In Rio de Janeiro, Architecture That’s in Sync With the Jungle

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By Ketrin Agustine

FOR AT LEAST half a decade, Juliana Ayako has been fascinated by a strange, slapdash house on a bare hillside that she passes when she drives from her home in Rio de Janeiro to her partner’s family farm on the outskirts of Teresópolis, a small city roughly 60 miles to the north. It’s nothing special, the 31-year-old architect says, at least not in any traditional sense — just a sagging prism of faded timber with a pitched roof and a narrow veranda raised over a precipitous slope on slender wooden stilts.

Still, when the opportunity arose during the pandemic to design a country house near Teresópolis, she referenced that structure. Called Casa na Arvore (or House in the Trees), Ayako’s 1,300-square-foot project likewise consists of a rectangular volume, built here in blush-colored brick, with an enclosed veranda attached to its back by a rhythmic procession of slender wooden pilasters. Inside, the five-foot-wide veranda becomes a hallway, its north-facing windows shaded by woven-palm blinds. Sliding doors lead to three bedrooms that overlook a dense tangle of fig trees and lianas — a small patch of native forest, conserved by local authorities in an otherwise cramped development. More dramatic is the house’s relationship to the ground: Set on a heavy concrete platform, the dwelling juts out over the steep incline of its narrow plot; in time, Ayako says, shade-seeking plants will creep in, creating a river of green under a bridge to nowhere.

A kitchen and dining area holds a wood table and benches under a hanging pendant lamp, all next to a full glass wall looking out into the trees.
The kitchen and dining area of Juliana Ayako’s 2022 project Casa na Arvore (House in the Trees), which overlooks a small conservation area.Pedro Kok

In recent years, projects like Casa na Arvore — formally simple, modest in scale, transparent in construction and reticent in their relationship to the terrain — have proliferated in and around Rio and its hinterlands, a surprising shift for a city still best known for its monumental experiments in Modernism. Beginning in the late 1930s with the construction of the Ministry of Health and Education (one of Latin America’s first large-scale Modernist buildings), Brazil, and particularly its glamorous beachfront capital, stood at the vanguard of global architecture. For the Carioca School, as Rio luminaries like Lúcio Costa, Affonso Eduardo Reidy and Oscar Niemeyer were collectively known, anything seemed achievable. They made spiral stairs float like streamers; summoned neighborhoods from the sea (as in Copacabana, built over landfill in the 1970s); and even, in under five years in the late 1950s, conjured a new capital city, Brasília, from the dusty interior plateau, some 725 miles to the northwest. Not even the landscape could impede their vision.

But after Brasília was inaugurated as the capital in 1960, Rio slipped into crisis. It also gradually transformed into an architectural backwater, overshadowed by the brash, tectonic urbanity of São Paulo, by then the nation’s largest city. Dreamed up by the Cariocas themselves, Brasília, says the 35-year-old architect and historian Francesco Perrotta-Bosch, was more or less “the apotheosis and swan song” of Carioca architecture. By the early 2000s, he says, “the attitude in Rio was, ‘The last person to leave the city, please turn out the lights.’” The midcentury masters, whose sculptural forms remade the city, never established a strong academic tradition. They were for decades all but ignored by Rio’s universities.

A view through the unglazed windows of Gávea Arquitetos’ Cabana Zero, a 2022 prototype for pine cabins at a therapeutic retreat in Areal, a rural municipality north of Rio.Pedro Kok

NOW, A NEW generation of Carioca architects, most of whom are in their 30s and early 40s, are espousing a bare-bones style that looks to vernaculars both old and new, to contemporary structures from around Brazil and Latin America and even, at times, to those Modernist heroes whom their teachers would have had them forget. Builders like Ayako, Carlos Zebulun, Ana Altberg and Vitor Garcez — as well as offices like Gru.a (short for Grupo de Arquitetos), Venta and Gávea Arquitetos — increasingly work in brick, stone and wood, relying upon exposed materials and humble forms that defer to the landscape, rather than dominate it.

“There’s a phrase, ‘To step lightly on the ground,’ that we like to borrow from Ailton Krenak,” Ayako says, referring to the 70-year-old activist and intellectual who recently became the first Indigenous thinker inducted into the Brazilian Academy of Letters. “That [doesn’t] necessarily mean delicate buildings or light structures,” she adds. “For me, it’s about paying attention to where you are.”

Krenak’s exhortation entered the Carioca lexicon, like so much else, through the 47-year-old architect Carla Juaçaba, whose first buildings, in the early 2000s, reinvigorated the city’s architectural scene. After Brasília, says João Masao Kamita, a 59-year-old architect and historian at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, “architects didn’t understand their own city anymore.” In the 1980s and ’90s, as the city invested in infrastructure, builders for the private market imported the pink granite and reflective blue glass of American postmodernism. At that time, the designers of luxury houses fell into pastiche or replicated the sweeping, seamless grace of classic Carioca Modernism.

Ayako’s Casa na Arvore, which projects out over its steep, narrow plot on a concrete pier.Pedro Kok

Juaçaba’s work, by contrast, was plain yet potent in its attention to detail. Take her 2008 Varanda house in the rich Rio suburb of Itanhangá, which consists of little more than a 1,000-square-foot prism of glass lifted over two feet off the ground on steel joists, its gabled metal roof split by a skylight that runs the house’s length, filling the interior space with shifting shadows. “That’s the intelligence I love in her work — the gesture that mobilizes the [landscape] as part of the project,” says Pedro Varella, 36, a co-founder and a partner at Gru.a, along with his childhood friend Caio Calafate, also 36. “She leaves room for the imagination.”

In one of their firm’s first projects, 2015’s Videiras Pavilion — an extension of a pre-existing country home in a valley 62 miles from Rio — a 386-square-foot structure seems to levitate over a gentle slope. Built principally from brick, metal and cumaru wood, the house looks more like a diagram than like a solid architectural object; its pitched metal roof, attached by slim steel brackets to six sturdy columns, seems like it might slip off at any moment.

For Cabana Zero, a prototype built last year at a therapeutic retreat in the hills of Areal, a 30-mile drive northeast of Videiras, the architects Alziro Carvalho Neto, 42, and Felipe Rio Branco, 44, of Gávea Arquitetos, incorporated similarly elemental construction techniques. A wooden scaffold supports a 100-square-foot pine box, just big enough for a bedroom and bathroom (with no electricity or hot water), next to a 130-square-foot balcony that extends over the forest floor. Made largely from recycled timber left on-site by the previous owners, the external structure is rich in detail, featuring puzzlelike junctions of banisters and beams. Deep frames around unglazed windows double as outdoor seats. The black paint used in parts was inspired by the natural patina acquired by Indigenous palm-thatch dwellings, a resilient typology throughout Brazil that most architects, until recently, wouldn’t have considered architecture at all.

A hammock inside Cabana Zero. Below, the land is being replanted with native trees after years of damage from cattle farming.Pedro Kok

LIKE MOST DESIGNERS of their generation — like anyone who came of age in the late 20th century, amid the threats of diminishing ozone and rising sea levels — Varella and his peers know that even concrete and glass are ultimately ephemeral, that there’s no human tool strong enough to reverse environmental degradation. You can pull a beach from the ocean, but there’s no guarantee the ocean won’t take it back. As he points out, “There’s no such thing as permanent architecture.”

In 2022, an artist and her restaurateur husband hired Gru.a to renovate a 3,700-square-foot apartment in the wealthy neighborhood of Gávea. In a topographical anomaly impossible virtually anywhere but Rio, the fifth-floor penthouse opens directly onto the mountainside, surrounded by forest. On their first visit to the site, Calafate and Varella were drawn to a retaining wall built against the slope, which reminded them of the school where they’d first met as children — not its pompous central building but the embankment of stone and raw concrete, overgrown with maidenhair and moss.

In Gávea, the architects built a pair of walls from stone and cement that will, with time, capture seeds and spores in their craggy surfaces. They laid a pair of steel beams atop the walls that, in turn, supported a thin slab of concrete to shelter a dining table and outdoor kitchen. From the outside, every material makes its purpose immediately known. But then there’s a single gesture that interrupts the structure’s straightforward clarity — a five-foot circular aperture cut in the longer of the two walls, framing a patch of the original retaining wall, garlanded with ferns, that creates a portal between the built and natural worlds. It’s a view, however small, that demands attention.

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