Interview with Carlos Comas


Editors Felipe Hernández and Fernando Lara interviewed Brazilian scholar Carlos Eduardo Dias Comas about his encounters with Colombian architecture, from the Seminarios de Arquitectura Latinoamericana in the 1980s and 90s all the way to his role in the construction of a critical assessment of modern architecture in our continent.

Los editores Felipe Hernández y Fernando Lara entrevistaron al académico brasileño Carlos Eduardo Dias Comas sobre sus encuentros con la arquitectura colombiana, desde los Seminarios de Arquitectura Latinoamericana en los años 80 y 90 hasta su papel en la construcción de una evaluación crítica de la arquitectura moderna en nuestro continente.

Brazilian architect Carlos Comas very kindly agreed to answer a few questions for this issue of Dearq. Carlos has played a central role in the formulation of a critical interpretation of modern architecture in Latin America and has been an active member of the Seminarios de Arquitectura Latinoamericana for many years. An issue questioning centrality afforded to modern architecture would not have the same value without the views of those who put it there. Similarly, the introduction of academic agendas, such as the call for embracing critically and rigorously alternative discourses that may offset traditional architectural positions, would not be valid without the challenging positions. For that reason, we though that it would be essential to include in this issue a contribution by a figure of such standing as Carlos Comas, whose insightful critique would most certainly take us to task in demonstrating why it is necessary constantly to revise positions, methodologies, theories, and to establish interdisciplinary collaborations while simultaneously strengthening our own disciplinary knowledge (architecture).

On the first of June, 2019, we asked Carlos to answer seven questions, and these were his answers.

CC: It is a honour, and a pleasure — of sorts, for you are forcing me to think, and thinking always hurts.

Before I answer the questions that you have formulated, I must say that I am speaking from the standpoint of a male, privileged, educated middle-class Brazilian architect that came of age in the early eighties, our “lost decade”, who lives in the province but travels a lot and has a cosmopolitan outlook, teaches primarily studio and has had practical experience at the drafting table, CAD monitor, and on the building site. I am primarily interested in how buildings and spaces between buildings take shape, from the standpoint of the producer, rather than consumer. I do not prioritize meaning, although I know buildings mean something, for if they did not mean anything, they could not work, as Umberto Eco shrewdly argued. Rather old-fashioned, I believe that the cultural status of architecture and construction are diverse. I read architecture as extraordinary construction in a way or another, true to etymology: architecture = arkhi + tekton, or “extraordinary construction”. Every work of architecture is construction, but not every building is architecture, granted that the frontiers between them are fluid.

So I see a differentiation of degree and/or kind, if not a hierarchy, of building tasks and architectural concerns in almost every society. Accordingly, the history of architecture is part of, but not the whole history of, the built environment. Monuments have been conventionally architectural concerns, and shelters have been building concerns, granted that most monuments are also shelters, and a shelter can become a monument. It would be tempting to equate architecture to monuments and to associate these to the educated (often seen as oppressive) ruling classes, while referring to shelters as vernacular, or popular, and therefore associated to the subaltern. Such an assumption, however, would be wrong (partially). Our Lucio Costa says that architecture is “construction with plastic intention”,1 which is conscious in erudite architecture (his word in Portuguese for erudite is sabida, or “knowing”) and unconscious in vernacular or popular architecture. Plastic intention is a somewhat ambiguous expression, as it may refer to the producer’s aims or to the consumer’s readings, but I will stick to it for the moment, and remember the commerce between “high culture” and “low culture” went and goes both ways.

Who decides now that a given work is architecture and not construction is a tricky question that usually is faced at least twice, when a program is established, and when the building is finished. I have no answer for that, other than to say it is the “interested communities”, and they also decide what is good and what is bad architecture, and what is good and what is bad construction. Architecture and construction, monument and shelter — those words for me are descriptors, not value judgments. Arguably, people trained to be architects are obviously natural members of those interested communities. However, they do not hold exclusive rights to what I call “architectural knowledge”, and how this knowledge is applied to the design of the built environment. “De arquiteto, gênio e louco todo mundo tem um pouco”, I would say — everyman has an architect in his sleeve, along with a madman and a genius. Let me quote myself around 1986:

"Conhecer soluções arquitetônicas é conhecer, primeiro, realizações concretas e singulares: uma sala, uma escada, um pátio, uma rua, uma casa, uma igreja, um museu, um parque, um bairro, por exemplo; em paralelo, é conhecer, ainda que de um modo vago, a estrutura formal dessas realizações: os elementos e relações geométricas que as caracterizam, as especificações técnico-construtivas envolvidas, os atributos figurativos que apresentam. Numa segunda instância, é reconhecer estruturas formais típicas, subjacentes à multiplicidade das realizações arquitetônicas concretas e singulares: identificar tipos de escada, tipos de pátio, tipos de rua, tipos de casa, e assim por diante, tendo como referência seus esquemas de organização geométrica, características técnicoconstrutivas, sua aura figurativa. Ao mesmo tempo, é saber das situações e propósitos a que estão culturalmente associadas, os tipos de problema a que são aplicáveis."2

I emphasized the last sentence to call attention to the connected nature of architectural problems and solutions, and to the fact that if a problem is not defined architecturally it cannot have an architectural solution. Otherwise, what distinguishes or should distinguish the architect from laymen — people that have no specialized or professional knowledge of architecture — is the extension and depth of her/his repertory of architectural problems and solutions, and the greater ability to manipulate that repertory, for instance, in hybridizing solutions, whether operating within one disciplinary tradition or a collection of disciplinary traditions, high and/or low. From my point of view, this is what accounts for a modicum of disciplinary autonomy and explains why the so-called operative use of both the history of architecture and the history of the built environment is a professional given. We cannot escape it, so better be conscious of it.

Eds.: Carlos, you have played a central role in the formulation of a critical interpretation of modern architecture in Latin America. However, the centrality afforded to modern architecture has been questioned very heavily recently. A dominant position today is that we ought to break away from, and surpass, our fixation with modernism. How do you face this challenge in your own work, and what would you advise to our academic colleagues in Colombia?

CC: Let me address this question in two parts. First, I will address the part that concerns me, how I face the challenge, and second, what I can tell to Colombian architects.

The centrality afforded to erudite architecture (of which modern architecture is a branch) has been challenged for quite a while now. If I remember, just to cite one example, MoMA – Museum of Modern Art showed “architecture without architects” in 1964. And the centrality afforded to the history of modern architecture (with CIAM – Congres Internationale d’Archietcture Moderne - and/or MoMA pedigree) too. Le Corbusier, Aalto, Lutyens were the three heroes of Robert Venturi, in 1966, and the Art Déco craze is from that decade as well. Learning from Las Vegas followed, suggesting iconographical and compositional renewal, rather than throwing modern architecture away. By the way, one of the things I admire about Henry-Russell Hitchcock is that he includes “traditional architecture in the 20th century” in his two histories, 1929 and 1958, and is frank about the problems posed to the historian by formal survival and revival: They are not exciting enough as subject matter!

I do not face the challenge of breaking away from, or surpassing, modern architecture, nor do I think there is a fixation with modernism in Brazil. For better or worse, the most stimulating Brazilian work today operates consciously within a modern tradition. And this is a broad roadway, including advocacy planning and design, even favela work as spin-offs; Carlos Nelson Ferreira dos Santos (1943–1989) is one of the ancestral names that come to mind. Around 1985, when the XII Congresso Brasileiro de Arquitetos was held in Belo Horizonte, and the SESC - Commercial Social Service - Pompéia by Lina Bo Bardi was inaugurated, the thinking Brazilian architect accepted a post-modern condition, but most of them, myself included, were rather unconvinced by post modern architecture, whether the branch was historicist (with Michael Graves on the figurative side and Peter Eisenman on the abstract one) or idealist (with Aldo Rossi on the figurative side and Tadao Ando on the abstract one). At the same time, I discovered, by looking at the masterpieces themselves instead of listening to discourses about them, that they belied the so-called cardinal sin of modern architecture, contempt for context and history. Of course, forms evolve, as well as the technology of construction, and the meaning of forms changes, which is something that bothers very much a lot of people and is ultimately another facet of that disciplinary autonomy. I guess a good example is our grand old man Paulo Mendes da Rocha, at once part of what I am now calling vintage, or historical, modern architecture and of the contemporary modern architecture scene, which includes now several generations and coteries, from Marcos Acayaba to Aleph Zero passing by Brasil Arquitetura, Gustavo Penna, Hector Vigliecca, Marcelo Suzuki, Isay Weinfeld, Marcio Kogan, Arthur Casas. Thiago Bernardes, Jacobsen, MMBB, SBPR, Metro, Andrade Morettin, Una, Carla Juaçaba, Arquitetos Associados, MDC. There have been great patrons too both in the private and the public sector: SESC for leisure and social services centers, and Elisabete França for low-income housing; she was the housing superintendent at the city os São Paulo3 where she coordinated the elaboration of the municipal housing plan.4 Paulo’s houses from the sixties were custom-made but conveyed an idealized vision of technology. Casa Gerassi (1990) used off-the-peg prefab elements developed for the construction of warehouses and factories; drywall is conquering the country. Our problem (in Brazil) is not too much modern architecture. It is too little quality modern architecture: lots of kitsch aimed at the middle classes, substandard shelter for the urban masses, the demise of urban design, illiterate architects and sponsors, the triumph of a shark-like mentality coupled with the victory of social planners over architects at every level of government and private enterprise.

Now let me address the second part of the question. Who am I to give advice to Colombians? I love the Caribbean Sea, salsa, coffee, stories of pirates, the majestic Andes. I admire German Samper writing in Revista Escala 35 about open and closed neighborhood design, and brick walls; those of Expressionist pathos more than those of Beaux Arts ethos, although I found Salmona’s Museo del Oro Quimbaya (1984–1985) quite impressive. I visited it in 1989, after the Seminario de Arquitectura Latinoamericana meeting in Manizales. The formality of the architecture and the exhibition design had the coldness of death and conveyed for me the violence of the Conquest in sharper terms than a more overt reference would do. Anyhow, a student of mine just finished her dissertation on brick, focusing on the work of Solano Benitez. She does mention Colombian brick, but of course could not develop fully the subject. So, how about that, a joint project about modern brick in South America? A comprehensive study including sophisticates and favelados in Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay? This is an interested suggestion rather than advice, but you know, “quem não arrisca não petisca” — nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Eds.: Knowing as you do the development of architecture in Colombia, what can you tell us about the importance given to the work of a limited number of figures in Colombian architecture, modernist architects, in order to build a history of the whole country? Do you see it as a risk to write a history based on the work of a handful of architects like Salmona, Sanabria, Samper, Obregon, and not many others?

CC: A work of architecture is a collective project, much like a stage play or a movie. Cast of thousands! The individual architect or nominal designer is just one of them. Design decisions are not always willed by him, who usually has far less power than it is assumed. We may not like it, but a building is also a commodity, an economic asset (or liability): real estate, bien raiz, bem de raiz, which is the object of a contractual relationship. Yet, our societies do differentiate tasks, and give authorial voice to some architects, who are generally well-connected upper class or would-be upper class people, and more often than not of European descent. Those are star architects we have had throughout history — single names who receive all the credit even if we know they have assistants, and their buildings are the product of teamwork. We take shortcuts; we use abbreviations. I recall Jorge Luis Borges, On Exactitude in Science (the original title is Del rigor en la ciencia), a one-paragraph short-story written in 1946 in the form of a literary forgery. Credited fictionally as a quotation from “Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658”, it imagines an empire where the science of cartography becomes so exact that only a map on the same scale as the empire itself will suffice. “Succeeding Generations… came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome… In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar…” Sure, the history of the built environment is built of many histories, and that of the big monuments built by the ruling classes is one of them. It would be foolish not to recognize it and be wary of both idealization and demonization. Conversely, the bigger picture has to enter the conversation, I agree with that. Not necessarily as a separate course: Arguably, research done for studio work in relation to program and site may be the best vehicle for this reality check regarding the built environment.

Eds.: As you know these architects were influenced by Le Corbusier, either because they worked with him in Paris, or because they designed buildings that look like his. Indeed, Colombian historians point out that they (Salmona, Sanabria, Samper, Lago, Obregon, etc.) were European themselves, or had European descent, and were educated in either Europe or the United States, as if that were related to the quality of their buildings. My anxiety here is that what seems to validate their work is not the quality of their buildings in relation to their sociocultural context, but the genetics, education, and professional experience of the architects. Do you see this as problematic?

CC: Influence. That word. Michael Baxandall has some definitive paragraphs about that in Patterns of Invention. He accurately points out that the active element in the process is the influencer, not the influenced. Besides, “el que roba a un ladron tiene cien anos de perdón, ladrão que rouba ladrão tem cem anos de perdão, it takes a thief to catch a thief”, and we should forgive the former. Part of the success of Brazilian modern architecture has to do with the Brazilians being aware of the sources of Le Corbusier, both academic and vernacular ones. Voyage d’Orient reads like Influencias muçulmanas na architectura tradicional brasileira of our neocolonial promoter José Marianno Filho. No wonder that people called Pessac the Arab quarter, and Weissenhof too. And Le Corbusier did not invent any of his Five Points. He is a compiler, and that is his forte. Now, the fact that those Colombian architects you mention have been educated in Europe or the United States may be interesting, up to a point. Biography can add data to the understanding of a project and may be decisive in understanding how the project was commissioned, but biography of the star architect will never explain the collective work itself. By the way, no Brazilian star architect ever worked in Rue de Sèvres 35. What validates their work, in my view, is the way they answered to specific programs (considering program in its broadest sense, which involves why and for whom), site, budget, technological resources, and disciplinary repertory. I am all for micro-history and close reading of projects. I am not against panoramic views, have grappled with them myself, but they need to be anchored in flesh and bones.

Eds.: Would you say it is time to overcome those limitations in order to develop more nuanced interpretations of our own architectural history?

CC: I hope to have left it clear that I am all for both-, instead of either/or. History of architecture and history of the built environment. Design skills and social conscience. Form as a big a factor in the generation of new form as any other, and yet more often than not a subordinate one, as shows my best recent reading: Obsolescence: an architectural history, by Daniel M. Abranson.

Eds.: In the early 2000s, Ramon Gutierrez wrote about architecture as a “colonized knowledge” (un “conocimiento colonizado”), precisely due to the points we just raised in question 3. Fernando and I are very interested in the notion of “decoloniality”, following the work of very influential Latin American thinkers like Anibal Quijano, Arturo Escobar, Boaventura de Souza, and Walter Mignolo. How do you see this agenda, and how do you think it could influence architectural scholarship in Latin America (perhaps in relation to question 4)?

CC: “Conocimiento colonizado, conhecimento colonizado”. I am not sure my understanding of it is similar to that of Ramón, but I hate it in both versions.

Everything that comes from the north is good and everything local is bad, as much as everything local is good, and everything northern is bad. An interesting point in Enrique Dussel’s work is his observation that America was the very root of modernity, and modernity was first and foremost an Iberian undertaking, reviled later by the competing and ultimately successful Northern Protestant powers. It contradicts the SAL - Seminarios de Arquitectura Latinoamericana - promoted idea of a modernidad apropiada, this mingling of appropriated modernity and proper modernity that forgets we ex-colonials are modern to the bones from the beginning. I once wrote that marginality regarding the centers of those same Northern Protestant powers was the common condition for Ibero-American countries. That implies for sure an amount of subordination and relative backwardness. At the same time, distance also means an amount of freedom from those centers, and the possibility of doing things our own way. Economic and political dependency does not necessarily entail cultural underdevelopment, and our modern architecture provides ample proof of that. Unfortunately, this is not as generalized a feeling as it should be, partially because of the widespread adoption in our schools of foreign-written historical manuals that ignore or belittle our achievements. We have to fight Northern indoctrination at one end and a Freudian underdog complex, complexo de vira-latas, at the other end. For we are a specific case of ex-colonials. Miscegenation complicates things and so does the fact that the absolute majority of the population speaks Portuguese or Spanish. One can’t compare Algeria, for instance, with Latin America, of which Mexico and Brazil are extreme cases regarding autochthonous cultures. Neither Mexico nor Brazil can help but be at least half-European, unless one accepts the idea that Europe starts only after the Pyrenees. I like what Borges says in The Argentine Writer and Tradition, about the lucidity that comes from being simultaneously inside and outside the West. I am all for claiming that heritage. Why should we deny it? We do not believe in noble savages any longer, but cultural cannibalism is still a fascinating and powerful metaphor. As for decoloniality, what I know of it, it has not caused me much enthusiasm. It seems to stem from the guilt (as opposed to the burden) of the white man, so widespread now at those same centers of Northern Protesant power. Oddly, miscegenation is not a concern, but identity politics is, and for me that amounts to defending cultural purity on a multi-ethnic basis. “O caminho do inferno está cheio de boas intenções (the road to hell is paved with good intentions)”.

Eds.: Changing gears slightly, I wonder how you see recent developments of Colombian cities such as Medellin. It is interesting because the focus used to be Bogota, but for the past 20 years or so, the most remarkable buildings have been produced in Medellin as part of a very interesting urban improvement program. Considering that this issue is titled “Colombia from Outside”, it would be useful to learn how this experience is seen from your perspective.

CC: Bogotá and Medellin, they make vivid again that the physical world matters, and architecture is a constituent element of that world. Hooray for them.

Eds.: Following from the previous question, do you think that this shift, or displacement if you like — from Bogota to Medellin and other peripheral cities, from an orthodox modernism to more hybrid postures, from mostly isolated projects to interconnected assemblages of buildings — requires different academic approaches, i.e., different forms of theorization and historicization?

CC: Well, it depends on what the concept is of orthodox modernism and what one understands by hybrid postures. I would argue that Le Corbusier’s posture is hybrid from the outset and that is part of its success in Brazil. Orthodox modernism to me is mostly the German Bauhaus and the International Style, the same line that revives after WWII in the hands of the likes of Max Bill, implying Fordism, Taylorism, and white smooth boxes. As for the interconnection of buildings, I would say that there is more richness to the urban thinking of modern architecture than what its detractors in the 1960s assumed, even if praxis fell victim to the obsession with the independence and specialization of urban components. The postmodern critique was shallow because it was based on a caricature. Oriol Bohigas said it concisely — we need a city of streets that are almost corridors, and blocks that are almost open. This in-between thing, this capacity for ambiguity and ambivalence — in the sense of accepting opposite things as complementary, and equally worthy of attention — this is for me fascinating, and certainly a core feature of modernism at its best.

Eds.: Perhaps the question was poorly formulated. I don’t think we are (I am) implying that Modern Architecture, or Modern Urbanism, are (or were) wrong. Nor are we (am I) criticising Le Corbusier or CIAM here. The point that we are trying to make is that, in Medellin, there have been very good buildings (in fact, some of them easily described as modernist) that were conceived as part of an integrated urban plan, which means that their architectural merit can be found “both” in the fact that they are good buildings (erudite, special, etc.) and also in the fact that they are inherently connected with other buildings as part of an assemblage. So, I am proposing that, in a book of architecture — or architectural history — one cannot address them individually — as one could with the Museo del Oro Quimbaya — but one has to address the collectivity [like Brasilia, if you like, where the buildings are important, but the assemblage is probably more significant]. I am arguing that we need to be able to address those two dimensions simultaneously in both history and theory.

CC: No, I did not think you were saying that Modern Architecture or Urbanism are wrong. I think we all agree that modern is a formal descriptor, not a value judgment. But it is true that many historians, critics and architects have acritically endorsed the freestanding independent building as intrinsically right, and that is highly debatable. So many classic histories of Modern architecture do not touch on site conditions, and urban connections. I mean, the cardinal sin I mentioned earlier, modern architecture’s contempt for context and history, is more often than not the responsibility of historians and critics and followers rather than masters. For instance, take the Pavillon Suisse as an example; how can we understand that curvilinear one-story block without taking into account that a cul-de-sac provided vehicular access? One of the good things about the research for the reconstruction of the Barcelona Pavilion was the documentation of the existing situation and how that impinged upon Mies’s design. There are many interesting essays on Salmona’s Torres del Parque, but I have not seen one –maybe it exists — on the whole block as an urban composition, including the building where he had his office — a good example of the almost closed block called for by Bohigas. I agree with you 100%, there are many situations where the quality of the assemblage (I say composition, that is my Beaux-Arts strain) is even more important than the quality of the constituent buildings. And I see no big difficulty in addressing those two dimensions simultaneously in theory and history, the individual building and the larger picture. At least, that is what I have been doing for a long time, or so I believe.

Eds.: Carlos, the fact that we managed to agree 100% on a point may indicate this is a good place to conclude this extraordinary exchange. We would like to thank you very much for your enthusiasm to participate in this issue of Dearq, and also for offering such thought-provoking reflections. You have taken us to task for embracing the decolonial agenda proposed by our Latin American colleagues, and I understand your hesitation, just as I perceive your appreciation in many of your answers. I speak on my own behalf, but surely also on behalf of Fernando, who was unable to participate more actively in this exchange, saying that I feel inspired by our short but challenging debate. I wish we could continue this bouncing of ideas back and forth for much longer, but this issue of the journal has to be printed, and the directors of Dearq are already nervous for my delay. Once again, we are most grateful for your time, patience and enthusiasm.



Comas, Carlos Eduardo, "Ideologia moderista e ensino de arquitetura: duas proposições em conflito." In: Projeto arquitetônico: disciplina em crise, disciplina em renovação. São Paulo: Editora Projeto, 1986.


Costa, Lúcio. Considerações sobre arte contemporânea (1940). In: Lúcio Costa, Registro de uma vivência. São Paulo: Empresa das Artes, 1995.


[1.] Costa, Lúcio, Considerações sobre arte contemporânea (1940). In: Lúcio Costa, Registro de uma vivência. São Paulo: Empresa das Artes, 1995.

[2.] Comas, Carlos Eduardo, "Ideologia moderista e ensino de arquitetura: duas proposições em conflito." in Projeto arquitetônico: disciplina em crise, disciplina em renovação. São Paulo: Editora Projeto, 1986, p. 33-46.

[3.] Superintendente de Habitação da Secretaria de Habitação da Cidade de São Paulo,

[4.] Plano Municipal de Habitação