Rio de Janeiro and Architecture

The first Urban and Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site selected by UNESCO and for centuries the capital of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is perhaps the pinnacle of the symbiosis between culture and nature, among all the world’s great cities.

Established in 1565 by Portuguese explorers, this Marvellous City was the main colonial port in the South Atlantic. It was the capital of colonial Brazil (1750), the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarve (1815), the Brazilian Empire (1822), and the Republic of the United States of Brazil (1889), until 1960, when the Federal Government moved inland to Brasília, the nation’s newly-constructed futuristic capital.

With a population of twelve million inhabitants in its Metropolitan Region, the city itself is home to almost seven million people.

The history of Brazil is reflected in the architectural heritage sites in its former capital, each reflecting a specific era, from colonial times through to today.

Reflected in its impressive portfolio of modern architecture, Rio de Janeiro attracted many leading names in the first generation of modernist architects, including Brazilians such as Lucio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, Affonso Eduardo Reidy and Jorge Moreira. Their works include acknowledged icons of global architecture, such as the building planned as the headquarters of the Ministry of Education and Health (currently the Palácio Capanema palace), designed by architects Lucio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, Jorge Moreira, Carlos Leão and Ernani Vasconcelos, based on an original sketch by French architect Le Corbusier (1936); the Santos Dumont shuttle airport (MM Roberto, 1944); the Pedregulho housing complex (Affonso Reidy, 1950); the Parque Guinle housing complex (Lucio Costa, 1948); Maracanã sports stadium (Pedro Paulo Bastos et al, 1948); Flamengo Park (Roberto Burle Marx and Affonso Reidy, 1960); Museum of Modern Art (Affonso Reidy, 1957); Monument to the Dead of WWII (Marcos Konder Netto and Helio Marinho, 1963). In terms of urban planning, the city’s steady expansion along its southern coastline towards Barra da Tijuca is particularly noteworthy, steered by the Jacarepaguá Lowlands Pilot Plan drawn up by Lucio Costa (1967).

Moreover, contemporary architecture has established an impressive track record in Rio, in terms of construction and urban planning. Particularly noteworthy is the Slum-to-Neighbourhood (Favela-Bairro) upgrade programme, launched in 1993 and benefiting over half a million dwellers in more than 155 poverty-stricken communities by the end of the millennium. Based on acknowledging environmental and cultural factors already in place, these projects adopted an innovative approach when preparing architectural and urban planning proposals, working closely with local residents and encompassing the entire area of each community. Selected through a public contest organised by the Brazilian Institute of Architects (IAB), these plans were drawn up by architect-led teams and involved more than a thousand professionals. These efforts still continue today through the Live Rio (Morar Carioca) housing programme, with similar goals.

Covering five million square metres in the heart of the Old City, the Rio Docklands upgrade project – known as Porto Maravilha – includes office complexes, apartment blocks and culture centres.

Preparations for the 2016 Summer Games included two Olympic parks, one in the Deodoro district and the other in Barra da Tijuca, whose design was selected through an international contest conducted by the IAB (Aecom and Daniel Gusmão, architects).

In terms of buildings, the city has been investing in new facilities and cultural venues, such as the City of the Arts (Cidade das Artes) designed by Christian de Portzamparc (2003); the Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Amanhã) designed by Santiago Calatrava (2008); the Rio Museum of Art (Museu de Arte do Rio) designed by Bernardes and Jacobsen (2011); and the Sound and Image Museum (Museu da Imagem e do Som) designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (2008) which is still under construction.

Having first hosted the Soccer World Cup in 1950, Rio repeated this role with the FIFA World Cup in 2014, with the final match played in the renowned and newly retrofitted Maracanã stadium. Famed for its massive open-air events such as Carnival and New Year's Eve on Copacabana beach, this City has a natural vocation for drawing people together in celebrations of culture that bubble over with gaiety.

City and Theme

Over the past few decades, unparalleled urban changes have swept through Latin America.

In Brazil alone, 176 million of its 210 million inhabitants live in towns and cities that are crowded with challenges and contrasts. Among them are twenty major cities, like Brasília, Porto Alegre, Salvador, Belo Horizonte, Fortaleza, all packed with possibilities and prospects.

An interconnected urban conurbation that is home to 33 million people is formed by two sprawling megacities: Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

The richly intricate urban fabric of Rio features social differences and diversities that can be explained morphologically, constituting the concentrated essence of urban realities in Brazil.

The multiplicity of spaces and the wide variety of urban planning approaches, with countless ways of tucking constructions into its unique topography result in urban areas that, to some extent, synthesise the countless paths pursued by Architecture during the XXI century.

Uneven economic development has led to urban contexts that are clearly contoured.

Although found in many other cities in the developing countries, the phenomenon of hillside slums (known as favelas) is particularly notable in Rio. Indeed, these low-income communities portray the ways in which large segments of the population build their homes in their quest to participate in urban life. In more recent years, they have been addressed by innovative public policies, particularly the Slum-Neighbourhood (Favela-Bairro) Programme implemented by City Hall in order to upgrade these settlements through urban improvements. Underway for well over two decades, these experiences have been replicated elsewhere in Brazil and the world.

The phenomenon of the segmented city is another outcome of this asymmetrical development that also results (although not entirely) from the road-based mobility model that has prevailed for the past fifty years in Brazil, in parallel to disputed architectural doctrines. Becoming increasingly frequent throughout the city, particularly in areas under expansion, high-income enclaves also require perceptive reflection.

The phenomenon of densification through tall apartment buildings is another characteristic of some urban landscapes in Rio and Brazil in general.

However, the expansion of outlying areas is perhaps the dominant approach to mass housing in Brazilian cities, with low-cost homes built in lightly-populated sub-divisions that lack basic infrastructure.

But the most significant aspect is enjoyment of public areas. In Rio, these gathering places counterbalance fragmentation and isolation. Moving beyond conventional public areas that attract lively crowds, from the early XX century onwards the beaches of Rio have gradually been absorbed into its urban living patterns.

Endowed with more than forty kilometres of open beaches lining its suburbs and open to everyone, Rio de Janeiro developed a lifestyle that is heavily dependent on social interactions.

These ways of occupying and using urban territories exemplify the spatial diversity of this City. Although a distinct and specific universe packed with unique possibilities, contrasts and diversities, aspects of this multi-faceted City are also found in other urban hubs throughout Brazil and Latin America.

However, knowing that the resources of our planet are finite raises new challenges for the preservation and sustainability of the environment and culture. There is no doubt that our work as architects must include a leading role in the construction of a world that is more keenly aware of today’s social struggles and environmental dilemmas.

Indeed, this buttresses the concept of Just One World interconnected through communications, economics and culture, and above all by a common commitment to surmount the critical challenges of our times.

Architecture enriches human experience without dogmas.

The sophisticated technologies used for the cultural 2016 Olympic Games sports and cultural facilities; the new high-capacity public transportation network crisscrossing the City; its abundant colonial-to-contemporary architectural heritage covering many centuries; urban upgrades improving the quality of life in its poverty-stricken favelas; its commitment to address environmental issues when it hosted the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio 92) in 1992 and the Rio+20 follow-up event in 2012 all endow Rio with the qualities needed to vanquish some of the challenges of the XXI century.

A City ready for discovery by architects from all over the world, experiencing the essential links built up over half a millennium between its lush landscapes and eye-catching architecture. All this makes Rio a crucible for situations of the utmost relevance to the study of space and construction.

All the Worlds. Just One World. Architecture 21 – the Conference theme is synthesised in Rio de Janeiro.

Urban and Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site

Awarded the title of Urban and Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Rio is the first city in this category honoured for its overall architecture, paying tribute to the uniquely creative ways in which its people have produced a metropolis that is seamlessly aligned with its natural surroundings. Its landscapes are renowned as a symbol of the spread of Western civilisation in Brazil, admired for their originality, contradictions and possibilities.

Dating back to the XVI century, the elements in this Urban and Cultural Landscape include architectural gems, as well as cultivated green areas such as the Botanical Garden (1808); the Tijuca National Park (1870), which is rated as the world’s most important urban forest; and the Flamengo Park (1960), a bayside landfill project planned by landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx.

Many other natural elements shape the city’s skyline, including the Sugarloaf, rising 400 metres at the entrance to the Guanabara Bay, where the City was first established and flourished over the subsequent centuries; and Corcovado, the peak where the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer stands 700 metres above the City, recently ranked among the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Rio World Capital of Architecture UNESCO-UIA

In January 2019, the City of Rio de Janeiro was honoured by UNESCO as the first World Capital of Architecture.

As the host city for the World Congress of Architects, its calendar of architecture-related events extended throughout 2020, with the approval of the International Union of Architects Board issued at a meeting held in May 2018 in Oxaca, Mexico, which was ratified by UNESCO the following January. Unfortunately, many of these events have been postponed due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and will be rescheduled for later dates.

The World Capital of Architecture programme is being handled by the City Hall, jointly with the Brazilian Institute of Architects (IAB).


A sunny city covering 1,171 square kilometres, Rio is home to seven million people whose casual lifestyles are well-adapted to its pleasant climate, with temperatures varying between 11ºC and 38ºC.



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