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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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…
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 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.
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!