The freedom of a versatile steel, by Roberto Segre

A foreword by Roberto Segre for the book STEEL LIFE

The use of steel in architecture is reaching its third century. The structural revolution started in the 19th century, in the advanced works by Gustav Eiffel and was consolidated with the proliferation of business skyscrapers in downtown Chicago. But the constructive elements – beams and columns – had not yet had an aesthetic significance, hidden as they were inside masonry boxes and decorated facades. Mies van der Rohe was the architect who accepted, prepared and disseminated the formal purity of the steel structure, which, combined with the glass transparency, has defined the typology of the light box – horizontal and vertical – used in houses and tall buildings along the 20th century. An extensive group of architects has been identified with the strict rationalism imposed by industrialized metal components – serial and normalized: among others, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Craig Ellwood, I. M. Pei, Eero Saarinen, Arne Jacobsen. But, at the same time, the plastic possibilities of steel were evidenced and – just like reinforced steel – would allow for the conception of free, sculptural forms. The Russian constructivists were the first to associate steel with a new avant-garde aesthetics, based on the iconic images that would identify the advancements of socialism: they are the utopian fantasies by V. E. Tatlin, Ivan Leonidov and Ja. G. Chernikov.

The rigid simplicity of the box was left behind when new structural elements emerged, established by differentiated linear components and articulation knots, allowing for very large spans, basically developed by Buckminster Fuller and Konrad Wachsmann in the USA. The criticism about the anonymity of the International Style starts in the 1950’s with the English New Brutalism and emerges with the South Hunstanton steel structures by Peter & Alison Smithson. It was the beginning of a plastic experimentation continued up to the present days, in the works by Renzo Piano & Richard Rogers; Norman Foster; Nicholas Grimshaw; and whose formal and structural freedom may be noticed now at the dawn of the 21st century, with the inventions by Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, and Herzog & de Meuron. We should also mention the “bird’s nest” Beijing 2008 Olympic Stadium as an icon of renewed aesthetics based on the versatility of the steel structure.

The works by João Diniz are inserted in such a creative dynamics. He belongs in the avant-garde group that suggested the redemption of the Minas Gerais architecture, as well as cultural and environmental identity, economically characterized by successive mining cycles, initially with gold in the colonial era, and in the 20th century with steel & iron. In architecture, such a new identity meant to use steel in contraposition to the predominance of the reinforced concrete as established by Oscar Niemeyer in works built in the state, especially in Belo Horizonte. The same way as we usually mention the Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo “schools”, now a movement emerges as the Minas Gerais “school”, led as from the 1970’s by architects such as Éolo Maia, Jô Vasconcellos, Humberto Serpa, Cid Horta, Álvaro Hardy & Mariza M. Coelho, Flávio Almada, Sylvio Emrich de Podestá, Gustavo Penna, João Diniz, among others. They have refused the technocratic language of the military regimen and the Niemeyer “style” associated to the political power of Juscelino Kubitschek; and they, instead, adopted Post-modernism as a restoring trend to uphold the freedom of expression. As a newcomer to the group, João Diniz was able to simultaneously relate his open sensitivity towards other cultural manifestations – drawing, photography, sculpture, music, and poetry – to the versatility of steel structures. The works presented in this book clearly show the multitude of ways opened up by the use of steel.

The sculptural possibilities of steel elements are quite visible in the pieces as presented in the Special Installation at the International Architecture Biennale in Sao Paulo, in 2003, at the Black Art Festival Portal, and in the street furniture at the Rio de Janeiro Street, closely relating such constructive essays to works by Amílcar de Castro and Franz Weissmann. On the other hand, the “Miesian” heritage is present in the Clube Campestre Locker Rooms and in the Fumec Principal’s Office; and the studies by Charles and Ray Eames in the fifties are recalled in the Casexp experimental dwelling project. The Querubins Gymnasium, with its large covered area, embodies the structural design of the first works by Norman Foster; as well as the Environmental Education Mobile Units seem to honor Buckminster Fuller.  The articulation between closed and open shapes, and the dialogue of different materials, allowing for integrating the transparencies of steel structures to the solidity of reinforced steel, masonry and wood, is developed in the urban scale, represented by the buildings Capri and Scala Workcenter; and adds character to the original and creative houses designed by Diniz: Eugênia, Marina, KS, Jorge and Serrana. Last, the formal and spatial innovations that identify the new century – with their free and flowing steel surfaces – emerge in the Grupo Corpo new site, in the Air Force Center for Integration and Adaptation (CIAAR) and in the Fiat Museum. The works evidence not only the inventive ability of João Diniz, but, and at the same time, his wish to understand and assimilate the renewing images of our times, evidencing his presence in the universe of Minas Gerais, Brazil and of the world at large. The anthropophagical theses by Oswald de Andrade are still present in the 21st century.

Roberto Segre

Rio de Janeiro, December 14, 2008.


Born in Milan, Italy (1934). Graduated from the Architecture and Town Planning University, Buenos Aires (1960), Doctor’s degree in Sciences and Arts, University of Havana, Cuba (1990), Doctor’s degree in Regional and Urban Planning, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (1997). Senior and/or Visiting Professor in universities in Rio de Janeiro, Havana, New York, Houston, Los Angeles, Santo Domingo, and Lima. Delivered courses and lectures in universities from Latin America, USA, and Europe. Accepted a number of international awards for his books. Over 300 essays published on architecture and town planning in Latin America and the Caribbean; and more than 30 books published on the topics.

  1. 9 de janeiro de 2011
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