The Making Of The Marvelous City

How Rio Became The Architecture Capital Of The World!

Rio has been chosen as UNESCO’s first World Capital of Architecture. Ahead of its coronation in 2020, we walk its urban landscape to find out how it became the best on the planet (extracted from Norwegian Airlines Board Magazine – April 2019).

Those who want to understand the story of Rio de Janeiro should head downtown to Largo da Carioca in the Centro district, where you can “read it”, at large, on the buildings. Look up and there’s the 17th- century Santo Antônio monastery – a gem from early colonial times – perched on a hill of the same name.

Peer down Avenida Rio Branco to find the flamboyant Theatro Municipal, a glitzy blend of eccentricity and Art Deco that shows off the former capital’s European influences. Go the other way and you’ll find the hyperrealistic Petrobras skyscraper, its Tetris-like shape completed in 1972 during Brazil’s military dictatorship.

Petrobras Building

“Losing yourself in Centro on a weekday is the best way to discover Rio,” our tour guide advises, as we explore the urban landscape of Brazil’s former capital – as diverse as it is tropical. “The city hasn’t stopped developing in 500 years and you can read its history through Centro’s complex architectural mixture.”

A nice way to get a taste of Rio is by joining one of our Inka Samba Tour departures!

In 2012, its melting pot of styles – from Colonial to Rococo, Art Deco to Contemporary – was described as an “exceptional urban setting” by UNESCO as it designated Rio an Urban and Cultural Landscape World Heritage site. In January this year the organisation went one better and announced that the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvellous City, to use its well-earned nickname) would become the very first UNESCO World Capital of Architecture in 2020.

Ahead of its coronation, we’ve come to understand how the city’s architecture helped it win out above competitors Paris and Melbourne, and how it allows visitors to appreciate a different side of a city that’s more commonly seen as a place for Caipirinhas, Copacabana and Carnival.

Rio is so much more than that, as we walk up from Cinelândia Metro station: From 1763 to 1960 in particular, it was a political and financial powerhouse – the capital of Portugal’s colony, empire and republic. “This area of old Rio was like Little Lisbon during the 19th century,” our guide explains, gesturing to the National Library (Latin America’s largest), Fine Arts Museum and Municipal Theatre, all designed in the grand Beaux-Arts, or Eclectic, style. “The Portuguese royal family arrived at the port nearby while Cinelândia Square became a copy of Parisian urban renovation. This was the place to be.”

While Brazil is best known in the architecture world for Modernist names such as Oscar Niemeyer, Rio’s first blockbuster buildings weren’t the work of “starchitects” but colonial missionaries and monks. In the years after the Portuguese landed here on 1 January 1502 – naming the city “River of January” in their mother tongue – Jesuit monasteries and Catholic churches popped up all across the region. Later examples of these, as well as colonial mansions for wealthy coffee barons and colourful two- storey abodes from the 17th and 18th centuries, still exist around what is today’s Centro.

We can learn more about this early history on a tour around Catete, Glória and Flamengo neighbourhoods. “To understand the present, we need to look at the past,” says our architect specialist guide, pointing out the neoclassical Pálacio do Catete (1867). Constructed during the era of empire, the palace became the country’s presidential seat of power in 1897 but lost out in 1960 when Brasília was appointed Brazil’s new capital. Aptly, it now houses the Museum of the Republic.

We also visit Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Glória do Outeiro, a beautiful colonial church from 1730. From its elevated position, the Portuguese tiles and mosaics reveal the richness of Brazil as a colony, as well as foregrounding it as the country with the world’s largest Catholic population (130 million today).

At this vantage point, our guide uses his umbrella (a weapon to battle the sudden rains of the Brazilian summer) to point out where Guanabara Bay’s shores used to lie. Land has long been reclaimed in Rio, hills and waters flattened or pushed back to make way for urban and civic landscapes. In this case, the lagoon eventually made way for the Modernist Aterro do Flamengo (Flamengo Park, 1965), also home to the Brutalist Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM, 1955). The park, Rio’s largest, was the brainchild of Lota de Macedo Soares, Brazil’s most prominent female landscape designer and architect. It was also worked on by Roberto Burle Marx, the landscaping mastermind behind many of Rio’s public spaces, including the tri-colour wavy promenade at Copacabana.

Contemporary Art Museum (MAC)

Copacabana is also home to several prominent Art Deco constructions built during the city’s “golden age”, including the Copacabana Palace, now a five-star hotel. Of course, the biggest and best example of Art Deco in the city – and the biggest Art Deco statue in the world – is the ever- looming Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). Built between 1926 and 1931, it’s an undisputed icon and now one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Of all the architectural styles represented in the city – and we can count at least 14 – Modernism is the one Brazil is best known for. The world’s biggest names in Modern architecture – Brazilians Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa (the forces who developed second capital Brasília), the Roberto Brothers and landscape architect Burle Marx, as well as Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier – have all left their indelible marks on Rio.

The jewel in the Modernist crown, according to architect Sérgio Magalhães, committee president of the 27th International Union of Architects (UIA), is Palácio Capanema. The former Ministry of Education and Health (MEC, finished in 1943), Capanema was effectively the Brazilian Modernist movement’s first project, designed by an architectural dream team, with Costa and Affonso Eduardo Reidy (who engineered MAM), among others. Burle Marx created the ground floor and rooftop gardens.

“The biggest names
in Modern architecture have all left their indelible blueprints
on Rio”

While artist Cândido Portinari created exterior mosaics decorated with shells and seahorses. The icing on MEC’s cake was having the world-renowned Le Corbusier as adviser. “It’s an international masterpiece,” Magalhães enthuses.

There are also examples of Brutalism here – similar to Modernism in that form follows function in both styles, but Brutalism tends to use geometrics and raw concrete blocks. Notably, there’s Edgar Fonseca’s concrete Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião (1976), which divides critics and is another architectural reminder of Brazil’s 1964–1985 military government period. At first glance it looks like a conical Mayan pyramid or dalek, but once inside, the four 64m-high stained-glass windows are awe inspiring. Brutalist elements include natural ventilation – surprisingly functional for humid Rio.

Much more recently, the Olympics gave the city an excuse to add to its constructive treasures. Highlights from the past decade include Bernardes e Jacobsen Arquitetura’s Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR, 2013), known for its “flying carpet” roof, and vital regeneration of Praça XV (an overpass was obliterated to create the Olympic Boulevard).

It’s refreshing to see these new additions giving Rio a 21st- century identity, but according to the local experts more can be done to support homegrown expertise. “The environment was strong in the 1990s but it’s different today,” Magalhães says. “There’s talent but young architects get few opportunities.” That much is evident, given that Spain’s Santiago Calatrava took care of Rio’s most recent big gun, the Museu do Amanhã (2015).

Museu do Amanhã

As 2020 approaches, it will also bring the UIA World Architects Congress, hosted here next July. There’s hope that this event, in the context of the World Capital of Architecture accolade, will lead to renewed interest and investment in new architecture. “There are many challenges for a city like Rio that’s still developing, but next year’s Congress hopes to encourage a new architectural culture,” says Magalhães. Earmarked projects include development of the former cruise-ship terminal along the Olympic Boulevard into a central produce market; Magalhães would also like to see the crumbling Lapa area undergo regeneration.

What’s certain is that the city’s new title is sure to focus the world’s attention on an urban landscape that, while not always cohesive or aesthetically attractive – and at times breathtaking for the wrong reasons – is the basis for a uniquely striking city. Rio’s tropical vibes and coastal lifestyle mean it’s easy for tourists to forget its buildings. But, as we find here, architecture can say more about a place than its beaches can. So if you do end up in Rio anytime soon, lose yourself in the story of how this great city was made.

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