A Guide To Rio’s Legendary Architecture

As the world gears up for a turbulent Olympics, Rio’s rich architectural history is worth revisiting.

A Guide To Rio’s Legendary Architecture

Rio de Janeiro is in full construction mode as it enters the homestretch before the 2016 Summer Olympics–racing to finish up the venue renovations and infrastructure necessary to support the 500,000 visitors expected to arrive next month. As with the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014, many are beginning to speculate as to whether or not the city will pull it off; the New York Times recently called it a “calamity.”


Tensions are running high, and, in the midst of the crises gripping Rio, it’s very easy to forget that the city has a rich architectural history–particularly when it comes to modernist architecture that blends into and plays off of the city’s tropical landscape. From European-inspired 19th century buildings to the work of architect and city planner Lúcio Costa, legendary modernist Oscar Niemeyer, and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, Rio is in no short supply of significant buildings, many of which will likely serve as backdrops to the Games.

Keep an eye out for the following buildings, whether you’re traveling to Rio in a few weeks or watching the broadcast from afar.

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Niterói Contemporary Art Museum

Oscar Niemeyer is one of Brazil’s most famous architects and was responsible for more than 500 projects over his nearly 70-year career. He designed the saucer-shaped Niterói Contemporary Art Museum at the age of 89, and he continued working past his 100th birthday. Technically, the museum is located across the Guanabara Bay (where some Olympic events will be held) from Rio de Janeiro, in the smaller seaside city of Niterói. But the shape of its concrete disc–as well as its spiraling, red-carpeted ramp that snakes up one side of the building’s exterior–gives visitors a full panoramic view of the bay, Rio’s famous Sugarloaf Mountain, and the city’s skyline.


Across the bay, in Rio, Niemeyer designed several of the city’s modernist masterpieces that will likely be featured during the Olympics, including the pillared Ministry of Education and Health building–led by Le Corbusier–and the Sambadrome, host to the samba parade of Carnival. The Sambadrome will also host archery competitions and marathon events during the Olympics this summer.

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Cidade das Artes

Located in the Barra da Tijuca suburb of Brazil, the 2012 Cidade das Artes complex was designed by the French architect Christian de Portzamparc and imagined as a small city contained in one large structure. The publicly accessible complex includes concert rooms, movie theaters, dance studios, and a media library, among other things. The exterior design is defined by two concrete plates, for a roof and a terrace, with curved concrete walls situated between them. From the terrace, visitors have an expansive view of the surrounding mountains and ocean.

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Casa das Canoas

Also located in the suburb of Barra de Tijuca is Oscar Niemeyer’s Casa das Canoas, which he designed in 1951 as a private residence. The house is a tribute to Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, though it swaps van der Rohe’s straight lines for Niemeyer’s signature organic curves. The transparent glass structure, topped with the curved white roof and supported by light steel columns, make the house appear to sink into its tropical surroundings. The house is now open to the public.

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National Library of Brazil

Constructed in 1810, the National Library of Brazil is the largest library in South America and the seventh largest in the world. As a copyright library, it receives one copy of every book published by Brazilian publishers–and has since 1907. Its collection totals about 9 million items.

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Avenida Atlântica

Another design landmark you’ll see featured often during the Games? The two-and-a-half mile Avenida Atlântica on the Copacabana shoreline looks like a massive modernist painting. It’s the work of Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, whose brilliant large-scale public works and tropical gardens can be seen all over Rio. Burle Marx used a traditional Portuguese paving style to lay the stones for the piece, but the thick blocks, undulating lines, and zigzags that make up the pattern look distinctly modern.

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Parque Lage

Though the English-style gardens of Parque Lage would likely not have been Burle Marx’s preference–the designer was staunchly in favor of design and flora native to Brazil–this public park is a significant architectural sight in its own right. The mansion at the center of the park was once owned by the industrialist Enrique Lage and was remodeled in the ’20s by the Italian architect Mario Vodrelan. The mansion now houses the Visual Arts School of Parque Lage, and the surrounding park, which lies at the base of the national rainforest Floresta da Tijuca, is open to the public.

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Museum of Tomorrow

Completed just this past December, the Museum of Tomorrow, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, is located on the cruise terminal of Pier Mauá, just north of Copacabana. The skeletal cantilevered roof soars nearly 250 feet above the ground before plunging toward the edge of the sea. Built with solar powered “spines” on the roof and a cooling system that uses deep water from nearby Guanabara Bay, the museum aims to set new standards for sustainable buildings in Rio. Inside, the bone-white curves recall the concrete curvatures of Niemeyer’s designs.

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Pedregulho Housing Development

In 1952, the renowned Brazilian architect Affonso Eduardo Reidy built the social housing development known as Pedregulho to house low-income workers arriving to the city from rural parts of Brazil. Located in the Rio suburb of São Cristóvão, the complex is still in use today, and is well-known for its undulating facade.

Designed to give a sense of community in an urban environment, the development includes a school, swimming pool, health center, and green space. On one side of the gymnasium, the wall is decorated with an aqua and white tile mural by landscape designer Burle Marx. As Brazil weathers criticism of spending billions on Olympic infrastructure instead of improving life for struggling Brazilians, it’s a reminder that architecture can strengthen social bonds and improve quality of life–when countries invest in it.


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.