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Niemeyer's Mermaid and the Restoration of Hotel Nacional

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It's said that Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer drew inspiration from the curves he saw gracing Rio de Janerio's beaches, so it's only fitting that the modernist icon eventually designed his own mermaid by the sea. Rising up from the beachfront of Rio's São Conrado neighborhood, just a short drive from his famous Das Canoas House, the glass-and-steel Hotel Nacional was one of his later-period masterpieces, a gleaming tower atop a gorgeous, curvaceous base. For the last two decades, it's also been a ghost, abandoned and neglected, even covered in graffiti. But that will soon change. After businessman Marcelo Henrique Limírio Gonçalves bought the property in 2009 for $35 million, momentum has built towards restoration, which was officially set in motion earlier this year, when architectural firm VOA won a competition to retrofit and reopen the landmark building.

"He tried to emulate what the sea could provide by pushing this mermaid out of the ocean," says project architect Marcos Bastos. "It's amazing what is there on site to be preserved."

VOA plans to restore the entire structure this year while working under the watchful eye of the Landmarks Commission Board. Bastos says the idea is to "emulate the past, but bring it up to speed with current ways of running a hotel" by slightly altering circulation and layout to accommodate the needs of current hotel brands. While they're still in search of a brand partner to take over the site, the current project outlines, estimated to cost $67 million, call for a 476-room hotel and an apartment annex boasting 240-plus units, as well as exhibition space, a spa and a Niemeyer Bar on the top floor. Unearthed sketches of the building plan from Niemeyer himself will be used for a wallpaper pattern that will adorn part of the interior.

Viewed from ground level, it's easy to see how Niemeyer's inspiration, a mermaid, was replicated on site. The beach-side base top slab, covered in flowing white marble overhangs, forms the tail, while the cylindrical main building, shaped like an Ionic column, forms the torso.

"It looks like someone went at it with a knife," says Bastos of the ground-level pool area and extended overhangs. "There are no straight lines at all."

While a cache of original Niemeyer sketches will help Bastos and his team stay true to the architect's original intentions, they can also turn to 87-year-old Bruno Contarini, the project's original structural engineer and a long-time Niemeyer collaborator, for additional guidance. He worked with the Brazilian master on numerous projects, including the buildings of Brasilia, and will be working alongside VOA on this project.

"One afternoon with this guy has been one of the best structural engineering classes of my life," says Bastos.

While restoring a Niemeyer design to its former glory is akin to renovating artwork, the hotel was actually a museum in itself, decorated with the work of numerous noteworthy Brazilian artists. A beach scene mural by Carybé, whose work graces the Miami-Dade Airport, will be restored and returned to its original location (the pieces were once up for sale during an auction, which was quickly shut down by the government), and the mermaid statue by Alfredo Ceschiatti, which rests on a pedestal atop the pool, will also be refurbished.

With plans to reopen by the end of the year, it's incredible how fast the work of one of Brazil's most prized architects will go full circle from luxury destination to, as Bastos describes it, a vacant interior with exposed rebar, back to a luxury destination. Opened in 1972 as part of the Horsa Hotels network by entrepreneur Jose Tjurs, the 34-story São Conrado hotel was part of push to develop the western part of Rio. It quickly established a reputation as a destination, drawing crowds to the 1,400-seat theater to see artist such as Liza Minnelli, B.B. King, Chet Baker and James Brown. At one time, it even boasted air taxi service and played host to the Rio Film Festival.

But after it closed in 1995, the hotel fell on hard times. After the interior fixtures and furnishings were removed — the structure was "stripped for spare parts," even down to the elevators being removed from the shafts — the hotel became a home to squatters and a canvas for graffiti artists. Bastos says when he visited to take photos before the project started, he found bats, which had been feeding off nearby coconut trees and took up residence in the convention center. In 2013, a wayward Justin Bieber was arrested for spray painting the interior of the hotel. Despite being landmarked by the city of Rio in 1998, there hasn't been the funding and support necessary to give the building the attention it deserves. But now, with the Olympics providing impetus for building up Rio's hotel industry, a potential dream project can be realized.

"Everyone is head over heels about this project," says Bastos. "Colleagues want to come down from other offices to help."

·Previous Oscar Niemeyer coverage [Curbed]