On one of the most fashionable shopping streets of Ipanema stands the alluring jewel-box that is the chocolatier Aquim. Inside, the shelves are lined by the usual bon bons and chocolate bars. Behind the counter, there are several extravagant handmade oak boxes housing owner Samantha Aquim’s most rarefied chocolate: Q0. Each set is numbered, with its own gold tasting fork, sliding drawer of chocolate discs and three pieces of Q0 shaped into an elegant, S-shaped wave, designed by Oscar Niemeyer. “It’s edible architecture,” says Aquim.
In some ways the shop is emblematic of the new Brazil, with its booming economy and insatiable hunger for luxury and high style – the Q0 box retails at a cool €1,000. And so it is fitting that its prized product is the work of Niemeyer, the architect who for more than 70 years has been shaping the country’s aesthetic tastes.
Niemeyer is so closely entwined with the history of Brazil that several domestic and international tour operators have set up “architours” on which tourists can gain an insight into the country through the prism of his work. And though Niemeyer turned 104 in December, a tour of his work isn’t just a history lesson: he is still planning and realising new projects, and with the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics both coming to Brazil, there is no shortage of energy and investment.
“Many tourists still want to see the favelas,” said Journey Latin America tour guide Felipe Rocha as we drove across the bridge from Rio to Niteroi, its flying saucer-shaped contemporary art museum fast approaching. “But the more cultured travellers increasingly want to see Niemeyer.”
My architour took in extended weekends in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, an overnight stay in Curitiba, several days in Brasília and an afternoon in Belo Horizonte, where I visited one of his earliest landmarks, the 1943 Church of Saint Francis of Assisi. Despite being an atheist, Niemeyer has managed to craft some of the world’s most dramatic places for worship.
The Belo Horizonte church is a tiny, cartoonish, Palm Springs-flavoured hint at a remarkable and giant career ahead. While the local archbishop once cursed it as looking like “the devil’s bomb shelter”, it’s now much-loved. In cool Mediterranean blues and white, it is a doodle for the epic wigwam-shaped Cathedral of Brasília that he would realise in 1958, at the heart of the city he invented from scratch with urban planner Lucio Costa.
I visited the cathedral later in the trip, entering via an underground passage on a vivid Hollywood-red carpet. The wrap-around glass and coloured light-filled space is unlike anything I had ever seen before. An hour passed quickly, my attention captured by the play of shadow and colour on the floor and altar.
A new church is on the cards for Niteroi, as part of the Caminho Niemeyer, an as yet unfinished collection of buildings intended to inject new life into the area but currently caught in local government red tape. Niemeyer inaugurated the most artful of the collection of buildings – the Oscar Niemeyer Foundation, a museum about his work – on his 103rd birthday.
When I visited Niemeyer’s old Rio home, the Casa das Canaos, a short drive past the black steel tube of his Hotel Nacional (to be renovated and reopened for the World Cup), I had the place to myself, apart from the house’s guardian, José Soares de Lima, who took charge of things when Niemeyer left the country in exile after the 1964 military coup. “He never came back [to the house], but I still work for him,” says José. “He’s an amazing man. He always treated me as an equal, never as an employee.”
The house is a perfect 1950s time capsule, with white, kidney-shaped, curvilinear roof, glass-walled living room and the furniture that Niemeyer designed himself. It looks as if he left five minutes ago.
São Paulo might be as ugly as Rio is beautiful, but there’s a transporting quality to watching the sun set from the rooftop pool deck of the Hotel Unique. It’s an arresting, luxury-packed, postmodern landmark, designed by Niemeyer protégé Ruy Ohtake in the shape of a smile, with huge porthole windows. Anonymous tower blocks and transmitters light up in the distance through the twilight gloaming like a weird art installation – made all the weirder since the government banned outdoor advertising. The Unique is also the closest hotel to Niemeyer’s pavilions and sculptures in Ibirapuera Park, the most impressive of which is the Auditorium, with its snaking red tongue rising from a flat, angled white frontage, and its rear – a vast blinding white backdrop with an inset red screen. Against blue sky and green grass, it’s stark and powerful.
Brasília is, of course, the main event – the Unesco-stamped mid-century modernist theme park to end them all. At the same time, it’s the city that “no one goes to”, which is partly what makes it so thrilling. Arriving here is like touching down on a different planet – from the runway, Niemeyer’s new TV transmitter, completed in December and resembling a beguiling white triffid, is the first thing you see on the horizon.
Wandering between the library, which looks like a giant, beautiful double-iPod dock, and the perfect moonbase dome of the Honestino Guimarães National Museum, with the cathedral in the distance, it’s wonderful to be able to take photographs without anyone else in shot. As white clouds part, and speed away, the iconic upturned and downturned domes and H-shaped structure of the National Congress fall into sharp sunlight, as if being hit with a row of theatre follow-spots. Dazzling white against vibrant blue – they’re magnificent.
There are also lesser-known gems in Brasília: the black-and-red interior rotunda of late president Juscelino Kubitschek’s mausoleum, with its sinister up-lighting, resembles a chamber from the Death Star. Then there’s the perfect curl of the acoustic shell outside the Ministry of Defence and the abandoned, narrow crescent of the open-air auditorium on the road towards the Palace.
Close by sits the Brasília Palace Hotel, one of the few Niemeyer-designed hotels in the country. Its proportions are long and narrow yet boxy, the bulk of the building elegantly elevated on stilts. Even though it’s always busy, you feel like the only guest. There’s a glossy, JG Ballard desolation to it that’s immensely memorable and strangely attractive. Sitting by its pool in the blazing sun, it looks like any era from the mid-1950s to the distant future.
The real draw of Niemeyer’s work for the tourist – from design nerd to the uninitiated – is the unbridled sense of fun and fantasy it has. He’s more of an artist than an architect: the steep inclines on his buildings often make you feel like the penguins who used to struggle with Lubetkin’s photogenic but impractical enclosure at London Zoo. And Niemeyer’s huge domes are impossible to segment into successful exhibition spaces. But as vast concrete sculptures, they are utterly thrilling, capturing the essence of a time when the world was promised jetpacks.
In the Niemeyer-designed museum in Curitiba, inaugurated in 2002 and freshened up in December, there is a definitive collection of models of his work, as well as several fine collections of varied contemporary art and design. It’s a great destination as these things go, but the most exciting artwork by far is the immense black eye-shaped gallery itself. From last year, a local company began offering Segway tours of the city that culminate at the building.
Zipping around the adjacent concrete ramps and walkways and racing around a huge open concourse, the sense of joy and liberation is incredible. This is entirely Niemeyer’s vision of the future, and we’re privileged visitors, invited along for the ride.
[This article was corrected on February 29 to remove a reference to Rio’s Catedral Metropolitana, which was mistakenly attributed to Niemeyer rather than Edgar de Oliveira da Fonseca. In addition, The Brasilia Palace Hotel was wrongly referred to as the only functioning Niemeyer-designed hotel.]
Mark C. O’Flaherty was a guest of Journey Latin America (www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) and Air France (www.airfrance.co.uk).
Journey Latin America offer a two-week trip focusing on tours of Oscar Nieyemer’s buildings in Rio, Sao Paulo, Curitiba and Brasilia from £3,584 per person including flights, transfers and excursions.
He flew with Air France, who fly to Rio and São Paulo via Paris