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The Tribute

Rio’s Most Striking Buildings

MR PORTER takes a tour of Brazil’s Olympic city in search of its architectural wonders

  • Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, designed by Mr Oscar Niemeyer. Photograph by Mr Gerard Monnier/Artedia/VIEW. © Oscar NIEMEYER/DACS 2016

Rio’s architecture features some of the biggest names in the business. Along this stretch of coastline, you will find modernist gems with clean lines, historic hotels and spectacular churches by Le Corbusier, Mr Santiago Calatrava and Mr Lúcio Costa. It is a visual bonanza. So, if you’re heading to the Olympics, on your day away from the stadiums, take our architectural tour.

Museum of Tomorrow

  • Photograph by Mr Leonardo Finotti. © DACS 2016

This unconventional edifice, designed by Mr Calatrava, on the banks of Guanabara Bay in Porto Maravilha opened its doors in December 2015. Inside, it’s a museum of science and technology, with exhibits about energy, ecology and sustainability. But it’s what’s on the outside that makes you stand and stare. The cantilevered structure alludes to skeletons, cartoon fish bones, pterodactyl fossils, shark fins, birds’ beaks and broken teeth. The Valencian architect, who won the Spanish National Architecture Award in 2007, has form in dreaming up expensive, overblown buildings that flick upwards to the sky and make brazen moves, squaring up to the city in the same way that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were forever tilting at windmills.

His canon includes Bilbao airport, the TGV station at Lyon airport, Liege station and his biggest project, the vast City Of Arts & Sciences complex in his hometown. Mr Calatrava has gained most recognition recently for the Oculus, the new shopping mall and Subway station at the World Trade Center in New York, which is almost like a secular cathedral inside and to date is only half finished.

His work in Rio doesn’t just catch your eye, it demands your attention. There is a deliberate artificiality to Mr Calatrava’s set pieces – the clean, white concrete and the huge, inhuman spaces and empty plazas inside and out – that makes them almost eerie. You get the feeling of being very small and a bit of an annoyance.

And with the “icon” that Mr Calatrava built in Rio (for every modern regeneration scheme needs one) utilised to host exhibitions on sustainability, it is only fitting that the building itself has been designed to be green. It uses 40 per cent less energy than similar sized buildings and its cooling system uses water from the bay. It is, in all ways, a place of wonder.

Gustavo Capanema Palace

  • Photograph by Mr Alan Weintraub/Getty Images. © FLC/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

In a city where there’s a huge disparity between rich and poor, this is a true monument to all the people. The Gustavo Capanema Palace (named after a former education minister) was designed as a home for the health and education ministries, and as a showcase for a new, modern Brazil, where the state was strong but benevolent, providing for its citizens. The design team was led by the Swiss Le Corbusier and included Messrs Costa, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Carlos Leao, Jorge Machado Moreira, Ernani Vasconcellos and even a young Mr Oscar Niemeyer.

The sleek tower was designed in the mid-1930s and featured all kinds of design innovations, such as brise-soleil, which could move to protect workers from the sun and heat, and gardens designed by Mr Roberto Burle Marx. The whole building was jacked up on pilotis (huge concrete legs) to create a plaza underneath. Pilotis are the architectural equivalent of that guy down the gym who’s always showing off – they demonstrate the power and structural stability of the building. Le Corbusier went on to use many of these features in his famous Unite D’Habitation apartment block in Marseilles. The palace laid down a framework for Brazilian architecture, and when the decision was taken to move the capital from Rio to Brasilia in the 1950s, Messrs Costa, Burle Marx and Niemeyer were reunited to design many of the buildings for the new city. This also meant the building in Rio became a regional ministerial office rather than the HQ. Still, it remains as arresting as ever.

Copacabana Palace Hotel

  • Photograph by Mr Alessandro Batistessa, courtesy of Belmond

Opened in 1923, the Copacabana Palace has played host to the great and the good (and the not so good) who have made Rio the international playground it is. Everyone from Sir Noël Coward to Whitesnake made a pilgrimage. This big white wedding cake of a building sits on one of the most chichi sections of Atlantic Avenue, overlooking the surf and sand of Copacabana Beach. Today the hotel is owned by Belmond (the former Orient Express group) and has been restored to its full, over-the-top colonial glory. Yes, there are lots of pieces of superfluous furniture that no one will ever sit on, and the floristry bill… well, thank God you’re not paying it. But it remains an icon.

The idea for a luxury hotel on this spot came from Brazilian president Mr Epitácio Lindolfo da Silva Pessoa, who had hotelier Mr Octavio Guinle get to work realising his dream. Mr Joseph Gire, a Frenchman, was hired and we ended up with something that was, apparently, modelled on the Carlton in Cannes. He spared no expense – this was a hotel fit for royalty, after all. Mr Gire also designed the Gloria Hotel, which shares some of the art deco abandon of the Copacabana Palace. The Gloria opened just before the Copacabana Palace, but its story is somewhat different. It is now rotting and abandoned due to a boardroom tumult that left plans to redevelop it in time for this summer’s Olympics in tatters.

We also have Mr Gire to thank for the Praça Mauá, the 1910 square by the docks in front of the brand new Museum of Tomorrow, where we started our tour of Rio’s architectural gems. Visit both.

Cidade das Artes

  • Photograph by Hufton + Crow, courtesy of Atelier Christian de Portzamparc

The Barra da Tijuca district will be the focus of the world’s attention during the Olympics. Here, you can watch everything from cycling to tennis in a series of purpose-built sporting venues designed to show off the architecture as much as the sportsmen and women who’ll be competing inside. Just round the corner from the Olympic Village is a venue not for sporting prowess, but for music. The Cidade Das Artes (City Of Arts), which opened in 2014, is a neo-brutalist bombshell that would be a stirring enough sight at the best of times, but the fact that it’s landed on this new and (for Rio) empty landscape lends it an even more potent air of drama ­– even more so because the whole building sits above a tropical garden dreamt up by Mr Fernando Chacel.

In scale, purpose and aesthetics, it owes a debt of gratitude to that underappreciated and prodigiously talented grand dame of Brazilian architecture, Ms Lina Bo Bardi, and her SESC Pompeia cultural “factory” down in Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo. The Cidade Das Artes is brazen and imaginative, surreal and engaging. It’s all raw concrete, jutting ramps and balconies, and mind-bending angles. The architect in this case is the French-Morrocan Mr Christian de Portzamparc, who was responsible for the museum dedicated to Tintin cartoonist Hergé in Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium, the Philharmonie Luxembourg and Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey’s US headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. The Cidade Das Artes is the primary concert hall (seating 1,300) and base of the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra, but also houses a gallery, cinema, library and restaurant.

Niterói Contemporary Art Gallery

  • Photograph by Mr Abban Ryan/Gallery Stock. © Oscar NIEMEYER/DACS 2016

Mr Oscar Niemeyer – who died in 2012, 10 days before what would’ve been his 105th birthday – was a Brazilian legend. He smoked like his life depended on it, he loved women like they were going out of fashion, and his friend Mr Fidel Castro said, “Oscar Niemeyer and I are the last communists on this planet.” Mr Castro was right. Mr Niemeyer was a leftist who ended up in exile when Brazil swung to the right and the generals took over. Yet in the period before and after (and even during) Brazil’s disastrous flirtation with the jackboot, Mr Niemeyer crafted a run of buildings of such exquisite quality that they will be studied and appreciated for generations.

He effectively created modern Brazil, and it was curved. Look at the sinuousness of the Contemporary Art Gallery in Niterói, those sleek ramps that slither up to the entrance of this flying saucer of a building, which appears somewhat out of place among the green hills and cliffs on the edge of the blue Atlantic. Three storeys and 16m high, it comprises galleries and a restaurant and was designed with structural engineer Mr Bruno Contarini. It’s a one-off and no surprise that Louis Vuitton chose the building to showcase its cruise 2017 collection.

Seductive curves are one of Mr Niemeyer’s hallmarks. See his early apartment block in São Paulo, the Edificio Copan, which is formed like one giant wave on its end and still has its vintage, wood-panelled ground floor shopping parade intact. Or in the buildings of Brasilia, such as the cathedral and the Congress, with their slippery facades and spiralling ramps that seem to elevate the people and the whole country, and speak of a new, modern Brazil.

Today, the Niterói remains as fresh and edifying as when it was built 20 years ago.

Metropolitan Cathedral of San Sebastian

  • Photograph by Mr Yannis Kontos/Eyevine

Rio has not one, but two magnificent cathedrals. The first was built during the 1760s and was used by the Portuguese royal family when they escaped Lisbon during the Napoleonic Wars. Now known as the Old Cathedral, this served the city long into the 20th century. By that point, Rio decided it needed a newer, more pumped-up place for mass worship. And so the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Sebastian was designed by Mr Edgar de Oliveira da Fonseca. Surrounded by the rectangular corporate towers of Downtown Rio, it makes quite a mark on its surroundings. It’s more primitive, with a shape that clearly evokes Machu Picchu or the Mayan temples and Aztec ziggurats of Mexico. The cathedral, built during the 1960s and 1970s, rises 100m into the sky. On four sides there are elaborate stained-glass windows that run up the entire height and join to form the shape of a cross on the roof. The space inside is huge. It can cater to a football stadium-sized congregation of 20,000 Cariocas.

From outside the cathedral’s front door you can gaze up to the Christ the Redeemer statue, about a mile away, which in turn stares down on this huge church. A particularly nice touch is the campanile, which sits about 50m away from the building and is elegance itself – a series of circular platforms stacked on piers that get smaller as they go up. The entire cathedral complex was intended to be a modern church for a modern city.