In Rio? Go & See the Niemeyer Architecture in Niterói!

Have you ever heard of the city of Niterói? No shame if you haven’t. We hadn’t either! Yet Niterói is right outside Rio de Janeiro, an easy 15-minute ferry ride across the Guanabara Bay. And it isn’t small either; it has well over half a million inhabitants.

Of course, the next question is: why should you know about Niterói and consider visiting it? Isn’t there enough to see in Rio? Well, let me give you two reasons. First Niterói might be a quieter and cheaper alternative place to stay, specially during the upcoming Olympics in August. Secondly, if you’re interested in architecture like we are, Niterói is a must-see destination!

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) in late afternoon light. Doesn't it look unreal – like a flying saucer?

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) in late afternoon light. Doesn’t it look unreal – like a flying saucer? An example of Oscar Niemeyer’s architectural legacy found in Niterói, across the bay from Rio.

If you have read our blog post about the state of Paraná in Brazil , you will have noticed photos of the MON (Museum Oscar Niemeyer) in Curitiba, the capital of that state. Oscar Niemeyer was the most influential and progressive architect of Brazil. His large body of work not only includes many public buildings in Brasilia, but prestigious projects all over the world.

Oscar Niemeyer was born in 1907, in Rio de Janeiro. He designed his last projects well after he had turned 100! His body of work encompasses more than 600 structures, from residential houses to office buildings, churches to mosques, and (in collaboration with others, including Le Corbusier) the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

It goes beyond the scope of this post to talk about his achievements and numerous prestigious awards. If you are interested please search online (and be prepared to spend hours reading up on Oscar Niemeyer and browsing through photos). Niemeyer died, also in Rio de Janeiro, on the 5th of December 2012 at the age of 104 – only ten days before his 105th birthday.

A bronze on one of the benches at Praça Juscelino Kubitschek shows Niemeyer and his friend Kubitschek sitting together, discussing some plans.

A bronze on one of the benches at Praça Juscelino Kubitschek shows Niemeyer and his friend Kubitschek sitting together, discussing some plans.

Niterói is home of the Caminho Niemeyer

A collection of structures designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

The main focus of the Caminho Niemeyer is a cluster of buildings on the foreshore of Niterói. This complex is easy to reach but somehow out of sight from the street. When you arrive by ferry from Rio turn left towards the adjoining bus station. The way leads to the entrance, through an open hall with food stalls and shops.

There you find a small glass pavilion, housing the information and welcome centre – one of four structures in this compound designed by Niemeyer. A fifth structure is currently under construction – but now I’m getting ahead of myself…

When you stand at the information pavilion, your eyes will be drawn to the centre piece of the complex – the Teatro Popular. Its roof line is supposed to reflect the mountains in Rio, across the Guanabara Bay. On a clear day, you can see them rising up in two gentle curves between the steep Sugar Loaf and the mountain with the Cristo atop.

The Teatro Popular, as seen from the information centre. The yellow tile wall was also designed by Oscar Niemeyer. (Above the skyline of Rio, showing the 2 mountains repeated in the roof shape of the Teatro Popular.)

The Teatro Popular, as seen from the information centre. The yellow tile wall was also designed by Oscar Niemeyer. (Above the skyline of Rio, showing the 2 mountains repeated in the roof shape of the Teatro Popular.)

One facade of the Teatro Popular is covered in bright yellow tiles with stylised female bodies outlined in black. The overall design reminds me very much of the base of the ‘eye‘, centre piece of the Museum Oscar Niemeyer in Curitiba.

This tile design is part of Niemeyer’s creation, as is another tiled art work on the first floor. There you find a pattern of grey tiles with roughly drawn groups of people, some waving red flags. Niemeyer was a communist all of his life and wanted to symbolise with this piece how Brazil’s people slowly merge into one united nationhood. To show that the process is not finished the edges of this tile art are jagged.

The second tile art, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, is on the open top floor in front of the theatre entrance.

The second tile art, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, is on the open top floor in front of the theatre entrance.

The theatre is relatively small with a little over 300 seats inside. But the stage is designed in such a way that it can also be played to the outside, into the large forecourt where up to 10,000 people can watch. Unfortunately you can only visit the inside when you have tickets for a performance.

The other side of the Teatro Popular, facing Guanabara Bay. The large red doors slide away to open the theatre stage to the forecourt.

The other side of the Teatro Popular, facing Guanabara Bay. The large red doors slide away to open the theatre stage to the forecourt.

At the time of our visit, only one building was open to the public: the adjoining Memorial Roberto Silveira. This looks like a squat, oversized igloo with a concrete ramp leading into it. This small building houses a literature and research centre.

The third building in the complex is normally a museum (Museu da Ciências e Criatividade ~ Museum of Science and Creativity), but at the time of our visit it had been annexed as an emergency accommodation for some of the municipality, because the town hall of Niterói had burned down the week before.

On the left the Museu da Ciências e Criatividade, on the right the smaller Memorial Roberto Silveira.

On the left the Museu da Ciências e Criatividade, on the right the smaller Memorial Roberto Silveira.

From the outside the museum looks like an oversized combination of the white dome of the Memorial Roberto Silveira and the black glass cube of the information pavilion. The dome is set into a shallow pool, crossed by a curved entrance ramp – two of Oscar Niemeyer’s recurring design elements.

The shallow pool around the Museu da Ciências e Criatividade (here with a heron poking around).

The shallow pool around the Museu da Ciências e Criatividade (here with a heron poking around).

When you go, start at the information centre! It’s a training ground for young people studying tourism; they are eager to help and might take you on a free guided tour in English.

If you're planning to visit Rio de Janeiro we strongly recommend that you allow some time to go and see Oscar Niemeyer's famous architecture in Niterói! The city, just a ferry ride away across Guanabara Bay, has a lot to offer for tourists – not only the Caminho Niemeyer. Maybe you would even like to base yourself in Niterói instead of expensive Rio?! PIN THIS for later reference!

If you’re planning to visit Rio de Janeiro we strongly recommend that you allow some time to go and see Oscar Niemeyer’s famous architecture in Niterói! The city, just a ferry ride away across Guanabara Bay, has a lot to offer for tourists – not only the Caminho Niemeyer. Maybe you would even like to base yourself in Niterói instead of expensive Rio?! PIN THIS for later reference!

We were also shown a video about the next Niemeyer building going up at this place: the large cathedral São João Batista, which is shaped like a gigantic cardinal’s hat, suspended in the air and open to all sides. The foundations for this were being laid when we visited in June 2016. For computer generated images of the amazing Nova Catedral please visit the official website.

Enquire at the information centre about public transport, specifically which buses to take to the Museum of Contemporary Art and to the second ferry terminal. The entire Caminho Niemeyer is fairly long – roughly 8 kilometres – and not all flat.

Of course you can walk it all, we did… Along the way you come past the Praça Juscelino Kubitschek, an open square with zig-zag roofs, also designed by Niemeyer. Unfortunately it’s not very attractive, more a concrete desert in poor repair – and a gathering point for skaters. The only attraction is a bronze statue of Niemeyer, sitting on a bench with his friend Kubitschek, discussing some plans.

Part of Praça Juscelino Kubitschek. The once pristine white zig-zag roofs are badly leaking and slowly rusting away.

Part of Praça Juscelino Kubitschek. The once pristine white zig-zag roofs are badly leaking and slowly rusting away.

A little further on you find another Niemeyer building, the Centro Petrobras de Cinema. This too is in poor repair, closed, and currently completely fenced in. There are signs of some very slow refurbishment but, with Petrobras (Brazil’s main oil company) in financial difficulties after the revelation of a far-reaching corruption scandal, who can predict its future?

The Caminho Niemeyer passes by the Centro Petrobras de Cinema; it's closed and in need of a lot of work.

The Caminho Niemeyer passes by the Centro Petrobras de Cinema; it’s closed and in need of a lot of work.

I was surprised to find so many of Niemeyer’s structures in such poor repair, with concrete cracking, rust from rebar visible, and parts of the facade showing water damage. Some of this can be certainly blamed on Brazil’s economic woes and lack of money for maintenance. But I somehow get the impression that a lot of the deterioration has to do with poor engineering or shoddy workmanship. I find it a shame to see these buildings crumbling…

If you want to save yourself the sight of deteriorating Niemeyer structures then take a bus from the ferry terminal to the MAC, the main attraction of the Caminho Niemeyer.

The MAC (Museum of Contemporary Art) sits like a UFO on an outcrop into the ocean. In typical Niemeyer style, a curved ramp leads up to the exhibition space. Inside it’s a beautiful space with some very interesting perspectives. At the time we found the architecture much more interesting than most of the exhibits…

On the left the entrance to the MAC, reached via a raised curved walkway. This building also sits in a shallow pool.

On the left the entrance to the MAC, reached via a raised curved walkway. This building also sits in a shallow pool.

The top floor inside the MAC. The blue lit curved roof looked to me like an oversized version of the tunnel connecting the eye to the main Museu Oscar Niemeyer in Curitiba.

The top floor inside the MAC. The blue lit curved roof looked to me like an oversized version of the tunnel connecting the eye to the main Museu Oscar Niemeyer in Curitiba. [If you don’t know what I’m talking about please see the photos of our Parana post.]

The final Niemeyer structure in Niterói is a second ferry terminal with connections to Rio de Janeiro. You could return from here. We also read several recommendations to visit the Olimpo restaurant on the top floor – reportedly it’s one of the best in the Rio region.

The ferry terminal, designed by Niemeyer, with the Olimpo restaurant on the top floor. We could never stop here, so the picture was taken from our vehicle whilst driving past...

The ferry terminal, designed by Niemeyer, with the Olimpo restaurant on the top floor. We could never stop here, so the picture was taken from our vehicle whilst driving past…

The Caminho Niemeyer is not the only attraction in Niterói. The town has also several old Portuguese fortifications and some other museums worth visiting. Hence my recommendation to consider Niterói as an alternative base to explore nearby Rio de Janeiro.

Just down the road from the MAC is Ilha da Boa Viagem with the ruins of the fort of the same name. This is private property, open on weekends only.

Just down the road from the MAC is Ilha da Boa Viagem with the ruins of the fort of the same name. This is private property, open on weekends only. Across the water you see the skyline of Rio de Janeiro – it’s that close…

What do you think of Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture? Is it worth seeing?
Have we made you curious to add Niterói to your Rio must-see list?

Please tell us in the ‘comments’ below!


 
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Juergen

webmaster, main photographer & driver, second cook and only husband at dare2go.com. Freelance web designer with nearly 20 years of experience at webbeetle.com.au

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15 Responses

  1. budget jan says:

    I would consider staying in the satellite suburb instead of Rio itself if we were ever there. I can’t believe he lived to such an age and I wonder what he thought about the state of some of the sites.

    • Juergen says:

      Well, it’s unfortunately too late to ask Oscar Niemeyer now, but I’m sure he might have commented on this in private. Niterói has actually some very nice aspects to it and it is less polluted – so yes: it’s a valid alternative to Rio.

  2. Ruth says:

    When I visited Rio, I had no time to visit Niteroi. I wanted to stop by the MAC but wasn’t aware that there are more buildings by Niemeyer in the area. More info for when I go back to Rio!

    • Juergen says:

      Never mind, Ruth! Even if you travel slowly, like we do, you will miss things! One usually only researches topics and places of personal interest ahead of time. Or you find a few things ‘by chance’…

  3. Michelle | michwanderlust says:

    Very interesting architecture! I generally prefer historical buildings but these are fascinating. Are you still in Brazil? I saw somewhere that 1/3 of the tickets to the Rio Olympics are still unsold! I assume it’s because of the political / social turmoil and Zika, which is such a pity.

  4. Tanja (the Red phone box travels) says:

    very unusual architecture!:) #the weekly postcard

  5. Such interesting architecture – and yes, very worth traveling for. I had heard of some of the Niemeyer buildings mentioned, but mostly those in Brasilia. I am the sort who would go out of the way to see them, too! -Rob.

    • Juergen says:

      For us it wasn’t much out of the way. We passed through Rio on our way north and you have to go via Niteroi to continue northwards! Although: I knew in advance about the Caminho Niemeyer, but not where Niteroi is. I finally put these things together when we were in Rio.

  6. Nancie says:

    I would definitely walk the Caminho Niemeyer. It’s too bad that many of his building are falling into disrepair, but, with the economy like it is, not surprising. I do like his architectural style. I think he outdid himself with the MAC. That is a conversation piece! Thanks for linking up this week. #TPThursday

    • Juergen says:

      Thanks for stopping by! It’s funny, I read somewhere that one of Nimemeyer’s critics claimed he shouldn’t have designed the MAC, because it showed his age at the time (Niemeyer designed it around 2007) and wasn’t anywhere near as good as his earlier pieces…

  7. I know you hate cities, but if you like Niemeyer’s work, you’ll simply HAVE to go to Brasília. You’ll be blown away by his work there, esp. when in combination with Burle Marx landscape gardens.

    • Juergen says:

      Karin, for a long time we were considering going to Brasilia… But for us it would mean a long detour, a really long one, something like 1500 to 2000 kilometres. We will be leaving via the Pantanal to Bolivia = a lot further south from where we are now. Brasilia is still further north from where we are now (Espirito Santos). So we have decided against it.
      Would you drive quickly from Holland to Barcelona only to see the Gaudi architecture?
      I still don’t like to drive main highways in Brazil, too many trucks and mad drivers, and nothing much to see. The visa time, they allow us, wouldn’t give us enough time to get to Brasilia by back roads (if there are any).

  8. Willi says:

    Even the Capital of Brazil , Brazilia , designed by Oscar seemed to be falling into disrepair when I visited ten years ago . You could sense there was a rush to finish the original job as the money and support was running out …today the resident diplomats all head to the coast every weekend just to get out of town …..

    • Juergen says:

      …but that’s a bloody long way from Brasilia to the coast. Yes, it is sad to see such grand and unique architecture crumble away.

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