Roberto Burle Marx’s best-loved masterpiece is undoubtedly the Copacabana calçadão: the mosaic boardwalk that stretches the length of Rio’s most famous beach in equally iconic waves of painstakingly maintained black basalt and white sandstone. For many people, this sidewalk is quintessentially and uniquely Carioca, a pure symbol of Modernist Brazilian design.
Yet this work isn’t Brazilian at all. In fact, the exaggerated waves that signify Rio’s beaches to many were laid down in the 1930s and are lifted directly from Lisbon’s Rossio square, where they were first installed in 1849. The same familiar black and white shapes transform the Portuguese square into a seascape that appears to move gently as one walks through it. The “Wide Sea”, as it is known, was far ahead of its time; the fact that its Rio equivalent feels so emblematic of mid-century forms is testament.
Traces of this nature can be found easily throughout Brazil’s visual culture and landscape, if you know what you’re looking for. But so too can the distinctly Brazilian. Juxtaposed, or combined in hybrid forms, they give Rio de Janeiro, in particular, its urban, cosmopolitan edge.
Rio’s facsimile waves, for example, take up only a certain amount of the 2.5 mile Avenida Atlântica project, fully overhauled in 1970 by Roberto Burle Marx. The designs that are so often photographed, shared on social media, or used as inspiration are actually surrounded by more unusual Burle Marx designs: bold, abstract shapes that frame the curves with a startling modernity. In a way, this project is a microcosm for Brazil; imported Portuguese aesthetic is certainly a huge part of it, but it has been adapted, questioned, and reframed by Brazilian designers ever since.
Portuguese Brazil: The Beginnings
Initially, Portuguese colonist prioritised buildings that were fast to build and easy to defend rather than aesthetically pleasing or particularly reflective of the latest fashions in the capital: Lisbon. This changed over time, beginning most significantly in the 17th century. With the advent of the Brazilian gold rush, all manner of construction projects moved away from the purposes of defence and functionality and started to focus on becoming emblems of this newfound wealth.
Private and public buildings became more elaborate, as did their gardens. However, ecclesiastical buildings, in particular, found themselves lavish with ornate and embellished facades and internal features. For reasons of practicality, these frequently incorporated abundant local materials, particularly native wood, though items such as carved marble were often constructed entirely in Portugal then shipped to Brazil to be rebuilt piece by piece.
“Brazil’s artistic scene pushes boundaries refusing to conform to external limitations. From Modernismo to Tropicália, the imagination is irrepressible.”
Throughout the 18th century, the architecture of Brazil continued to mirror trends from Portugal, especially Lisbon. This was accelerated after 1755 when 80% of Lisbon was destroyed by the one, two blow of an earthquake and tsunami. The city was redeveloped in its now-trademark Pombaline style, and Rio followed suit. The elegant European style flourished in architecture, but also in landscaping. Gardens employed European vegetation to populate them, as it was considered more sophisticated than the abundant lush wilderness of the rainforest. Brazil was, aesthetically, and extension of Portugal with some minor concessions to local factors.
Independence: A New Chapter
Within a century though, Brazil had won its independence. A turbulent political landscape failed to settle, and the newly-Brazilian population explored their identity through art, design, and the unique materials and inspirations provided by the bounty of the rainforest, and the diversity of its people. New styles began to emerge, with the European influence still very much visible, but developed with tropical flair. Francesco Paolini is a design dealer at Tablinum, an international platform and atelier for visual and decorative arts. A specialist in Brazilian design, Paolini notes the importance of cross-pollination from European culture in creating an aesthetic that is now so immediately recognisable as Brazilian.
“Obviously, the dialogue between the two cultures has always been very present and some of the best known designers of Brazil happen to be Portuguese and/or of Portuguese descent”, he acknowledges. “Joaquim Tenreiro, for example, is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of Brazilian modernist design. He was Portuguese (from the North) and born into a family of cabinet makers, which gave him an incredible ability to design, work, and assemble wooden furniture in a unique and groundbreaking fashion for his time. Nonetheless, the beauty of the socio-cultural milieu of Brazil resides, in my opinion, in the contamination that the numerous immigration waves brought into the country. Designers like Giuseppe Scapinelli, Lina Bo Bardi, Giancarlo Palanti, Graz (to name a few) migrated from Europe towards the beginning of the 20th century and were able to conceive and entirely new language precisely by combining the local crafts with their native culture and skills.”