Piers Gough

Rio is the most cosmopolitan city in the world, blessed with modernism free of European angst


Piers Gough


First published in AT41, 1993

Forty issues past and no one has done the big one, the obvious one, the one that half of them actually live in: London. I should take future correspondents out of their dilemma and get it over with and out of the way. But it could only be my favourite if there were no south London – not because it’s suburban and inferior, of course, but because then the surly Thames could be the sparking sea, the bridges so many piers and the National an end-of-pier theatre.

Brighton (well, OK, Hove) is where I was born, and Peter Cook (Southend) says us seaside boys are the jolliest architects. But why choose Brighton when you could go for the Côte d’Azur and get browner or better fed? Or Sydney and get all that and as many cinemas as London, plus going to work on a ferry from Balmain every day under the Harbour Bridge and past the Opera House?

But beaches aren’t central to Sydney. For that it has got to be Rio: the great seafront city, where the seafront is a major social concourse and not just for tourists. The world and his wife (or possibly not) walk, stroll, cruise, jog the Avenida Atlantica all day. And all night, when the floodlights come on and the beach turns from its predictable daytime scene of swimming, swimming and goggling to an endless sports centre for serious football and basketball – and the bodies are just as impressive. All this on a strip totally designed by a landscape architect who is both brilliant and living and working in the city, Burle Marx.

The Avenida of Copacabana and Ipanema is lined with baroque, moderne, modernist but mostly modern hotels (Ouro Verde recommended) and apartment buildings and one anomaly – the world’s best-located primary school. But behind run residential neighbourhoods that are pretty wonderful, tree-lined boulevards either side of a big shopping street which opens into market squares and parks at regular intervals and then, half a dozen blocks inland, the big internal Lake Lagos around which the strolling and bicycling starts all over again. Behind the lake lie the Jardim Botânico and mountains.

The lake is part of the incredible topography of Rio. The city is dominated and completely divided by mountain (half of the street map is blank). The effect of the raw, inhospitable landscape hanging over the rich urban environment is fairly awesome. The streets are so steep and sudden that a perfectly normal tree-lined route can quite abruptly go into a tunnel and then immediately start up again at the other end, as if there had never been this surreal interlude.

The city has the advantage of being an ex-capital – with everything you can want and need, physically and culturally, but without politicians

That’s the front streets. As for the back streets, Rio’s are as crazed as any in the world, making Soho seem like Cheltenham. The nightlife is quite simply amazing.

The city has the advantage of being an ex-capital – with everything you can want and need, physically and culturally, but without politicians, who all decamped to Brasilia in the 1950s. Big institutions were persuaded to move with them (São Paulo, is the commercial centre), which has pushed the Rio economy rather too much towards tourism.

The benefit is that the last big construction boom coincided with the most brilliant period of Brazilian modernism, dominated by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer. When they worked together, as at the Ministry of Health building, it was a dream team. The gestural strength of Niemeyer with the gentler feel for environment and materials of Costa made a great architecture. The way modernism should have been, free from northern European manners and angst. Not only do roof and walls and brise-soleils writhe and wriggle, but the structural grids and piloti are pushed around to a Samba beat.

The combination of the Portuguese colonial heritage – the Imperial Palace, monasteries, customs house, and baroque theatres – with such modern masterpieces as the ABI building, the very civilised Santos Dumont seafront airport and the Eduardo Guenle apartments, is a heady mix. But the Latin American culture is itself a heady brew of indigenous, European colonial and imported African cultures. Marques predicts – perhaps tongue-in-cheek, perhaps not – that its enviable passionate nature will finally sweep up the North American continent as well.

The people of Rio are all different colours, and while no one would say they are equal, they are equal in numbers. It feels like the most cosmopolitan city in the world. The only problem with the place for a Londoner (and this article) is that for a good part of the year it’s too hot to think straight – or was that the Pingas at Guimas and the Bundas de Ouro?


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