If there was ever a mythical lost city of gold, or perhaps rather a city of lost gold, in South America, it would be the Brazilian hilltown of Ouro Prêto. With a distinctive darker color caused by the presence of palladium and iron, gold from Ouro Prêto (translated as Black Gold), prior to its mining exhaustion, was world-renowned. By 1730 Ouro Prêto was twice the size of New York City and the largest city in South America - entirely owing to its status as the epicenter of the Brazilian gold rush, which lasted from the 1690s into the 19th century. During this time an estimated 800 tons of gold were extracted from the Minas Girais region surrounding Ouro Prêto, its capital- largely by an enslaved labor force. This arguably stolen wealth went to Portugal which controlled the Brazilian territories until 1822. The current value of this extraction would be nearly $50,000,000,000 USD.
The historic gold mines of Ouro Prêto have left the rocky base on which the town sits in a state of what historians have called “Swiss cheese.” Serpentine excavated tunnels weave under the town, and region, giving Ouro Prêto a dark underworld that is a rarely considered counterpart to its beautiful above- ground Baroque churches, charming neighborhoods, spectacular views and café-bounded piazzas. Part of the goal of this studio will be to connect the beautiful world above (where gold wealth was spent), with this forgotten underworld below (where gold was from)- both physically and metaphorically.
This complex formal problem, as it intertwines with of the story of gold in Ouro Prêto and the recuperative future return of historic gold and artifacts, constitutes a body of history and crafted gold objects worth preserving for future generations. As such, this studio will be designing the new Museum of Gold in Ouro Prêto, Brazil, that will in some way address this strange quality of Ouro Prêto simultaneously containing some of the most beautiful gold-encrusted Baroque architecture and design in the world, while simultaneously resting atop a dark underworld of abandoned gold mines that were once the source of a significant human suffering. How can architecture simultaneously address the presence of such staggering beauty, but also terrifying pain so simply divided by a single surface - the ground plane?
As with Goldilocks, this studio will try to strike the perfect balance between these strangely dialectic narratives through the design of a roughly 20,000 sq. ft. building or small complex of buildings, loosely based on that of an already existing sister museum—The Museum of Gold in Bogota, Colombia. The Bogota Museum of Gold is quite a hit– annually receiving over 500,000 visitors and having a collection of 34,000 gold artifacts - making it one of the most visited attractions in the country and often cited as one of the great museums of South America. The intent is to allow this museum in Ouro Prêto, which arguably has a more prominent role in the history of gold in South America than Bogota, to tell this story more thoroughly by not only being a repository for beautiful objects, but connecting the objects directly to their origins—the historic mines directly below. Through this the town can benefit from this unique new tourist revenue stream prompted by the historic desire to see one of the most valued substances in the history of the world - gold.
Students will select their own sites for this project, (pending approval from instructor) from several access points to the gold mines of Minas do Palácio Velho, Minas de Chico Rei, Casa de Mineração or the Felipe dos Santos mine– thereby unifying in one location the experience of learning about the history of the region, understanding the process of mining, refining, and the craft of goldsmithery, the viewing of historic gold artifacts, and the experience of descending into the historic gold mines themselves. This may (but is not required to) architecturally, require carving, tunnels, or deeper excavation, and could include facades or cave spaces etched from the poche of solid rock.
While much of the historic section of Ouro Prêto is designed in a Portuguese colonial style, and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we will not limit ourselves to reproductions of history for this design problem, yet nor will we be doing extravagant untamed budget-free buildings of solid gold. Instead, we will seek to do a building, or small collection of buildings that are appropriate to the subject, that address the aforementioned sectional divide, that work in the historic town in which the museum will exist, and that are exciting enough to be a unique draw for tourism and to thrive, as such programs must do today, in the visual world of social media and images.
In order to understand the larger context of history, we will begin the studio by researching everything from Brazilian architecture and craftsmanship to the unique forms of extremely high-resolution South American Baroque, known as Churrigueresque – so unique to this part of the world. On the other end of the spectrum, we will also research the new forms of equally low-resolution classical(ish) postmodernism emerging in adjacent Bolivia, in the form of Cholets, in which one often finds references to the historic South American Baroque reimagined in clever, innovative, critical, and sometimes funny ways. That is to say that we are open to the full breadth of architectural histories that have come to define the architecture of the region. As such the studio will have a basis in history- and in order to better understand these classically referential design directions, from, for instance, Churrigueresque to Cholets, students will be taught the rules of canonical classicism by the critic, (himself having been classically educated) which will underlie much of the architecture we will see in our research and travel – but not to reproduce it towards the design of historic kitsch. Instead, we will use this knowledge to better understand how centuries of architects have often maintained continuity with the classical past while at the same time, often ingeniously, shattering classical canon in their efforts to produce an architecture that was unique to Brazil.
In Ouro Prêto itself and the surrounding towns we will focus extra attention on the work of Baroque genius Antônio Francisco Lisboa, better known as “Aleijadinho,” who was born in, worked in, and died in Ouro Prêto. Aleijadinho is an interesting figure, as he was the son of an enslaved person and a colonist, disabled, and badly disfigured throughout much of his life. His work has been credited as being the origin of a Brazilian national architecture (we’ll read Sunil Bald’s great article about this)- which continues as a lineage from his own elegant plastic Baroque creations all the way through descendant designs of Oscar Neimeyer. We will mine this lineage in order to better understand the architecture of Brazil.
In order to broaden the range of possible student responses, the studio will, in addition to learning about historic classicism also, optionally, be taught new digital skills, for instance Z-Brush or advanced Rhino techniques, which might be helpful in developing rocky textures and carved forms, or digital “kitbashing” techniques, which might result in new forms of the Churrigueresque. All students will be taught techniques of Hollywood matte painting that offer new avenues for photo-realistic rendering, which will be useful in capturing the actual visual qualities of the building in its natural context. Students will work in groups of 3-4, at least until the mid-review, based on their shared interests in aspects of the research or general design ambitions. We will be working in such groups because students will be developing a building in significantly more developed visual detail than they likely have in the past. Because of the visual nature of the gold, and the tourism industry, this project will likely not be merely functional nor minimalist, but it also need not be excessive (although it could be). While the foundation of the studio will be rooted in history and a knowledge of the historic classicism of Ouro Prêto, there are no stylistic expectations for the studio other than the project be appropriate for the design problem, and, if we dare to expect it, beautiful. Of course, it goes without saying, that all buildings should aim for LEED gold.
While the resulting projects of this studio may or may not have classical references, the process of design will more closely follow the design systems involved in classical instruction than it will a typical design studio. Because we will be placing a high degree of emphasis on aesthetics, especially via levels of detail, realistic rock textures, color, and rustication, we will not be developing the usual suite of studio marginalia including but not limited to diagrams, programmatic analysis charts, mapped information, or wordy narratives. In short, the work will, visually, need to speak for itself. This will be a product over process kind of studio.
Students will, as one would in a more classical Beaux-Arts studio, be limited to, with possible exceptions, a single (beautiful) plan, a single (beautiful) longitudinal section, and 5-6 (museum quality) rendered interior and exterior perspective views. No other forms of 2d representation will be required- including diagrams or anything detailing the process of design. Architectural models within the classical tradition were used primarily as a means to address complex figural and decorative details in three dimensions- rather than as study models for entire buildings. As such, we will have no requirements for physical models, and instead will focus on today’s version of 2d classical perspective drawings—digital renderings and matte paintings. Such an emphasis on the end result over process may seem strange by the standards of today’s design studios, yet in past studios it has yielded fantastic results, and a different genre of project than students likely have in their portfolios to date. In this way the students will become, perhaps, like Lady Gaga, Freddie Mercury, Bjork, and Radiohead- classically trained.
The studio will travel to Brazil, with @ 3 days in Rio de Janeiro to visit various historic and contemporary buildings, and from there proceed to Ouro Prêto area- where students will tour the city and its architecture, as well as explore the various gold mines that are still accessible to the public. In between we will visit buildings designed by architects including multiple structures by Oscar Niemeyer. It is important to note that these buildings not be seen as buildings of a separate lineage—i.e. Baroque vs. Modernist, but rather, as multiple scholars note as a continuum of a Brazilian architecture that escapes its colonial and European roots to become something truly independent and unique in the world.
The studio will also have walking tours, led by the critic in New York City to learn about Beaux-Arts classicism as well as the integration of metal into historic architectural languages. This will all be background information about both innovations in architecture and how metal has been used in the past vs. today in architecture and related design fields.
Mark Foster Gage, Robert A.M. Stern Professor of Architecture
With software tutorials by Bashayer Bamohsen, Senior Designer, Mark Foster Gage Architects