Floating on asphalt: slim columns bear the canopy roof of the Palácio do Planalto, the president’s seat of office
© Leonardo Finotti

Dancing with concrete

  • TEXT DOROTHEA SUNDERGELD

Oscar Niemeyer’s buildings may have shaped the face of modern Brazil but the successors of the legendary architect also reveal themselves to be masters of concrete. A tour of Brazil’s architectural beauties

Mention Brazil and architecture and most people will probably immediately think of Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic concrete swoops and curves. When the great master died in 2012 in Rio de Janeiro at the age of 104, he had completed around 600 buildings: museums whose ethereal beauty detracts from the art inside. A brand new city with government buildings that seem to have stepped straight out of a science fiction film. Houses that fuse nature and structure.

Niemeyer’s unique gift lay in his startling combination of the cool aesthetics of the machine age and the sensuality of flowing forms. “I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man,” he wrote in 1996. “I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein.” Niemeyer made concrete dance and created shapes that became the expression of a national consciousness: forward-looking, progressive and optimistic – without being elitist.

The universe is made of curves

Oscar Niemeyer, architect

One of the most productive moments in Brazilian history was when Niemeyer built Brasília, the federal capital and seat of government, in the 1950s. The country had gone from being an agricultural society to an industrial nation at breakneck speed and was now in the mood to celebrate its own success. Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto had invented the Bossa Nova, Brazil won two soccer World Cups and the first “Volkswagen do Brasil” cars hurtled along the freshly tarmacked roads. Niemeyer’s architecture was the expression of this moment and it voiced the identity of a country that was leaving behind its colonial past, turning its gaze inwards and finding its own, progressive formal language.

The optimism of the 50s was followed by the military dictatorship (1964-1985) and the economic crisis of the 70s. In São Paulo, Vilanova Artigas, Paulo Mendes da Rocha and Lina Bo Bardi broke away from the optimistic curves and countered them with their “Beton Brut”, a style based on technical sophistication and rationality, and which spoke a new, brutalist design language that relied heavily on concrete. Lina Bo Bardi suspended the art museum MASP (opened in 1968) from broad, red steel beams and pillars and created underneath a space that provided uninhibited views of the surrounding mountains, an exceptional feature in a city as densely built-up as São Paulo.

And the present? Last year, the DAM Architecture Museum in Frankfurt hosted the exhibition “Nove Novos” (Nine New Names) and showed that the present generation of architects has left behind the exuberant concrete curves of Oscar Niemeyer and the “Brutalismo Paulista” to reveal their own, distinctive vision of the architectural future. Brazilian architecture still has plenty of grand gestures to offer, for example the Hotel Unique, which floats in São Paulo’s sea of buildings like a ocean-going giant. Again, an economically buoyant period in the nation’s history has brought forth a new form of architecture. Today, unlike in the 50s, the museums, sports arenas and spacious residences of wood, glass and concrete are being commissioned by private clients. The work of this new generation of architects is not limited to Rio and São Paulo: innovative designs can be found across the country. In Inhotim, an art center near Belo Horizonte, the Brazilian multi-millionaire Bernardo Paz commissioned young architects to design spaces and rooms for installations by international artists. They also dance with concrete, give it folds and edges, but their buildings do not shout for attention with exalted shapes; instead, they blend into their surroundings, they take a backseat and let nature and art communicate.

A clear division: the senate in the concave section, the parliament in the convex section. In the middle are the offices where the decisions are prepared – Brazil’s Congresso Nacional

A clear division: the senate in the concave section, the parliament in the convex section. In the middle are the offices where the decisions are prepared – Brazil’s Congresso Nacional

© Christian Heeb / laif
The pioneer of modern Brazilian architecture: Oscar Niemeyer

The pioneer of modern Brazilian architecture: Oscar Niemeyer

© João Pina / Redux / laif

Oscar Niemeyer: Brasília

In 1956, the newly elected president, Juscelino Kubitschek, decided to celebrate the economic and cultural renaissance of his county with a clearly visible signal: The government was to move from Rio de Janeiro, the city founded by the Portuguese colonial rulers, to the new capital, Brasília, which was located on a dry, dusty plateau in the heart of the country. With a cruciform master plan by Lucío Costa and a cluster of elegantly curved concrete buildings by Oscar Niemeyer. The ‘perfect city’, this vision for the future was built in only four years. The government officials very reluctantly accepted their new domicile – and the poor rural population and workers, for whom no houses had been planned in the new city, were forced to settle in satellite dormitory towns. Brasília became the symbol of a nation deeply divided in rich and poor, but Niemeyer’s buildings – from the Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida, with its boomerang-shaped ribs, the National Congress to the Presidential Palace – are now considered icons of tropical Modernism.

If you live in a glasshouse ... you either have very little to conceal or thick curtains. Lisa Bo Bardi’s first building in Brazil, Casa de Vidro, provides insight into the life and work of the architect

If you live in a glasshouse ... you either have very little to conceal or thick curtains. Lisa Bo Bardi’s first building in Brazil, Casa de Vidro, provides insight into the life and work of the architect

© Leonardo Finotti

Lina Bo Bardi: Casa de Vidro

The Italian designer was one of only very few women of her generation who studied architecture. She worked in the studio of Gio Ponti, wrote and illustrated for the journal Domus. In 1946, she met Pietro Bardi; they married and left war-scarred Italy for a new life in Brazil. In São Paulo Bo Bardi soon became one of the most seminal, idiosyncratic architects: she embellished cool glass and concrete aesthetics by adding traditional local elements, for example by decorating concrete facades with pebbles. She built herself a glass house on a hill in the jungle overlooking São Paulo with glass walls and a central atrium that allows the lush tropical vegetation to grow up into the heart of the building. Lina Bo Bardi lived here until her death in 1992, in this perfect symbiosis of tree house and transparent Modernism. On time for the centenary of the architect’s birthday her “Bowl Chair” – which she designed for the Casa de Vidro – has gone back into production.

Solid beauty: The Hotel Unique offers architecture enthusiasts a very special hotel experience

Solid beauty: The Hotel Unique offers architecture enthusiasts a very special hotel experience

© Courtesy of Hotel Unique

Ruy Ohtake: Hotel Unique

In Jardin, a wealthy, leafy residential district in São Paulo, between 1999 and 2002, the architect Ruy Ohtake built the city’s most spectacular hotel. A large inverted arch covered with pre-oxidized copper sheets hangs suspended between two narrow plates. Its round porthole-like windows give it the appearance of a gigantic ocean liner in a dry dock. Some of the 80 standard bedrooms are fairly small, and the rooms at either end of the hotel incorporate the curved lines, giving the interior a space-age look. The main attraction of the building is the roof terrace. Reserve a table in the Skye Bar and you have a view across the red pool over the ocean of skyscrapers, almost giving the impression of having landed in the dusty desert of São Paulo in a very deluxe spaceship. Fancy a night on board the copper ship?

The magnificent bridges take visitors around the production area of the chocolate factory. Different colors, materials and soundtracks create a variety of sensory experiences during the tour

The magnificent bridges take visitors around the production area of the chocolate factory. Different colors, materials and soundtracks create a variety of sensory experiences during the tour

© Leonardo Finotti

Metro Arquitetos: Nestlé Schokoladenmuseum

The red glass towers of the museum are visible even from as far away as the Présidente Dutra Highway. The chocolate factory of Caçapava is 115 km from São Paulo; the industrial complex was built in the 1960s, and in 2011 a museum was added to the chocolate factory, designed by the young team of architects at Metro Arquitetos. The architecture practice in São Paulo was founded in 2000, which specializes in building schools, exhibition spaces and houses, became famous through their close collaboration with the Pritzker award winner Paulo Mendes da Rocha. In Caçapava, elevated walkways follow the roads through the complex, offering visitors an educational tour and allowing them to see how chocolate is made. The tour covers ten production phases, from the storage of the raw materials to packaging the finished chocolate. On the tour, the individual phases are distinguished with different colors, sounds and backdrops. Viewpoints with telescopes allow visitors to see exactly what the workers are doing. Almost the only thing you can’t do from this vantage point above the factory is sample the products.

The steel spheres in "Narciso's Garden" bob on the surface like gigantic soap bubbles. The installation on the roof of the center is by Yayoi Kuzuma

The steel spheres in "Narciso's Garden" bob on the surface like gigantic soap bubbles. The installation on the roof of the center is by Yayoi Kuzuma

© Malte Jäger / laif

Arquitetos Associados: Burle Marx Education Center in Inhotim

One of the most magical centers of contemporary art and culture is Inhotim, an art park near Belo Horizonte, conceived and funded by the Brazilian steel magnate Bernardo Paz. For over ten years, Paz has been adding to the 300,000 square meter park and inviting international artists to create works that reference the surrounding landscape and architecture. Matthew Barney built a forest-destroying machine here, Olafur Eliasson a viewing machine that divides the green jungle into kaleidoscopic geometry. Paz invited the young architecture practice Arquitetos Associados to build an education center for Inhotim. Alexandre Brasil and Paula Zasnicoff designed a single-storey, U-shaped building with a library, studios and a lecture hall. On the roof hundreds of steel balls float and move in the wind – an installation by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

Inhotim’s plants climb up and around all objects, even transforming concrete into an organic part of the park. This the Galeria Lygia Pape

Inhotim’s plants climb up and around all objects, even transforming concrete into an organic part of the park. This the Galeria Lygia Pape

© Leonardo Finotti

Rizoma: Lygia Pape Galerie

Like a folded and twisted box, the Galerie Lygia Pape bends into the lush vegetation of Inhotim. Thomaz Regatos and Maria Paz von Rizoma Arquitetos designed the concrete cube for a special installation in tribute to the artist Lygia Pape, who died in 2004. Visitors step from the dazzling daylight into the hermetic building, which has a narrow slit in the entrance area as its only aperture. Once their eyes have become accustomed to the dark, they continue into the center of the gallery to find “Ttéia1C”, an installation made of illuminated gold threads that extend diagonally through the room and which seem to hover in the air like light falling through the treetops in a forest.