Cathy Leff of the Wolfsonian

Cathy Leff of the Wolfsonian

By Aaron Britt
I first met Cathy Leff, director of the Wolfsonian-Florida International University, three years ago when she gave me a splendid bicycle tour of Miami, Florida. We've kept in touch ever since and even got a few spare moments together during Design Miami this past winter. So I'm thrilled to have her participating in the next installment of Three Buildings. No one I've met has a better feel for how modern design has played out in South Florida, the Carribean or Latin America than she, and few have devoted as much time and energy to making design accessible and interesting to the wider world.

Pampulha Church of São Francisco de Assis in Pampulha, Brazil by Oscar Niemeyer

I first saw the church, and the other Niemeyer buildings in Pampulha, when I was conducting research for a special Brazil theme issue of The Wolfsonian's "Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts." The modern movement in Latin America had been given insufficient attention, by both museums and scholars, and because of our location in South Florida we decided to focus our attention on Latin America by devoting special editions of our publication to countries in the region. We’ve done Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, and now the soon-to-be published Mexico themed issues. The church in Pampulha, I believe, is Niemeyer's masterpiece, and provides a lens through which to understand the modern development of Brazil and its uniquely "Brazilian" expression. To understand Brasilia and what followed, once must visit Pampulha.

Villa Girasole in Marcellise, Italy by engineer Angelo Invernizzi with architect Ettore Fagioli

I visited the house once, about ten years ago, which I believe is still privately owned by the family that commissioned it. For me, it epitomizes the glory, wonder and promise of the machine and the machine age. This early, modern concrete house gyrates around a central axis, following the motion of the sun.

Luis Barragan's Tlalpan Chapel in Mexico City, Mexico by Luis Barragan

I do not consider myself a religious person—far from it—and though I was raised in a Conservative Jewish home, I consider myself a cultural Jew as opposed to a practicing one. So, I am especially fascinated by artistic and architectural expressions of faith, maybe because I have not yet reconciled my own. Aside from the Aya Sofia, I do not recall entering a religious space that moved me as much as Barragan's chapel—it’s heightened spirituality, the extraordinary light and color, and the encounter of European modernism and modern Mexico.


Photo from Paulo Fehlaur


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