For the longest time, Brazilian architecture was influenced by colonial and neoclassical styles, coming almost exclusively from Europe, particularly France and their once-colonial masters, Portugal. At first, the main works of Brazilian architecture were religious buildings, but then, as the country’s cities were constructed, grand neoclassical, romantic, and neogothic buildings arose all over Brazil.
In the 20th century, Brazil’s architecture finally began creating its own style. Influenced by the modernist and brutalist movements and showcased by the building of the country’s brand-new capital city, Brasília, in the 1950s, Brazilian modernism was born. Here are some of the most important figures in the history of Brazilian architecture right up until the present day.
Not too much is known about the life of Antônio Francisco Lisboa, more commonly known as Aleijadinho, but his legacy has lasted over 200 years, and he is regarded as one of Brazil’s truly great creative geniuses and the most important artistic figure of Brazil’s colonial times. His nickname (which means “the Little Cripple”) came from the fact that he suffered from a degenerative disease that left his body somewhat deformed, and the scarce records that exist about his life suggest that he lost both of his feet, as well as most of his fingers.
Aleijadinho was a sculptor, woodcarver, and architect, and most of his famous works can be seen in his home town of Ouro Preto, the small goldmining town in Minas Gerais that was once one of the most important centers of colonial Brazil. Partly thanks to the sheer number of Aleijadinho’s masterpieces that can be found in the town, Ouro Preto itself is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Even at a time when Brazilian architecture seemed to follow colonial Portuguese styles to the letter, Aleijadinho developed his own particular style – a mix between baroque and rococo. Arguably his most famous work is the São Francisco de Assis church, which he designed and decorated.
Moving into the periods of the Empire of Brazil and the First Brazilian Republic, as the major cities of Brazil’s southeast began to grow with the booming coffee trade, the most influential architect of the time was Francisco de Paula Ramos de Azevedo. Having studied architecture in Belgium, he returned to Brazil in the late 19th century and began designing projects in the city of São Paulo.
Influenced heavily by the eclectic architectural style that was in vogue in Europe at the time, he was commissioned by various families of São Paulo’s coffee elite to build their grand mansions and palaces. He then decided to open his own architecture firm, and was soon awarded some of the most prestigious projects in the city.
The beautiful Theatro Municipal, a combination of various styles such as baroque, renaissance and Art Nouveau, is one of his most celebrated works, along with the Casa das Rosas mansion on Paulista Avenue, one of the few remaining of its kind from the era of the coffee barons.
Possibly the most famous Brazilian architect in history, Oscar Niemeyer is credited with being one of the key figures in the modernist architecture movement around the world. His work was vastly influenced by the modernist Swiss master architect Le Corbusier (with whom he worked on various projects, such as that of the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City), but Niemeyer had his own unique style, drawing on inspiration from Brazil.
In his memoirs, The Curves of Time, he famously summarizes his architectural style by saying that straight lines do not attract him. “I am attracted to free-flowing and sensual curves, the curves I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuous courses of its rivers, in the waves of the sea, in the body of the beloved women.”
Niemeyer’s most famous project was the construction of Brazil’s brand-new capital city, Brasília, in the 1950s. Brazil’s president Juscelino Kubitschek handpicked Niemeyer to take charge of the architecture of this new, modernist city, entrusting Niemeyer’s friend and legendary Brazilian urbanist Lúcio Costa with the urban planning. The building of the entire city took a remarkably short time (only 41 months) and it was completed before Kubitschek completed his presidential mandate in 1961.
Outside of Brasília, Niemeyer’s works can be found all over Brazil: good examples are the Pampulha Modern Ensemble (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in Belo Horizonte, Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo, and the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro.
Another of Brazil’s most famous architects is perhaps less well-known for his own works, and more for the influence he had over an entire generation of contemporary Brazilian architects. João Batista Vilanova Artigas, born in the southern city of Curitiba, moved to São Paulo to study architecture and ended up having a profound effect on the city.
He made his name designing a number of modernist homes around São Paulo, and became particularly famous for building the Morumbi stadium, which is still today the city’s largest football stadium.
Villanova Artigas later founded the Architecture and Urbanism Faculty (FAU) of the University of São Paulo, and designed the faculty building himself. At the FAU, he mentored and was a part of the so-called São Paulo School, a group of architects who changed the entire landscape of the city with highly technical works, often using reinforced concrete and putting emphasis on structure.
Though she was born in Italy, Lina Bo Bardi spent most of her life in Brazil and became inescapably connected with the history and development of Brazilian modernist and brutalist architecture. In 1946, Bardi moved from Rome to São Paulo with her husband Pietro, who had been invited to found and direct the São Paulo Museum of Art. She would then acquire Brazilian nationality in 1951.
While she had graduated as an architect in 1939 in Milan, Lina Bo Bardi had an incredibly difficult time finding work, due to architecture being an extremely male-dominated field at this time; so much so that her first definitive building project was that of her own house, the stunning Casa de Vidro, built in 1951 in the southwest zone of São Paulo.
Bardi then travelled north to Salvador, where she was tasked with directing the Bahia Modern Art Museum and reforming the Solar do Unhão to become its headquarters. Her time in the northeast of Brazil inspired the first change to Bardi’s style, from something that conformed very strictly to the confines of modernism and brutalism, to something more vibrant and organic.
In 1966, she designed the new building of the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), her most famous work, a modernist masterpiece that is suspended over Paulista Avenue, supported by massive, brilliant-red concrete pillars.
One of the members of the São Paulo School led by Villanova Artigas, today Paulo Mendes da Rocha is arguably the biggest name in contemporary Brazilian architecture. His works can be seen all over the city, and include the Brazilian Sculpture Museum (MuBE), the FIESP cultural center, the Pinacoteca do Estado, and the Portuguese Language Museum inside the stunning Luz train station.
His most recent project, the SESC 24 de Maio cultural center in São Paulo’s historic center, is a beautiful building that perfectly incorporates the rugged yet beautiful urban landscape that surrounds it.
The son of Japanese–Brazilian artist Tomie Ohtake (1913–2015), one of the pioneers of informal abstractionism, Ruy Ohtake continued his family’s artistic legacy by becoming one of Brazil’s best-known architects, with work that incorporates Brazilian, Japanese, and European styles into a modernist and brutalist-inspired framework.
His most famous project is the eye-catching Hotel Unique in São Paulo, one of the best-known design hotels in Brazil. Working with the planning constraints of the surrounding neighborhood, Ohtake designed a stylish hotel that does not disrupt the local skyline.
Another of his most famous works is also found in São Paulo, in the shape of the headquarters of the Tomie Ohtake Cultural Institute. It is a large, futurist-style building, which despite its size was thought out meticulously down to the last detail, typical of Ohtake’s architectural style.
One of the most exciting contemporary architects in Brazil today is 65-year-old Isay Weinfeld. Most famous for heading the architectural projects of the Fasano hotel group in São Paulo, Porto Feliz, and Punta del Este in Uruguay, Weinfeld’s work can now be seen all over Brazil’s big cities, with a focus on striking apartment buildings such as the Edifício 360 (with façades comprising asymmetrical rectangles, elegantly arranged together) and the mixed-use Santos Augusta tower, made up of four irregularly stacked mini-towers.