Velho E Novo
A reflection of Rio de Janeiro's architecture, both old and new.

Set to be bestowed with the first title of World Capital of Architecture by the UNESCO in 2020, Rio de Janeiro’s rich plethora of architectural wonders are being honoured officially after years of appreciation. Many modern genii’ within the field have lived and worked in the city, such as Oscar Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa, Lina Bo Bardi and Roberto Burle Marx, making their mark on its architectural landscape.

The conversation between old and new, modernismo and classicism, is undeniable when reflecting on Rio de Janeiro’s architecture. Portuguese settlers were the first to build on the land with bricks and mortar; erecting colonial buildings in the 16th century that were reproductions of the ornate architecture of their homeland. Churches, houses and forts were developed in a bid to affirm Brazil as Portuguese terrain, and welcome citizens of their native country, Portugal, to settle on the South American land. Following this initial conception of colonial dwellings were the Neoclassical and Gothic Revival constructions of the 19th century. This was the second influx of European architectural influence on Brazilian terrain, and although historical European architectural tropes were authoritative on their design, they were also influenced by the styles that had developed in Brazil throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, resulting in a distinctive type of building.

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.

The country’s modernist architects of the 20th century were too influenced by design and art movements from Europe, as well as the USA. The modernism movement that was brewing throughout the European and North American design scenes had traversed to South America and was accepted and assimilated into Brazilian visionary fields. The most notable architects of this period, Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer and Lina Bo Bardi and Roberto Burle Marx (a landscape architect) left their legacies with the angular yet forbearing, whimsical yet authoritative constructions they schemed. Niemeyer once expressed,

“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. 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”
– The Curves of Time: The Memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer, 1998.

And this tendency for curvature rather than the exclusive application of rigid straight lines is apparent in one of his most illustrious works, Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Completed near the turn of the century in the year 1996, the design is a noticeable departure from his earlier works such as the Gustavo Capanema Palace, Ministry of Education and Health, Rio de Janeiro, which was built in 1936, and is perhaps a patent example of the evolution of modernismo.

However, it is to be noted that the movement isn’t one of the past, in fact, it is ever-metamorphosing. Contemporary architects working in Brazil are imagining buildings that are a reflection of several eras in the country’s design history, whilst still evocative and forward thinking, the Museum of Tomorrow exemplifies this. Designed by Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava, the ultra-futuristic off-white construction is reminiscent of the works of Oscar Niemeyer, yet the sustainable solar panels and cooling system are an eco-friendly endeavour that’s reflective of present-day concerns with the effects of living on our ecosystem and environment.

Another, yet divergent example is the Museu de Arte do Rio. The museum, which was planned by design studio Jacobsen Arquitetura, devised by architects Paulo Jacobsen, Bernardo Jacobsen and Thiago Bernardes and inaugurated in 2013, pays direct homage to Brazil’s architectural history by dividing the museum into two buildings; juxtaposing a burnished modernist construction with an ornate 1916 mansion, tethering the typically opposing buildings together with a conceptual wave that’s suspended above the buildings with pillars. The Museu de Arte do Rio exhibits the manner of which contemporary Brazilian designers are not dismissal of the country’s century-surpassing architectural history, but rather sensitive and conversant with it, and it’s this relationship between old and new, as well as the countries natural landscape that is responsible for its distinctive architectural landscape.

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