Spirals of time:

between Aldo van Eyck and Lina Bo Bardi

This paper, developed by Beatriz Rocha, was selected and presented in the 2018 edition of the annual conference of the Jaap Bakema Study Centre: Irritant Principle of Renewal: 100 Years of Aldo & Hannie van Eyck, at TU Delft and Het Nieuwe Instituut, in Rotterdam.

In the sixties, on the way to a waterfall in Bahia, accompanied by Olivia de Oliveira, Hannie and Aldo van Eyck collected several leaves along the way, of varying sizes and colors.

With this memory, Olivia thinks of Lina Bo Bardi and her custom of celebrating the inauguration of her projects by spreading pitanga leaves on the ground, a practice quite common in popular and religious festivals in northeastern Brazil (1). “[...] As people walked on the leaves scattered on the floor, the scent of pitanga was exhaling in the air, increasing in intensity and filling the entire space. This perfume was equal to presence, equal to life."(2)

She imagines that an inauguration party organized by Lina on the carpet of leaves collected by Aldo would be the day when "the pointers of all the clocks of earth would fall."(3)

The notion of time as action, movement, without beginning or end, not understood in a linear way or associated with the idea of progress, but rather a time in which present, past and future collide, was only one of the points of convergence between theoretical thought formulated by Aldo van Eyck and Lina Bo Bardi.

While visiting Brazil, Lina and her works made a strong impression on Van Eyck. When he arrived at the Museum of Art of São Paulo - MASP in 1960, thirteen years after its inauguration, his first reaction was to discredit: "What is this? What does this architect want? How did this appear?"(4). Then he got to meet Lina in her glass house, where they talked about modern architecture, the beauty of slums, primitive art, and of course, about Bahia, "the best city in the world".

Ga-naar Bahia, had Lina hem gezegd(Go to Bahia, Lina said) became the name of the documentary that twenty-seven years later, Aldo van Eyck returns to Brazil to record about Lina’s architecture (5).

The influence of religious and so-called traditional or archaic cultures, especially of african origin, plays an important role in Van Eyck's architecture and is also inseparable from Lina’s references afro-american religions from Brazil. For both Lina and Van Eyck, the recognition of the subversive efficiency of tradition is as a powerful tool for constructing spatial meaning.

Civilizations considered as archaic have always been of great interest to Van Eyck, especially because of the elementary aspects of their culture. His journeys to the Sahara Desert and the sub-Saharan region of Dogon in Africa and the Pueblos, in Mexico, had a major impact on the formulation of his vision of architecture.

The trip to the village of Dogon in 1960 was a process of almost literal confirmation of some fundamental ideas that the architect had been studying and writing (6). Unlike his other journeys, in the visit to this settlement what mattered less was the spatial experience of the village itself, and more the way they understood the world.

Dogon's cosmology - which can only be briefly summarized here (7) - understands the world as a chain of related structures, mutually nested, which origin is the archetype of gémelliparité, a harmonious twin-relationship that permeates the entire cosmos: from the fonio - the smallest known seed - to the universe. It is an anthropocentric cosmology, that regards the symmetrical and dual structure of man as the ideal to absorb two opposing poles and bring them to equilibrium, to unity.

The seed itself is the name of an important star for the Dogon people - the fonio star, invisible to the naked eye - that was animated in the beginningby his god Amma with an "inner and swirling" movement, and then exploded, forming the "egg of the world", of bipartite structure(8). The spiral movement ensured a complete continuity between all levels of nature, from micro to the macrocosm, and at the same time a continuous alternation between opposites, right and left, high and low, even and odd, feminine and masculine, which was also represented diagrammatically as a zig-zag line on the facades of their shrines(9).

This principle of duality is present from their objects, baskets, sculptures, handcrafts to their houses and village organization. The anthropocentric image is also mirrored in the association of levels and their scales, thus, the village is an organ of the landscape body, the house as a organ of the village, the man as an organ of the house.

After his trip, in an article about the Dogon, Van Eyck quotes one of Fritz Mongenthaler's experiences in the Adiumbolo village: a man led him all around the village saying "I will show you my house", and instead presented him to the main features of the village - finally arriving at his house, an hour's walk later and near the point from where they left.(10)

This experience reinforced a key matter for Van Eyck on the basis of the Dogon and the Pueblos cosmologies: their sense and capacity to establish a certain balance between fundamental oppositions of existence.

The establishment of what would be the right-size between apparent oppositions - large and small, many and few, unity and diversity, simplicity and complexity, man and village - is not a quantitative matter: it is relative, because it depends on the relation between them, between the part and the whole, man and village, village and landscape, landscape and universe.

The reestablishment of balance between two opposites was also directly related to the concept of the twin phenomenon that Van Eyck had been exploring. In fact, Strauven reports that it was after the return of the trip to the Dogon that Van Eyck renamed what he called dual phenomenon to twin phenomenon (11).

But more important, these factors conditioned a deep experience of space, because it reflected the image of its user, just as the user was reflected in the structure of the world. And for Aldo van Eyck, experience of space is inextricably linked to his understanding of time.

Whatever time and space means, place and occasion mean more

For space in the image of man is place and time in the image of man is occasion.(12)

To be susceptible to human experience, space should have a temporal dimension. For Van Eyck, this dimension could not be that of a linear time, which only advances in one direction. In rejection of this uniform notion of time, he proposes another concept, the dureé, formulated by Bergson, which saw the "present not as an ephemeral moment but a time span where past and future merge, an in-between where yesterday and tomorrow meet (13)."

This time is just how Lina used to define and shape time: a "thousand tangled thread ends", a colapsed time, vital and open to the unknown (14).

The theme of the spirals appears in Lina's architecture related to her notion of time: dynamic, convulsive, ceasing to be a one-way route to transform into a hurricane, a whirlwind of things at the same time. This dizzying movement is associated with several space devices in her work: stairs, ramps, toys, catwalks, voids, paths, reflecting pools.

The stairs of the Solar do Unhão, centripetal and centrifugal at the same time, without handrail, allows the visitor to be surrounded by the exhibited objects, while exploring different paths and speeds to alternate between the levels. Van Eyck opens his documentary with these stairs: it was impossible for him to just describe it, he had to go up and down while explained it, gesticulate, to really live it.

At the Museum of Art of São Paulo - MASP, the paintings are hanged by glass easels, a mechanism of condensation of the time, where different historical moments float on the exhibition space, out of chronological or linear order. It was with a spiral that Lina began one of her studies for MASP. The toys and devices drawn in her watercolor of the museum condensed this movement, and brought the figure of the child as protagonist in the use of the free space the building creates.

Several times Lina related this elements with the entities of Candomblé and Umbanda, afro-american religions, whose influence is predominant in the Brazilian Northeast, especially in Bahia. The spouts and waterfalls, concrete showers, were associated by Lina to the entity of Xangô, that is linked to fire and thunder by the Candomblé, and is also the waterfalls guardian, in the Umbanda belief.

Her tree shapped pilars and the vegetable alike structures can be seen as a reference to Exu and its trident, entity that in Africa, also symbolizes time and the balance between two poles, a mediator between the divine and mundane, good and evil.

These devices are arranged by Lina to effect a constant nullification of distances and apparent oppositions (15), in direct line with the concerns of the twin phenomenon, as well as her stairways, footbridges, spouts, voids, and all the places of transition understood as intervals - in-between spaces - where time gets dilated, in favor of the creation of occasions.

They form her architecture "not as a work, but as possible modes of being and possessing situations," she says (16). They are conditioned by a time that is unpredictable and open to the indeterminate, scaled only by the human dimension. Architecture to be felt, touched, danced by the feet. A "ritual dance choreographed by the man who, with his dance, inaugurates a unique time and place.(17)"

In so-called primitive cultures, dance is a way of connecting the individual with nature and the cosmos. Several times, Lina referred to her work as a terreiro,(place where the Candomblé is practiced). Public spaces designed by her are tensioned systems, constantly released by us, to whoever proposes to dance in them, driven by the rhythm and the drumming of her architecture, to celebrate the power of life.

The importance of the traditions and cosmologies in the theoretical thinking of the architects are not of aesthetic order, but rather due to the comprehension of their inner syntax.

This notion of time and what it generates as a way of existing in space is inseparable from how Van Eyck and Lina saw and thought architecture, how to "forge another present" as Lina said, or "shape a new reality," as proposed by Van Eyck.

However, there is some difference in the way these architects translated spatially these concepts.

What Van Eyck was able to see and learn from his journeys enriched and supported the articulation of his main explored concepts - right-size, twin phenomenon, open center, in-between spaces -, that were the basis for his designs and its elementary.

For Lina, these references seem to be in her work in a more spontaneous way, as they appeared in her drawings, notes and texts, always composed in her designs in relation to the "subtle substances of her architecture" - air, light, nature, artwork and time.

Regardless of how their theoretical thinking were translated into spatial devices, both architects have designed spaces that support and create occasions as new possibilities of inhabiting the city, dissolving rigid functional relations imposed.

Their vision for a humane architecture continues as an important legacy to keep designing and building democratic spaces, that have the capacity to reflect users - ourselves, everyone - and their needs. Spaces that can be extensions of our homes, where we can dance, whenever possible, with less choreographed steps.


1. Olivia de Oliveira, “Folhas e Folias. Relato de un encontro com Aldo van Eyck,” Web Architecture Magazine- WAM, ttp://www.arranz.net/web.arch-mag.com/5/coll/coll1t.html. (Leaves and Revelry. Report of a meeting with Aldo van Eyck).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Anete Araújo and Olivia Fernandes, “Claro e Labiríntico,” (interview with Aldo van Eyck), RUA 7, 1999. https://portalseer.ufba.br/index.php/rua/article/view/3142/2321.

5. Aldo van Eyck, (conception and narration), Ga-naar Bahia, had Lina hem gezegd, film direction Toenke Berkelbach. (movie) Netherland, TV VPRO Production, 1996.

6. Francis Strauven, Aldo van Eyck: The Shape of Relativity (Amsterdam, Architectura & Natura Press, 1998), 387.

7. Summary made from Strauven's narrative on Aldo van Eych: The Shape of Relativity.

8. Yves Bonnefoy, American, African, and Old European Mythologies(Chicago, University Of Chicago Press, 1993), 163.

9. Strauven, Aldo Van Eyck, 383.

10. Ibid., 388.

11. Ibid., 387.

12. Aldo van Eyck, The Child, the City and the Artist - An Essay on Architecture - The Inbetween Realm. Stencilled publication, undated, 51. Apud Strauven, Aldo Van Eyck, 416.

13. Strauven, Aldo Van Eyck, 419.

14. Olivia de Oliveira, Subtle Substances: The Architecture of Lina Bo Bardi (São Paulo: Gustavo Gili, Romano Guerra, 2006), 339.

15. Ibid., 163.

16. Ibid., 358.

17. Ibid., 359.