In 1941 the mayor of Belo Horizonte, Juscelino Kubitschek, commissioned the architect Oscar Niemeyer to build a series of buildings around Pampulha lake. These included a yacht club, a dance hall, a casino, and a chapel, the latter of which is known as the Church of St. Francis of Assisi (1943). Under Kubitschek’s influence Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, aspired to compete with the two hitherto hegemonic metropolises, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In 1938 the governor suggested the need for a tourist hotel in the colonial city of Ouro Preto, a project that would be also carried out by Niemeyer (1939). Kubitschek’s desire to introduce modern elements in a city that still remained provincial and traditional motivated the urbanization of the lands edging the artificial lake in Pampulha, situated fifteen kilometers from the city center, and created for the recreation of Minas Gerais’s new industrial bourgeoisie.
Niemeyer invited artists Alfredo Ceschiatti and Cándido Portinari and the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx to collaborate on the Pampulha projects, including the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. In his designs Niemeyer abandoned the Cartesian system of composition in favor of freely curving forms in space.
The small church is shaped by three basic elements: the bell tower linked to the light access marquee, the nave covered by a freestanding vault, and the adjacent installations, covered by three smaller reinforced-concrete domes. The blind facade of the chapel, which faces the street, is embellished by a large mural by Cándido Portinari of Portuguese blue-and-white glazed tiles (azulejos) depicting scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The nave is designed in two parts: the area for the faithful worshipers, accessed through the horizontal slate of the choir, a low element that antecedes the surprise of the vault’s parabolic expansion; and the altar space, lit from the ceiling’s apex that establishes the difference in height between the two domes integrated in the central axis. From the darkness of the nave, the miracle of light illuminates the wall of the altar that is also covered with a painting by Portinari. From the exterior the chapel is apprehended through the continuous fluidity of the domes and the transparent bell tower that appears almost suspended in air by the light, curved, metallic supports.
Although these shapes were innovative for a religious building, Niemeyer was likely inspired by several precursors, including the parabolic hangars of the Orly Airport (1916– 24, Eugéne Freyssinet) and the Orbetello Airport (1935–38, Pier Luigi Nervi), the curved ramps of the penguin pool at the London Zoo (1933–34, Berthold Lubetkin), and the Zementhalle in Zurich (1939, Robert Maillart). These lightweight shells foreshadowed the possibilities of reinforced concrete in the hands of talented structural engineers such as Felix Candela and Eladio Dieste in Latin America. Joaquim Cardozo, Niemeyer’s engineer, participated in the creation of the church. The avantgardism of Niemeyer’s structure was widely rejected among the local clergy and the Minas Gerais bourgeoisie who did not accept such secular forms for a religious building; in fact, the church remained abandoned and converted to a radio station until 1959, when it became definitively a church.
The urbanization project of Belo Horizonte unfortunately did not prosper, and Pampulha began to decline, culminating in the contamination of the lake. Today, Niemeyer’s buildings have been restored, and the area has been recuperated as a space for public leisure. Some European critics, in particular Bruno Zevi (1953) and Manfredo Tafuri (1979), argued that the chapel’s freedom of design was overly formulist. The Italian critic Gillo Dorfles (1984) identified a nascent neobaroque modernism (or baroque rationalism) in Niemeyer’s work. The French critic Jean Petit (1995) affirmed Niemeyer’s autonomy from the prevailing European rationalism. According to Le Corbusier, an early mentor and collaborator, Niemeyer was able to marry the emotionalism of the baroque with the industrial and austere materials of reinforced concrete. Without question, Pampulha in the 1940s emerged as the forerunner of the expressive freedom of English and American Brutalism that emerged at the end of the Second World War.