Being the world’s fifth-largest country, Brazil is one of the most multicultural and diverse countries. The history of architecture in Brazil is defined by its rich history and heritage, with varying influences from indigenous Indian, African and Portuguese cultures. Due to its location and proximity to the Amazon basin, there is a vast abundance of diverse wildlife and extensive ecosystems throughout Brazil.
Owing to these factors and its tropical climate, the architectural vocabulary throughout Brazil is also governed by the climatological impact of the buildings.
The rapid mass urbanization 8of Brazil after World War II radically altered the lifestyle of the emerging Brazilians, changing their perspectives on the architecture and design of their cities. From predominantly classical to radically modern, the narrative of architecture in Brazil is a major part of their character and identity and is widely recognized by global organizations like UNESCO.
16th century Portuguese Colonial
Dating back to the early sixteenth century, the first wave of architecture began when Pedro Cabral, a Portuguese nobleman, and commander discovered Brazil. The Portuguese created an architectural style familiar to theirs in Europe, influencing their sacred and secular buildings, forts, and palaces, and founded major cities like Salvador, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro.
The classical Portuguese Colonial style of old Brazil was characterized by symmetry, stone and mortar construction, box-like forms with recessed windows and alcoves, and lime plastered or brightly painted facades.
Being one of the oldest cities, Salvador was the old capital of Brazil until 1763 and boasted of an expressive amalgamation of Colonial and Baroque styles of architecture. Upon defeating the Dutch in the mid-17th century, Portuguese settlers refurbished and rebuilt several forts and institutional buildings with cultural and historical significance. These multicoloured colonial buildings show a glimpse of the Portuguese influence and are a sight to behold, adding a vivid character to the streets of Salvador.
18th century Baroque
With rising European influence throughout Brazil, the predominantly Portuguese style gradually transitioned into Baroque and Neoclassical, mixed with the indigenous Brazilian style, paved the way for a new and inherently unique style of Architecture. While the architectural elements now revolved around asymmetry, expressive and irregular geometries which were a symbolic reflection of the dynamic, dramatic and grandiloquent lifestyle of the newly emerging Brazilian population.
The exuberant and monumental structures of the Baroque-Brazilian era, including palaces, theatres, and churches, were designed to engage all the senses and invoke a sense of grandeur against a backdrop of ritualism and festivity among their visitors.
Some of the best examples of Baroque architecture in Brazil are found in Ouro Preto, a quaint colonial town in Minas Gerais. With ornate, colourful buildings with paintings incorporated into walls lining the public streets, Ouro Preto is a major tourist destination that holds an authentic European vibe. It was declared a UNESCO “World Monument” in 1980 with 13 churches, 11 chapels, museums, ancient bridges, and well-preserved houses.
A few of the most important examples of exquisite design and craftsmanship include the Church of Igreja de São Francisco de Assis and the immaculately preserved residence, the Casa dos Contos among others.
As a reaction to the opulence of the Baroque era, there was a significant shift to Neoclassicism in Brazil that was based on simple designs and elegant geometries inspired by Greek and Roman architectural elements like symmetrical floor plans, multi-storied columns, grand triangular and gabled roofs. The brightly coloured and ornamental facades were replaced by subtle colours and noble materials like marble, white soapstone, and limestone.
Notable examples of Neoclassicism in Brazil are located in the city of Manaus, especially the Teatro Amazonas. With the turn of the 20th century, the Amazonian region of Brazil saw an era of enormous prosperity owing to the tremendous rise in exports from the rubber plantations in the capital city of Manaus.
To commemorate their triumph and recreate the lavish lifestyle of European elites, an Opera House, the Teatro Amazonas, was built in the middle of the rainforest under the supervision of an Italian architect. With its supreme quality of construction and lavish use of materials and finishes, the Teatro Amazonas is considered the epitome of Brazilian Neoclassicism.
20th Century Modernism in Brazil
The onset of the 20th century brought with it the newly emerging trends and technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution, which made a breakthrough landmark in the way people perceived their buildings. Modern materials like reinforced concrete and glass began replacing the traditional marble monuments. Brazil was one of the first countries in the world to fully embrace the wave of modernism in architecture and design.
The modernist approach was a striking contrast to the traditionally built classical and heritage buildings of Brazil and experimented with minimalism and removing excessive frills, instead of focusing more on simplicity, clean lines, and functionality.
It was during this time that Brazil was influenced by European modernist architects like Gropius and Corbusier. This ultimately led to the conceptualization of Brazil’s own definition of modernism at the hands of world-renowned architects like Oscar Niemeyer, Lucio Costa, and Paolo Mendes da Rocha who characterized their buildings by using clean geometries along with light and free-flowing materials like reinforced concrete and glass.
This was the era of social awakening and saw a rise in the construction of state-owned buildings that were meant to embody the spirit of progress. This emerging style of architecture was prevalent through all typologies of buildings, from large-scale offices and administrative buildings to chapels and pavilions, and even residences, housing projects, and townships throughout Brazil.
Well known examples of this time are The Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro, by Niemeyer, The Brazil Pavilion at the World Fair in 1939, by Costa and Niemeyer, the Chapel of St Peter in Sao Paulo by Mendes da Rocha, Copacabana Boardwalk by Burle Marx and the Metropolitana Cathedral in Rio de Janeiro by Edgar Fonseca.
The Birth of Brasilia
This wide-ranging approach of modernism was not just limited to buildings but was also extended to the newly planned cities like Brasilia. The new capital of Brazil, Brasilia, founded in 1960, was designed by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer and is considered a major experiment in modernism. The city was meticulously planned along two principal axes, the Monumental Axis (east to west) and the Residential Axis (north to south). The plan of the central city has been compared to a bird or an aircraft ready for flight, symbolising an endless future for the city.
At the Northwestern end of the monumental axis are the federal district and municipal buildings, while at the Southeastern end stand the Executive, Judicial and Legislative buildings. At the iconic centrepiece of the city lies the Square of Three Powers, which includes the National Congress, National Cathedral, and the Supreme Federal Court and Presidential Palace at the conceptual heart of the city.
A few of the most prominent examples of Modern Architecture in Brasilia by Oscar Niemeyer include the National Cathedral, the iconic hyperboloid structure reaching out to the sky and resting on sixteen concrete columns and covered in a coloured glass roof, surrounded by a reflecting pool redefines the notions of spirituality in a sacred space.
Another example is the National Congress Building of Brasilia, which stands as a proud collaboration of “brutalist” modern linearity and “romantic” modern fluidity and looks like a combination of three-dimensional shapes balancing on each other. In a complex yet simplistic arrangement, the semi-sphere on the left houses the Seat of the Senate, and the semi-sphere on the right houses the Chamber of Deputies, and between them are the vertical towers of offices.
Other such notable examples of Modern Architecture in Brasilia include the Itamaraty Palace or the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Exchange, the Supreme Federal Tribunal Building, the Palacio da Planalto or the Official workplace of the President of Brazil, and the Complexo Cultural da República, among an exhaustive and long list of others. Due to its unique urban design and futuristic architecture, Brasilia was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
The Future of Architecture in Brazil
With the turn of the 21st century, the style of architecture in Brazil has gone through several remarkable changes and developed its own wide arching vocabulary, with a focus on sustainability and minimalism. Ranging from Niemeyer’s tropical modern there has been a steady increase in absorbing foreign design influences for the rapidly modernising Brazilian cities like Santiago Calatrava’s Museu do Amanhã or the Museum of Tomorrow, the Hotel Unique, by Ruy Ohtake, the Vitra Apartments in Sao Paulo by Daniel Libeskind and the Japan House by Kengo Kuma.
While the past of architecture in Brazil has been clearly defined in terms of its styles, the future indicates endless opportunities to reinterpret the legacy of Brazilian master architects for the upcoming generations.