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Rio versus São Paulo: An architectural rivalry

No where is the cultural rivalry of Rio and São Paulo more evident than in the architecture of the cities

Brazil’s two largest cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, are situated only five hours drive from one another on Brazil’s vast Atlantic coast, but they represent two very different, almost diametrically opposed versions of Brazilian culture. It can seem as if the only thing a Carioca, or Rio native, and a Paulista, or São Paulo native, will agree on is the ways in which the two cities are different.

"Rio is day, and São Paulo is night," a Paulista told me. A Carioca I spoke to said, "In Rio we are very solar," using a word in Brazilian Portuguese that refers to embracing the sun and the outdoors. A Paulista agrees: "In Rio, everything is about going to the beach, but in São Paulo we focus on business, we work all day, and we go out late at night. We tend to be more stressed." Conversely, Cariocas "are relaxed, we are always going to the beach to exercise and tan, but we have fewer nightclubs and fine restaurants."

This cultural difference finds expression not just in fashion and leisure, but in the architecture of the cities. São Paulo’s towers reach skyward in mile after mile of office buildings; viewed from one of the lounges and pools located on rooftops, it appears as though the city and its offices never end. In Rio, the city’s buildings hug its beaches and its jutting, green mountains as if clinging to nature even in the midst of urban sprawl.

Left: The boardwalk at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. Right: The SESC Pompeia in São Paulo.

Rio’s modernist architects incorporated Rio’s close relationship to the water into the building designs themselves; Oscar Niemeyer’s Niterói Contemporary Art Museum rises directly from Guanabara Bay on a pedestal, while landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx’s iconic Copacabana boardwalk is composed of mosaic tiles in black and white waves.

Sea and water inspiration reappears in Oscar Niemeyer’s wave-shaped Teatro Popular, as well as Brazilian architect Affonso Eduardo Reidy’s 1952 Pedregulho housing project, which undulates across a hill while maintaining the classic lines of midcentury modernism. Niemeyer even brought his trademark Rio de Janeiro wave-based architecture to São Paulo in the Edifício Copan, whose S-shape (which recalls the tilde in São Paulo) was necessary to allow the building to conform to the existing streets.

Left: The Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Right: The The São Paulo Museum of Art.

Rio de Janeiro’s massive arts building called Cidade Das Artes appears buoyed by sail shaped buttresses above a tranquil water garden. And Rio’s newest large-scale architecture project is the Museum of Tomorrow, whose white sails and wing-like spines jut out over Guanabara Bay, housing exhibits exploring modern society’s relationship to nature. The under-construction Museum of Image and Sound, which will exhibit Rio’s music and art history, has a facade designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro that takes the form of a deconstructed version of Copacabana’s wavy boardwalk, and looks out onto Copacabana Beach.

From every building in Rio, whether it is the 1922 Art Deco Christ the Redeemer statue or a hotel rooftop, one is surrounded by stunning landscapes of water and mountains, as if the city insists that you make its marvelous natural landscape your focus.

In São Paulo, on the other hand, the vertical thrust of the city’s buildings propels the eye away from ground level and toward the sky and the city’s skyscrapers, such as the 1953 modernist Edifício Italia, whose goal was to be the tallest building in Latin America (it was eclipsed a few years later). According to its website, the building symbolizes "the spirit of work and aspiration towards a future as imposing as the columns that rise in downtown São Paulo."

Left: Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. Right: Edificio Italia in São Paulo.

The city’s insistence that its skyscrapers remain in view is the reason that the 1968 São Paulo Museum of Art is suspended entirely from four lateral pillars, creating space underneath for pedestrians to view the city beyond (By contrast, Rio’s Museum of Modern Art is similarly suspended, but provides a view of Guanabara Bay and the iconic sugar-shaped mountain Pão de Açúcar).

Even São Paulo’s leisure centers bear strong references to work and industry: The SESC Pompeia recreation center occupies an old factory that in 1977 was converted by Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi into an inventive brutalist complex. Its windows take the form of odd-shaped holes, evoking the hand-crafted roughness of much of South American colloquial construction.

Much of the more formal social life of São Paulo residents takes place on rooftops across the city, where even while socializing, Paulistas can observe the city’s industriousness from venues like Hotel Maksoud Plaza’s PanAm Club or Hotel Unique’s Skye Bar.

Left: A view of Rio de Janeiro from Mirante Dona Marta. Right: A view of São Paulo from Skye Bar at Hotel Unique.

I asked a Paulista and a Carioca whether residents of either city ever adopt the passions of the other, like a Carioca who prioritizes work or a Paulista who develops a passion for nature. "The Paulistas say we don’t work enough, but Paulistas come to Rio on the weekends to go to the beach," said the Carioca. "São Paulo has the high fashion districts and restaurants, so Cariocas have to visit São Paulo for those," said the Paulista.

Perhaps it is the case then that the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, while so opposed in their respective passions and architecture, serve as perfect cultural complements to one another.

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