Hartmut Thimel: A Secret Architect in Brazil
Ricardo Rocha writes about the German-Brazilian architect Hartmut Thimel. Forgotten by canonical historiography, he worked with Georges Candilis, Yona Friedman, and later with Oscar Niemeyer. His work is a bridge between 1970s Brazil, addressing the international avant-garde – Team X, Metabolism, Spatial Urbanism, and Prospective, among others.
Hartmut Friedrich Rodolf Thimel studied construction, architecture, and urban planning at the Polytechnische Schule in Graz, Austria, and at the Staatliche Baugewerkschule Barmen-Elberfeld in Wuppertal, Germany. Subsequently, he began his career working in the office of the German architects Helmut Heinrich and Hubert Petschnigg in Düsseldorf, and later with AK Kitsikis in Athens, Greece. In France, he collaborated with Georges Candilis, Alexis Josic, and Shadrach Woods, including on the famous Toulouse le Mirail housing project, which renewed the precepts of modernist urbanism. While still in France, he established a lasting relationship with Yona Friedman in Paris, who remembered him fondly.
Speaking to the author shortly before his death, Friedman commented: “Hartmut Thimel contacted me in the early 1960s because he was very interested in my writings and especially in the Ville Spatiale project. We had a good relationship. In the late 1960s, I visited Latin America for the first time, and then we met in Rio de Janeiro. Later, on all my visits to Brazil, we would meet.”
Between 1968 and 1969, thanks to a scholarship granted by the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Itamarat), the architect moved to Brazil, where he collaborated with Oscar Niemeyer, settling permanently in Rio de Janeiro.
In Brazil, he collaborated with avant-garde magazines such as Galeria de Arte Moderno (GAM) and Modulo, the magazine created by Niemeyer, keeping in touch with international discussions through his presence in the pages of Architecture Contemporaine, by Anthony Krafft, the former editor of Architecture, Forms, Functions, almost the official magazine of Team X.
Shortly after settling in Brazil, his project “Rio de Janeiro 1968-1969” was a finalist in the 1970 Grand Prix International d’Urbanisme et d’Architecture in Cannes. The quality of the competition – won by Aldo Loris Rossi, not to be confused with the better-known Aldo Rossi – can be confirmed by the presence on the jury of names such as Bruno Zevi, Henri Lefebvre, and Jean Prouvé. On the other hand, the (young) French town planner Philippe Panerai, who recalls the discreet figure of the architect Thimel (“peut etre même un peu secret”), was competing.
In his proposal, we can highlight, on the one hand, the great scientific effort, using statistical resources to estimate population growth and forecast traffic according to the urban fabric. This approach fits into the broader panorama of “prospective” research, a French intellectual phenomenon that extended to architecture through the creation of the International Group for Prospective Architecture (GIAP) in 1965 by Michel Ragón. On the other hand, we can perceive the presence of Team X themes, a horizontal grid that expands over the territory, and Japanese metabolism, with its floating mega-structures. The project was exhibited in Brazil, at the Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro (MAM-RJ) in 1972, and at the first International Architecture Biennial of São Paulo (BIA-SP) in 1973.
On his arrival to the country, in his own words: “In Europe, Brazil is the dream of many people. Ever since I was a child, I wanted, for example, to see the Amazon. When I was working in Paris, I He wrote to the Brazilian Embassy in Germany, explaining my willingness. With my curriculum vitae, the ambassador offered me a scholarship from the Chancellery, which was granted. I arrived in Brazil in 1968 and began to work with Oscar Niemeyer, whom I already knew from a meeting in Athens at a congress.
It seems clear that the interest in coming to Brazil was probably more related to the architect’s professional activities at the time, possible interest in the work of Oscar Niemeyer, than to some childhood fantasy about the Amazon.
After the “avant-garde” phase, Thimel develops social housing proposals, where he proposes the intervention of the user (a lesson from Friedman) in variable/interchangeable modular structures, “mat-building” type (typology developed by Team X), merging “avant-garde” and social vision, in a unique trajectory in Brazil.
One of the last news we have of the architect is his participation in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as Eco-92, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, at the invitation of the International Academy of Architecture. This seems to coincide with his interests in the period, at a time when his contribution to Anthony Krafft’s Architecture Contemporaine magazine, issue 10, 1988-1989, was on “Roberto Burle Marx: an innovator who values the colors and vegetation of his country” .
He had his approach to everyday life, bringing him closer to the themes of popular housing and collective collaborations, transforming him into a well-known character in the samba schools of Rio de Janeiro and an active participant in social movements, neighborhood associations, among others , with a constant presence in the pages of the newspapers. More than a cliché about a German who falls in love with the “Carioca” landscape and samba, it is one of the most beautiful architectural trajectories – like that of Lina Bo Bardi, who considered herself “more Brazilian than many Brazilians”, or Wladimiro Acosta in Argentina – in terms of North-South transfers, and the reinvention of the figure of the architect in the face of new realities and challenges.