A Visual Tour of Rio de Janeiro’s Jaw-dropping Architecture

From mid-century gems to new urban living spaces to the futuristic Museum of Tomorrow, Rio is a true champion.

Interior and exterior of Rio's Museum of Tomorrow.
Left to right: The museum’s interior, like the outside, showcases architect Santiago Calatrava’s penchant for slender, riblike forms. opening PAGE Calling the shots at the site of Teatro Popular Oscar Niemeyer, in Niterói; The Museu do Amanhã, or the Museum of Tomorrow, straddles a swath of land in the old downtown port area, now a revitalized waterfront spot that’s become an outdoor living room for Cariocas.

Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow)

It looks like the wing of an insect or the barbed petal of a meat-eating plant, or maybe the extended arm of a discus thrower wearing Y3K gladiator garb. Whatever it calls to mind, the Museum of Tomorrow is pure Santiago Calatrava. The architect deployed his signature ribs and spikes to create a futuristic-looking shell for the science museum housed within. Solar panels move with the sun, like giant sunflowers, and the building’s cantilevered roof reaches for the sea on one end, while on the opposite end it juts out over a plaza, creating a shaded area for visitors to contemplate which locally and sustainably produced dish or coffee to get from the onsite Fazenda Culinária café. Step inside and you’ll be taken along a series of displays that focus on ecology more than technology, and on human impact more than innovation (not counting the building, of course). In this revitalized downtown port area, known these days as Porto Maravilha (marvellous port), you’ll also find the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR), which opened in 2013 in three disused buildings. Its undulating roof connects the 20th-century mansion Palacete Dom João VI (which holds the exhibition space), with the modernist former central bus station and a police building (both now home to an art school).

August 3, 2016
Exterior of the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum.
Top to bottom: The MAC Niterói is poised for take-off – at least when it comes to launching contemporary art shows; Located on Guanabara Bay, across the water from Rio, the museum offers easy access to the beach, for playing around and sunbathing.

Mac Niterói (Niterói Contemporary Art Museum)

Skip across Guanabara Bay on a 20-minute ferry ride from Rio’s Praça XV and you arrive in the space age – or, at least, at the threshold of a building that looks like a UFO. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum was built around a single circular support, giving the four-storey structure the appearance of a giant flying saucer hovering above a reflecting pool. Visitors enter the 50-metre-diametre vessel via a crimson ramp – a spiralling red-carpet welcome on a trip to the far reaches of artistic expression. (On May 28, Louis Vuitton transformed the entry ramp into a catwalk, revealing its Cruise 2017 collection.) Bring a sun hat along with your appetite for art, because in down-to-earth Carioca style, the museum is right on a white-sand beach inviting you to hang out.

Concrete structures at the Cidade das Artes.
Left to right: Designed as a raised veranda with views to the sea and the mountains, the Cidade das Artes pays hommage to typical Brazilian architecture. After its 2013 opening, it quickly became a landmark for the Barra da Tijuca district; The cultural centre overlooks gardens and reflecting pools.

Cidade das Artes

Within a short drive for sports fans looking for a culture fix after taking in basketball, swimming or wheelchair tennis at the Olympic Park, the Cidade das Artes (“city of arts”) boldly rises out of the plain of Barra da Tijuca, an otherwise nondescript neighbourhood replete with residences, offices and shopping malls southwest of the city centre. The cultural hub – there are movie theatres, exhibition spaces, a media library and an auditorium that, unlike anywhere else in the world, can be transformed either for opera or philharmonic concerts – has become a gathering place for the community and visitors alike. Designed by French architect Christian de Portzamparc, the concrete complex is organized around a terrace that rests on a pedestal 10 metres above ground. This plaza overlooks a tropical aquatic garden with reflecting pools conceived by Fernando Chacel.

Men posing at selling hats at Copacabana beach.

Copacabana

The most famous of Rio’s beaches, Copacabana is the perfect spot to chill after an architecture tour or an Olympic event. Head there to people-watch, surf or sunbathe, or to practise sports – especially on Sundays, when Avenida Atlântica, which lines the four-kilometre stretch of sand, closes to car traffic.

Concrete architecture of the Museu de Arte Moderna.
Left to right: The Museu de Arte Moderna was groundbreaking when it opened in 1963 – thanks to its concrete exoskeleton, there are no interior walls or partitions. Instead, the exhibition space can be configured to suit different purposes.

Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM)

When the Museu de Arte Moderna opened to the public in 1963, it also opened itself up to Parque do Flamengo, a green living space built on a former landfill site on Guanabara Bay. Held up by an exoskeleton of concrete pillars and trusses, architect Affonso Eduardo Reidy’s building has no interior walls or partitions. So as you’re strolling the 4,400-square-metre exhibition hall admiring photographs by Joaquim Paiva or sculptures by Gabriela Machado, you’re simultaneously able to check out the canvas of pathways and tropical plants designed by Roberto Burle Marx, Brazil’s (if not the world’s) most famous landscape architect. If hunger strikes, let the sea breeze that whooshes through the space usher you to the rooftop Restaurante Laguiole for dishes like lamb with tahini hummus and grilled eggplant, served alongside killer views of the Sugarloaf and Corcovado mountains.

Wave and dome shaped Teratro Popular Oscar Niemeyer.
Top to bottom: The late Oscar Niemeyer – undoubtedly Brazil’s most well-known architect – designed the wave-shaped Teatro Popular in Niterói, along with the adjoining domes (bottom) and the MAC Niterói.

Teatro Popular Oscar Niemeyer

For a sense of the scope of Niemeyer’s talent – he is Brazil’s titan of architecture, after all – follow the Caminho Niemeyer, an 11-kilometre walking path that connects six of the architect’s buildings in Niterói (the city, across the water, is to Rio what Brooklyn is to New York). The Teatro Popular pushes out of the ground like a giant wave. Housing a 460-seat auditorium beneath its double curve, it features one straight wall with floor-to-ceiling windows for views over Guanabara Bay; the other, facing a plaza, is painted bright yellow, with drawings of dancing women alluding to the performances – dance, theatre and live music – showcased inside.

Interior of the luxurious Confeitaria Colombo.

Confeitaria Colombo

Located in the heart of Rio, Confeitaria Colombo has been a fixture for coffee and pastry lovers (that would be pretty much everyone in the city) since 1894. To beat the crowds, head there before noon and grab a table on the main floor, adorned with floor-to-ceiling mirrors framed in carved jacaranda, or on the mezzanine level under the backlit stained-glass ceiling for café da manhã (breakfast) or afternoon tea served with pasteís de nata, chocolate cake or macarons. Ask to be served by Orlando Duque, a devoted garçom (waiter) and local celebrity for over 65 years.

Couple sitting on the Escadaria Selarón.

Escadaria Selarón

More than 2,000 ceramic tiles from over 60 countries – yes, there is a maple leaf and a fleur-de-lys in the mix – make up the colourful mosaic of the Escadaria Selarón. In transforming the 215 steps of an existing concrete staircase one tile at a time, Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón slowly changed this part of the Lapa neighbourhood from a rundown district into a place of pride for the residents. While he started out in the early 1990s with tiles rescued from construction sites and others he hand-painted himself, international visitors soon started bringing or sending him tiles from their own countries. For Selarón, who died in 2013, the never-ending project was “a tribute to the Brazilian people.” It’s also a tribute to the power of grassroots design.

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