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About the Author

João Paulo Campos Peixoto is a Master’s student in History and Foundations of Architecture and Urbanism, at the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP). His research focuses on the historiography of Brazilian neocolonial architecture.

Researching Architecture Without Leaving Home

by | Nov 19, 2020

2020 was the beginning of my master’s degree studies. At the end of 2019 I found out that I was accepted into the at the University of São Paulo master’s in history and foundations of architecture and urbanism, one of the hardest programs to get accepted in this specific area in Brazil. It was all great until the Covid-19 pandemic happened.

My proposed project was to explore the neocolonial architecture in the region called Triângulo Mineiro—a set of cities displayed on the map in the form of a triangle on the west side of Minas Gerais state and, also, where I was born. The region has an amazing neocolonial architectural collection, constructed mostly in the first half of the 20th century, and most importantly: still standing, despite the efforts of the real estate market to the contrary. There were tons of information and documents to dig into and ready to be discovered. A real treat for an architect who sought to study the history of Brazilian architecture, influenced by the Portuguese-Brazilian colonial buildings and, also, by the mission style from the old Spanish colonies. Everything was fine, until it was not.

Project of the neocolonial residence Pedro Salomão in the city of Uberaba (Minas Gerais), 1947. Source: Uberaba’s Public Archive.

I was living in São Paulo only one month when the pandemic started. São Paulo was one of the first cities in Brazil to face the Covid-19 problem. I was supposed to go back to my city to be isolated immediately. I packed some essential items, some books that I could not leave behind and, with my mask on and freaking out in the airport, I went back to Uberlândia. I vividly remember thinking, while waiting for the flight, “How can I research architecture without leaving my home?” The work I intended to do depended, at that time, on visiting at least three different cities, at least 40 buildings, besides all the interviews and the research in museums and archives. How could it be possible? Everything had closed. Almost everything is still closed (or should be), nearly nine months later.

But what was my problem compared to the big picture? In Brazil, the numbers of Covid-19 cases were only going higher and higher; we were left without a Minister of Health for more than a hundred days, while our government, in the figure of Jair Bolsonaro, said the disease was just a “little flu.” There were almost no intensive care (ICU) beds; we were heading towards a blind disaster. I was almost guilty to be worried about my master’s project. But that was all I had then.

I hadn’t had the time, initially, to become closer to my advisor or to make any friends. I was lost. The problem, nevertheless, seems bigger on the outside. I sent a frightened e-mail to my advisor, saying it was almost impossible to keep the original project, I would have to make some major changes because of the pandemic (not to say that I would have to change it completely). My advisor is Professor Maria Lucia Bressan Pinheiro, generally considered one of the most prominent researchers in neocolonial architecture in Brazil. It is important to say, because the support she gave me was very important for the good development of my (new) work. Turns out that online is, now, not only a place, but an immense set of rooms and locations. 

All the classes are now online. All the events, seminars, activities. All in virtual spaces. It turned out to be something great. Just last week we had a lecture with the brilliant professor and architecture historian Jean-Louis Cohen, live, directly from the United States of America. I think that would be more unlikely to happen, otherwise. Classes have become richer, with distinguished guests from around the world. The adaptation was hard, but we had to face it. I even made some great friends, by now. Obviously, this is one little good thing that is almost hard to praise, when there are so many people dying in Brazil and all around the world. But I think some good changes are here to stay. Hopefully, all this knowledge made available online, all the books, all the lectures, may reach a bigger audience, and may that the countries facing hard times, like Brazil, access this kind of content that, before, was so much harder to achieve.

All of these is being said from a place of privilege, I recognize that. It would be even better if we could have all that without any suffering. I’m home, under lockdown. Not all people have this opportunity or privilege. On the other hand, the University of São Paulo is doing its best to alleviate the problem: for example, offering free internet modems and equipment so that students in precarious situations can attend classes and access the web. It would be better if everyone had the same opportunities, but we need to recognize certain advances.

About my project, it changed. Now, I research the historiography of neocolonial architecture, based on textual files (books, articles…) published between 1980s and 2020. It is very necessary research here in Brazil. About the Triângulo Mineiro, there will be time to research its amazing neocolonial architectural collection. If not by me, by other students perhaps even more capable of doing so.  By the books and the internet, I have visited much more neocolonial buildings than I would have If I actually could visit them in person. I do visit them—by other means. As I just said: turns out that online is not only a place now. We do leave home. In different ways.

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