Brazil, the largest country in South America, is renowned for its rich cultural heritage and diverse architectural traditions. Vernacular architecture in Brazil reflects the nation’s history, environment, and unique cultural tapestry, spanning from the bustling metropolises of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to the remote villages nestled within the Amazon rainforest. This article delves into the fascinating world of vernacular architecture in Brazil, exploring its origins, characteristics, and enduring significance.

Origins and Influences

The roots of vernacular architecture in Brazil extend back to the indigenous communities that inhabited the region long before the arrival of Portuguese colonisers in the 16th century. These native tribes, such as the Tupi-Guarani and the Yanomami, constructed their dwellings using locally available materials, such as wood, palm leaves, and mud. Their architectural choices harmonised with the natural surroundings and provided shelter from the tropical climate.

Vernacular Architecture in Brazil: Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Design - Sheet1
The constructions known as ‘Ocas’_ © Wilfredor

For example, the vernacular architecture style of “Ocas” represents the traditional dwellings built by indigenous communities in Brazil. These unique structures, predominantly found in the Amazon rainforest region, are characterised by their circular or rectangular shapes and construction using natural materials. They built Ocas with walls made from woven palm leaves and roofs thatched with palm fronds. The design of Ocas showcases the indigenous people’s deep understanding of the local environment and their harmonious relationship with nature. These dwellings are adapted to the challenging rainforest conditions, providing shelter from the elements while allowing for natural ventilation. Ocas exemplify sustainable design practices, utilising locally available resources and reflecting the indigenous communities’ knowledge and cultural heritage. Through their organic forms and integration with the lush surroundings, Ocas serve as a testament to the ingenuity and resilience of the indigenous peoples in adapting their architecture to the Amazonian landscape.

Vernacular Architecture in Brazil: Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Design - Sheet2
Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahia_ © André Urel

With the Portuguese arrival, a merge of African and European architectural styles happened, giving birth to a distinctive architectural identity. This fusion is evident in the vibrant colours, intricate ironwork, and rhythmic patterns seen in the buildings of Salvador’s Pelourinho neighbourhood, which UNESCO recognises as a World Heritage site.

Characteristics of Vernacular Architecture

Vernacular architecture in Brazil encompasses a wide range of styles and techniques, reflecting the country’s vast geographical diversity and cultural influences. Similar characteristics are identifiable across different regions:

  1. Climate Adaptation: Vernacular architecture in Brazil considers the country’s diverse climatic conditions. In the Amazon region, houses are elevated on stilts to protect them from floods, and buildings in the arid Northeast feature thick walls and small windows to provide insulation from the scorching heat.
Vernacular Architecture in Brazil: Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Design - Sheet3
Stilt houses in the Amazon, Brasil_ ©Kim Schandorff
  1. Locally Sourced Materials: Traditional building materials sourced from the immediate surroundings are fundamental to vernacular architecture. Builders often use wood, bamboo, straw, adobe, and stone, as they are readily available and sustainable, contributing to aesthetic appeal and environmental sustainability.
Vernacular Architecture in Brazil: Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Design - Sheet4
Wattle and daub house in Maranguape, Ceará, Brasil_ ©Image CC BY-SA 3.0
  1. Integration with Nature: Vernacular architecture in Brazil emphasises a harmonious relationship with nature. Buildings often incorporate elements that allow for natural ventilation, daylighting, and a seamless blend of indoor and outdoor spaces. Courtyards, verandas, and balconies are standard features that facilitate social interaction and provide relief from the heat.

Regional Styles

Brazil’s vast size and regional diversity have given rise to distinct vernacular architectural styles across the country:

  1. Colonial Architecture: Found predominantly in historic cities like Salvador, Olinda, and Ouro Preto, colonial architecture showcases the influence of Portuguese colonisation. These buildings often feature colourful facades, ornate balconies, and azulejo tiles, reflecting the Baroque and Rococo styles popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. The historic centre of Ouro Preto has cobblestone streets and colonial-style buildings that transport visitors back in time.
Vernacular Architecture in Brazil: Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Design - Sheet5
The architecture of Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais, Brasil_ © Lucia Barreiros Silva
Vernacular Architecture in Brazil: Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Design - Sheet6
A topography with constant slopes_ © Lucia Barreiros Silva


  1. Northeastern Architecture: The Northeast region, known for its arid climate and cultural heritage, exhibits unique architectural styles. The “Casas de Taipa” are earthen houses made from rammed earth or adobe, which provide thermal insulation in the hot weather. The “casas coloridas” (colourful houses) of the coastal town of Pirenópolis are another notable example of vernacular architecture in the region. These houses feature vibrant colours, intricate decorative elements, and charming facades that reflect the lively spirit of the local culture.
Vernacular Architecture in Brazil: Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Design - Sheet7
A ‘Taipa’ house, also known as ‘Casas de pau a pique’ _ © Dante Laurini Jr
Vernacular Architecture in Brazil: Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Design - Sheet8
Solar do Major Novaes, constructed with adobe on the lower floor and wattle and daub on the upper floor_ © Camila Ferreira de Oliveira Rocha
Vernacular Architecture in Brazil: Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Design - Sheet9
Colourful houses in Pirenopolis_ ©
Vernacular Architecture in Brazil: Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Design - Sheet10
The different typologies of colourful windows in Pirenopolis_ © IPHAN
  1. Amazonian Architecture: In the Amazon rainforest, indigenous architectural traditions persist. The “maloca,” a communal dwelling used by indigenous tribes, is characterised by a circular or rectangular shape, thatched roofs, and walls made from woven palm leaves. These structures showcase the ingenuity of the indigenous peoples in adapting to the challenging rainforest environment. Natural materials and organic forms in Amazonian architecture blend harmoniously with the lush landscape, showcasing sustainable design practices.
Vernacular Architecture in Brazil: Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Design - Sheet11
Maloca building in the Xinguano Kuikuro community_ ©Image CC BY-SA 4.0
  1. Southern Brazilian Architecture: The southern region of Brazil, with its cooler climate and European influences, presents a distinct vernacular architectural style. In cities like Curitiba and Florianopolis, timber-framed houses with steep roofs and decorative wooden details are standard. These architectural elements reflect the German and Italian immigrant communities that settled in the region and brought their building traditions with them.
Vernacular Architecture in Brazil: Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Design - Sheet12
A timber-framed house typology in Curitiba, Brazil_ ©

Cultural Influences and Historical Background

To fully grasp the essence of vernacular architecture in Brazil, it is essential to understand the cultural influences that shaped its development. The African culture, brought by enslaved Africans during the colonial period, played a significant role in shaping Brazilian architecture. The impact is evident in the vibrant hues, intricate ironwork, and rhythmic motifs adorning buildings, especially in cities like Salvador. The amalgamation of African and European elements birthed a distinctive architectural fusion deeply ingrained in Brazil’s cultural fabric.

The Pelourinho in Salvador, a centre of African-Brazilian culture_ © Mario Pais Cie

Furthermore, the indigenous cultures of Brazil have profoundly influenced vernacular architecture. The native people pass their deep connection with nature, their sustainable use of materials, and their knowledge of local building techniques through generations. These indigenous practices currently inspire architects and builders in Brazil as they seek to integrate ecological principles and cultural preservation into their designs.

In conclusion, vernacular architecture in Brazil creates a vibrant tapestry of cultural heritage, shaping it through different influences and regional characteristics. From the striking colonial architecture of Salvador to the eco-conscious earthen houses of the Northeast and the organic forms found in the Amazonian malocas, each style narrates a story and embodies the distinct identity of its region. By cherishing and embracing vernacular architecture, Brazil safeguards its cultural traditions and fosters sustainable design practices that pay homage to the environment while creating spaces that deeply resonate with its inhabitants.


Araujo, A. C., & Clarke, M. (2015). Brazil’s Living Museum: The Vernacular Houses of Minas Gerais. Monacelli Press.

ArchDaily. (n.d.). “The Architecture City Guide: Brasília.” [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 19/05/2023].

Barreneche, R., & Ramirez, R. (2014). Brazil’s Modern Architecture. Rizzoli International Publications.

de Paula, E. (2016). Vernacular Architecture in Brazil: Between Tradition, Modernity, and Marginality. Built Environment Journal, 42(2), 197-214.

Farias, P. T. (2013). Lina Bo Bardi. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fernandes, F. C., & da Silva, S. L. (2020). Vernacular Architecture in Brazil: A State-of-the-Art Review. Journal of Architecture and Urbanism, 44(2), 137-146.

Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional (IPHAN). (n.d.). “Architecture.” [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 19/05/2023].

Lemos, C. (2013). Arquitetura Brasileira: 1900-1990 (Brazilian Architecture: 1900-1990). Editora Unesp.

Sampaio, M., & Lopes, M. (Eds.). (2018). Brazil Built: The Architecture of the Modern Movement in Brazil. Park Books.

Segawa, H. (2012). Modern Architecture in Brazil. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Smithsonian Magazine. (2017). “Brazil’s Colonial Architecture is Fading Fast.” [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 19/05/2023].

World Heritage Journey. (n.d.). “Historic Centre of São Luís.” [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 19/05/2023].

World Monuments Fund. (n.d.). “Brazil: Salvador da Bahia.” [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 19/05/2023].


Sofia Rezende is an Architect and Urban Planner from Brazil. She graduated in the class of 2015 from the Federal University of Viçosa, Brazil, and later pursued a Master’s (MSc) degree in the same subject with a focus on studying social housing and family demography, topics she’s very passionate about.