​living under the drawing table, of heating my room with an iron stove and firewood torn from the neighbors’ fences,” he writes in Portuguese in his 2014 autobiography, “De Cu Pra Lua.” . (which literally translates to “Ass to the Moon”, a Brazilian idiom referring to inexplicable luck). “I decided that I was going to emigrate, and emigrate away from Europe, impoverished by constant wars, content with its past, opposed to any progress since all its glories belonged to history.” While reading the French magazine L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, she became obsessed with images of Brazil’s then-radical style; She knew where she had to go next.

In 1949, he arrived in Rio de Janeiro with $500, a suitcase full of French perfume that he planned to sell until he found work, and a business card for Lucjan Korngold, a fellow Polish Jew who had fled to Brazil during the war and established his own business. architecture studio in São Paulo. From 1950 to 1958, Zalszupin worked with the senior architect on structures largely defined by their hard angles and muscular volumes. He brought those ideas to his own São Paulo-based practice, Prumo, which he ran with José Gugliotta until 1986.

Although the buildings of that era are tectonic and strict, their furniture is delicate, dynamic and carefully crafted. In 1970, during the long period of economic stagnation that followed the 1964 military coup in Brazil, Zalszupin sold L’Atelier to plastics conglomerate Grupo Forsa. There, he became director of product research and development and designed mass-produced office furniture and kitchenware in colorful polypropylene that found its way into homes and workplaces across the country. “Houses were the place where he could release his creative impulses,” says Lissa Carmona, executive director and curator of Etel, 50, the São Paulo-based design gallery that owns the rights to reproduce Zalszupin’s furniture from the year 2000. In the beach house, possibly the first of his organic buildings, Zalszupin discovered “a type of architecture that was hidden inside me and waiting to be released,” he writes in the autobiography.

For his second house in Guarujá, built in 1978 for the Leonzinis, then Verónica’s in-laws, Zalszupin became even more conceptual. While the first house seemed close and contained, the five-bedroom, 4,693-square-foot Casa Leonzini unfolded like a muslin sheet submerged in water, with an undulating terracotta tile roof and, inside, winding hallways paved with rough slate slabs. . All the interiors are an eccentric collage: in one bathroom, he had displayed black-painted pipes, whose playful geometries contrasted with the white walls like a Piet Mondrian painting assembled from Marcel Duchamp readymades.

DESPITE THEIR STRANGENESS, these houses were not without precedent in Brazil. Architect and industrial designer Lina Bo Bardi, who emigrated from her native Italy to Brazil three years before Zalszupin, began using curved facades and stone walls around 1960. In the early 1970s, self-taught designer José Zanine Caldas, who He had grown up in Bahia and began building rustic houses on the Rio boardwalk with wooden columns and gabled roofs. Around that time, São Paulo architect Eduardo Longo, now 81, created a series of Mediterranean-style villas in Guarujá, including the 1968 CAL House, next to the lot where Zalszupin would erect the Leonzini House 10 years later. Composed of three oblique pyramids covered in white plaster, the house looks like a fantastic brick oven. “My teammates thought I was ridiculous,” Longo says. “I was more intuitive, and that was frowned upon, (but Zalszupin’s houses) were even more irrational than mine.”

The urban Organic Houses of Zalszupin must have seemed even more impressive. The first of them, his favorite, according to Verónica, was built in 1975 for her friends, art collectors José and Paulina Nemirovsky. Located on a large plot in the wealthy São Paulo neighborhood of Jardim Paulistano, not far from the architect’s 1962 home, which since 2021 has served as an exhibition space, the Nemirovsky House featured white walls that curved around the vestiges of a landscape mainly tropical. destroyed by the rapid growth of the city. Inside, concrete ceilings jutted out into shallow domes imprinted with sunbeams left by meticulous formwork, a tactic he would repeat in one of the last Organic Houses, the 1989 Casa Rodríguez in Guarujá.

Zalszupin began construction on his second Organic House in São Paulo, a 4,844-square-foot house in the leafy residential district of Alto de Pinheiros, in 1975 (the same year he completed work on the Nemirovsky House, which was unceremoniously demolished in 2005). ). Its current owner, Silvana Cobetta Boni de Souza, a 72-year-old biochemist who bought the property in 1991, remembers regularly passing by the site during its construction and wondering: “What is this house that doesn’t have a single straight line?” . ?’ “It was so beautiful, so different.” Its sloping exterior walls snake toward the sidewalk like the roots of an Amazonian tree captured in the white plaster of a baroque church. With its tightly coiled nautilus plan, it shares its cautious relationship with the street with the most typical São Paulo houses of the time, many of them crouched under rigid concrete canopies. But its spirit is radically different: it is not a bunker but a cocoon.

Years before buying her property, Boni had lived in a classic São Paulo house, all with straight lines and hard cement, a prodigy of rationality that, according to her, left much to be desired. “There was no light or air. It was either too hot or too cold and it was always too dark.” The Zalszupin House is the complete opposite: its handcrafted walls and labyrinthine hallways are infused with fantasy, and every surface is a gesture of gratitude for the country the architect made his own. “Moving here,” Boni says, “I felt free.”

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