Lasting impression

Soaring Space Under a Concrete Sky


A few years ago I went to Brazil and saw the most incredible set of concrete buildings within the course of a few days. Of course when you go to Brazil you expect to see Niemeyer, but it really intrigued me to see the quality of the architecture in concrete by architects that I didn’t know.

The Museum of Modern Art [1] in Rio by Affonso Eduardo Reidy is a beautifully light pavilion-like building in Copacabana Park. It’s from 1953 but when I saw it I thought it was from the 1970s. Soaring pilotis lift the entire building off the ground and create a subtly curved soffit and a shaded outdoor space. Above, huge curving brise-soleils of concrete create shade for the fairly simple curtain walling.

The second one was in São Paulo. We travelled out of town to go to the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism by João Batista Vilanova Artigas and Carlos Cascaldi [2] (1961). It’s a single rectilinear block of concrete hovering in the air on a series of tapered pilotis and it’s open to the elements – it has no front door, so it’s a totally permeable volume that you wander into.

This hovering block of concrete has the most extraordinary coffered ceiling, a vast canopy which envelops the entire school. It creates a spatial continuum, so there is a sense of the school as a single community. The final building is the Museu Brasileiro de Escultura [3], again in São Paulo, by Paulo Mendes da Rocha. It’s from 1988, but you sense the continuity from the previous project.

The building is deep in the suburbs, and when you arrive it feels more like a concrete landscape or park. The primary element is a single-span 200ft canopy, made from prestressed concrete beams. Below it there is a public space, with ramps leading down to the museum which is almost entirely underground – not unlike Tate St Ives.

In a country where concrete was felt to be a humble and inexpensive solution, these architects took it and over time developed a language that is very sculptural. The engineering is extraordinary and yet the pieces have an immense grace to them.

Jamie Fobert is director of Jamie Fobert Architects