Sérgio Bernardes: the beautiful and the damned

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A design for Bernardes’s Hotel Tropical de Manaus
A design for Bernardes’s Hotel Tropical de Manaus / ©Arquivo Sérgio Bernardes
A design for Bernardes’s Hotel Tropical de Manaus
A design for Bernardes’s Hotel Tropical de Manaus / ©Arquivo Sérgio Bernardes

“I am damned man,” says the white-suited architect, surveying Rio de Janeiro from one of its peaks. “Because I’m damned, I am free to do whatever I want.”

This was in about 1980. In the 1960s Sérgio Bernardes had seemed far from damned, unless by puritan definitions. He was prodigiously productive and brilliant, ranked on a level with the most celebrated of Brazilian architects, Oscar Niemeyer, and living a glamorous life in a beautiful waterside house where guests included the Kennedys. Also Brigitte Bardot, until his wife found her in bed with his son and ejected the actress, screaming. He raced cars for fun, and when one careened off the track into the ocean, he swam to safety. He was a galvanic, mesmerising character who worked 18 hours a day and in one month designed 25 houses. He was a vastly successful womaniser. “He seemed,” says one who knew him, “like a Roman emperor.”

His first work, designed when he was barely adult, was a revolutionary house, the first in Brazil to use steel construction, which embraced the landscape in which it stood. He was noted for the rough-edged aesthetics of his buildings, and for the way he worked closely not only with his clients but also with builders. His approach has been called “emotional”, one based on human relationships. “He designed the best houses in Brazil because he loved living very much,” recalls an associate. “Niemeyer’s houses were beautiful but not comforting. Living well was Sérgio’s thing.” Bernardes himself said that “architecture is not supposed to be completed, it is supposed to be lived”. ….

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