Cuiaba, Brazil: A Town That Was Intended to Disappear
Text by K. Mitchell Snow
Photos by Paul Clemence
I was born in a town that was intended to disappear. Its unforgiving location at the junction of two great deserts was the happenstance of geography, it is the site of a canyon of black basalt carved by the Colorado River, the ideal place for a dam. Once the dam was completed, the men who built it were supposed to have drifted off to more welcoming climates. This they chose not to do. In the process of building their massive concrete dam, they had also constructed something that proved just as durable, a community they valued. Once driven to accept hard labor in a harsh climate in search of paying jobs during the Great Depression, they stayed when their work was complete.
Some of the simple houses that were meant to collapse back into the sand are still there, now homes to the fourth generation of residents. So too, is its art deco movie theater. It was an oasis in the heart of town. For five cents, it offered not only cinematic escapes from daily reality with its red velvet seats and Spanish Revival chandeliers shipped all the way from Los Angeles, but that rarest of all desert commodities: cooled air from a primitive air conditioner. No chapel of any faith could have been any closer to heaven.
I recognized a kindred spirit to that of my home-town movie theater in Clemence’s images of the Cine Teatro in Cuiabá, Brazil. Not that we had anything that strived so hard to be elegant, but both buildings share that same aspiration toward the latest in taste, modernism’s intersection of the circle and the square. And both places contain that same spirit of tenacity, a will to make the best out of necessity. Rarely does one encounter a grand statement in such environments. Clemence’s sensitivity to detail allows him to discover the particulars of Cuiabá where its pride of place shines through.
Generations before Josef Albers and his “Homage to the Square” series the residents of Cuiabá’s traditional homes created painted surrounds for the wooden shutters needed to shield the interiors of their residences from the relentless intensity of their sun. Blue and yellow surrounding variegated carpentry.
Mustard yellow, deep red, cream surrounding mahogany. All sheltering deep black geometries created by the shadows cast by shutter recess. As if they anticipated the visual ideas of the Bauhaus, these abstract squares are set low, in at least one case the sill of one window penetrates the line of red stucco which assertively divides the building’s surface. It is modernism avant la lettre.
There is also the cross that crowns the simple chapel at one end of Cuiabá’s charitable hospital, the centuries-old Santa Casa de Saúde. The building came after the baroque splendor that has been preserved in some of the richer cities in Brazil. The more somber lines of the neoclassical inform the entire structure; it is dedicated to the basic practicalities dictated by the care of injured bodies rather than damaged souls. The maker of the metal cross that crowns its bell tower labored, nonetheless, to create the finest example of his craft that he could. Clemence, with his penchant for unaccustomed angles on his subjects, has recaptured this creation, its details intended for the eyes of God and his angels, and returned it to us ordinary mortals. In doing so, he also seizes the intense blue of Cuiabá’s skies. Without the white accents that provide almost all of what might be called the hospital’s decoration, the building itself would disappear into its embrace.
Especially in a place that most people see as too challenging, details like these make a statement. “We have made a home. We are proud of what we have done,” they declare. “You are welcome here, for a short visit or for the rest of your life. All we ask is that you bring the very best you have to offer along with you.”
K. Mitchell Snow is the author of A Revolution in Movement: Dancers, Painters, and the Image of Modern Mexico (University Press of Florida 2020). He has written about Latin American art and culture for publications such as Américas, Art Nexus, History of Photography and Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas.
Paul Clemence is an award-winning photographer and writer exploring the cross-section of design, art and architecture. A published author, his volume Mies van der Rohe’s FARNSWORTH HOUSE remains to this day the most complete photo documentation of that iconic modern residential design, and a selection of these photos is part of the Mies van der Rohe Archives housed by MoMa, New York. He is widely published in arts, architecture and lifestyle magazines like Metropolis, ArchDaily, Architizer, Modern, Casa Vogue Brasil and others. Archi-Photo, aka Architecture Photography, his Facebook photo blog quickly became a photography and architecture community, with over 970,000 followers worldwide. An architect by training, Clemence is originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.