The city of Rio de Janeiro was founded on the margins of Guanabara Bay in 1556 and remained a small village until the 17th century, when it developed into an important commercial port. In 1763, Rio became the capital of Brazil, and in 1808 it was named the capital of the whole Portuguese Empire when the king and the nobility moved there, fleeing Napoleon. The city remained the capital of the Brazilian Empire after independence in 1822 and entered the 20th century as the capital of the Brazilian Republic (proclaimed in 1889) until the federal government moved to Brasilia in 1960. From 1930 to 1960, Rio was the core of Brazilian modernism while carioca (native of Rio) architects reshaped the whole country. Fortunately, inspired by the fantastic natural beauty of the city, this generation of modernist architects was able to give Rio some of the finest buildings of the 20th century.
Brazilians entered the 20th century under strong influence of positivism and sanitary engineering, and the city of Rio de Janeiro, being the capital of the republic and the intellectual center of the country, was dominated by such ideas. The republic adopted French eclecticism as the appropriate language to affirm its power and convey technological advancement. The 1900s would be marked in Rio by the urban reformations of Pereira Passos, with avenues being opened and slums being displaced with civic buildings in French neoclassical style taking their place (Teatro Nacional, 1906). A few years later, another plan by French urbanist Alfred Agache (1927) would be the structure for Rio’s main transformations of the first half of the century. Still, in the second decade of the century, Rio would experiment with issues of local identity and their relationship to interna-tional images, with the arrival of Art Deco on one hand and the development of neo-Colonial styles on the other. The Deco tradition left landmarks such as the Cristo Redentor statue over Corcovado hill, and the neo-Colonial movement, led by José Mariano Filho, would battle against the modernist avant-garde ideas throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In 1929, the high points of this debate would be a series of conferences by Le Corbusier when, visiting Rio for the first time, he produced the famous sketches of an elevated highway along the shore.
In 1930, in what would be one of the key moments of Brazilian architecture, Lúcio Costa was named director of Rio’s ENBA (National School of Beaux-Arts). As soon as he was named, Costa began a radical reformation of the art and architecture curriculum, based on the Bauhaus pedagogy and Le Corbusier’s ideas. The strong reaction against these proposed changes led to Costa’s substitution, but the ideas that he installed flourished with a generation of students known later as the carioca school: Oscar Niemeyer, Roberto Burle Marx, Affonso Raidy, Jorge Moreira, Milton Roberto, and Luis Nunes, among others.
Also in the 1930s, young architects such as the Roberto brothers (Milton and Marcelo) built the ABI building (Brazilian Press Association headquarters, 1935) and the Santos Dumont Airport (completed 1944). Atílio Correa Lima designed the Seaplane station (1940), and Niemeyer designed a nursery (Obra do Berço, 1937) and his own house (1939) at Lagoa.
In 1936, Le Corbusier was invited as a supportive consultant for the team of architects commissioned to design the new building for the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Health (MES). The invitation of Le Corbusier served as a support for canceling the previous competition, as the government considered the winning design incompatible with the modern image that they were trying to establish. The MES building would inspire a whole generation of young architects and artists with the murals by Candido Portinari, sculptures by Bruno Giorgi, and gardens by Burle Marx around the architecture developed by Lucio Costa, Carlos Leão, Jorge Moreira, and Oscar Niemeyer, all a result of Le Corbusier’s visit.
During the 1940s, many important modernist buildings were developed and designed by the carioca generation. The Roberto brothers were using precast concrete in industrial projects, Niemeyer designed the Boavista Bank (1946), and Jorge Moreira was designing the University Campus at Ilha do Fundão (1949). Meanwhile, Afonso Reidy completed the Pedregulho residential complex (1947), a curvilinear apartment building that reflected the terrain’s contours.
The architecture of the 1950s is still considered a high point in Brazilian modernism. For example, Affonso Raidy’s Museum of Modern Art (1952) is an exposed-concrete structure disposed horizontally at the Flamengo seashore in order not to disturb the landscape. Burle Marx was responsible for the gardens that surround the museum and the whole Flamengo park shore. The 1950s would also witness fascinating buildings by Sergio Bernardes (House for Lota M.Soares and Elizabeth Bishop, 1952), Henrique Mindlin (Avenida Central building, 1957), and Francisco Bolonha (Joseph Bloch school, 1960). In a time of accelerating industrialization and urbanization, housing lies at the core of the 1950s debate and practice, led by Carmen Portinho at the municipal office. One of the best apartment buildings of this time is the Parque Guinle complex (Bristol and Caledônia buildings, 1950) by Lucio Costa.
After the 1950s boom, Rio de Janeiro would suffer with the transfer of the federal government to Brasilia in 1960. A general loss of investments and decreasing construction activities led not only to fewer buildings but also to problematic changes in the municipal codes that would allow faster construction to bring profits. The quality of the 1950s was lost, and after the military coup in 1964, few interesting buildings or projects appeared in Rio.
The military regime exiled architects such as Niemeyer and repressed schools of architecture that were a focus of cultural and political discussion on the 1960s. The 1970s experienced accelerating wealth disparity, with architecture losing its social commitment in favor of apartment buildings, hotels, and financial institutions for the wealthy classes. The Petrobras building (state oil company, 1968) by Gandelfi and Assad and the CocaCola headquarters (1972) by Edison and Edmundo Musa represent the paradigm of those times. Costly apartment buildings with security devices dominated the architectural scene at Barra da Tijuca, Lagoa, and Ipanema. The major public buildings of the military period in Rio include the State University Complex (1968) by Luis Paulo Conde and the Copacabana sidewalks (1970) by Roberto Burle Marx.
With the redemocratization of the 1980s, a series of public buildings by Oscar Niemeyer was built in Rio. The CIEPSs, a full-time school program built in modulate precast concrete, were scattered around the peripheral areas of the city, serving the needy communities. In downtown Rio, the Sambódromo, a half-mile-long open walkway for the samba schools’ carnival parades, ends in a elegant plaza dominated by a sculpture designed by Niemeyer. Across the bay in Niterói, the Museum of Contemporary Art (1996) was also designed by the 90-year-old Niemeyer.
In the 1990s, an extensive project of urban design, public facilities, and renovation was put forward by architect Luis Paulo Conde, first as municipal secretary of urbanism (1992–96) and then as mayor (1996–2000). Rio Cidade (downtown urban design renovations) and Favela-bairro (improvements and infrastructure at the shanty hills) are among the successful cases of good architecture serving the public at the end of the century, reshaping and improving the already astonishing landscape of Rio de Janeiro.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.3 (P-Z). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.