From Sidewalks to Skyscrapers, Rio is a city of straight lines and hand angles, yet it is also a city of curves: the curves of the mountain, the curves of waves, the curves of women. Bordering the seafront, there are also curves of a different kind, as vital and striking as any that are found in nature: they are the cobblestones curves of the calçadão.
Right before one reaches the vast, soft sands of Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach, there comes the calçadāo, one of the most beautiful promenades in the world. In black and white, this modernist tiled walkway, which runs the length of the Avenida Atlântica, acts as a frame to the city, dividing busy urban life from the calm of the ocean. It is there that Cariocas exercise, waking up early right after the sun rises for a quick run before walk, and where friends meet for a coconut water or an ice-cold beer to make the most of the sea breeze without having to go very far- after all, in almost the whole of Zona Sul, the southern most part of Rio, the sea is never more that a breath away. With its undulating graphic wave patter, the calçadão is as much about the sea and the blonde sand that speckles its tiled precision as it is about the wide avenue that is sheltered by the shadows of high-rise modernist landmarks. A calcite and basalt seam, the calçadão cleaves the natural beauty of the ocean from the manmade wonders of the metropolis and in doing so achieves a rare duality, attracting thousands of tourists but just as many Cariocas by day and night. A union of beauty and unity, the calçadão is for everyone.
If seminal Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer is the founder of modern architecture, then his mid-century landscape counterpart, Roberto Burle Marx, who designed Rio’s iconic calçadão, is the originator of Latin American urban aesthetics. Part Brazilian, French and German, the work of Burle Marx, born in 1904, is synonymous with Brazil but mostly with Rio, the city in which he resided for most of his career until his death in 1994. For it was his vision and orchestration of the city’s inimitable promenades and green spaces that helped fashion Rio’s distinctive identity that is still prevalent today.
Painter, jewellery maker, textiles designer; Burle, as he was known amongst friends, was chiefly a landscape architect with the calçadão walkways of Ipanema and Copacabana his most recognised achievements. His mosaics of black and white cobblestones were inspired by the Portuguese Praça do Rocio in Lisbon, which reflect the meeting of the waters of the Tejo River and the sea, yet his Brazilian translation of this design- hand-cut and laid by Portuguese artisans- takes a more fluid, oscillating approach. Both channel the curves of nature into an urban construction, for the city and the calçadão, which runs the four kilometre length of Copacabana, is all about movement; both the literal footfall of the populace and the swelling, swirling pattern of the promenade.
Conceived in 1906 and completed in the 1970s as part of the revitalisation of Avedina Atlântica, the project overseen by Burle Marx himself who increased the diameter of the wave pattern to the proportions you see today. The following decades bore witness to a spate of geometric mosaics crafted all over the city; a ‘cobble sensation’ that occasioned each beach to have its own mosaic identity. Ipanema beach was first, with a black and white geometric pattern to complement the design at Copacabana. Leblon and Sāo Conrado beaches followed and during the 1980s in the west side of Rio at the lively Barra da Tijuca, a calçadão with a recurring fish mosaic was built. Today, each calçadão is an exultant space for Carioca life; for flea markets, for bars, for lovers, for life.
Burle Marx had a way of ‘painting with trees’ to create eclectic and asymmetric compositions. Yet more than that, his passion for the lush, fertile beauty of his homeland’s native tropical flora led him to reject the established view that Brazilian gardens should reject the established view that Brazilian gardens should replicate stately English greens using imported European varieties. Instead, he pioneered the use of indigenous Brazilian species in his garden designs, most famously in the Jardim Botânico in the heart of Rio. Wild undergrowth, jungle foliage, tonal shades of green, waxy and rough textures, erotic blooms that were yonic or phallic respectively; so comprised the palette he used to not only embellish the surrounds of avant-garde high-rise constructions but also to create the city’s many vibrant gardens, both large and small, designed for interaction where people could ponder, play, and exist within.
Although Rio’s Jardim Botânico may be his most well known garden creation, Burle Marx’s artistry in Rio’s largest recreational space, Flamengo Park is arguably his most loved. A place for sports and outdoor pursuits co-concpetualised with the little-known female Brazilian architectural designer Maria Carlota Costallat de Macedo Soares, the enormous 1.2 million square meter park was then filled using the transported soil from Rio’s now non-existent Santo Antonio Hill, which was deconstructed using water jets for this project. And so the hand of Burle Marx can also be observed in microcosm within the park: the Museum of Modern Art, designed by Alfonso Eduardo Reidy, features a dreamy water lily pond and luxuriant courtyard. Beyond Flamengo Park, Burle Marx’s artistic gifts can be seen abundantly in corners, greens, on rooftops and walkways all over Rio. Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, his former home and studio, is now open to the public, while the cultural centre Instituto Moreira Salles, an exquisite mid-century marvel built by Olavo Redig de Campos and originally the private home of the wealth Moreira Salles family, is now a gallery space that features a soothing and tranquil Burle Marx garden.
Beira mar, the stretch of diverse buildings and wide avenues that line Rio’s sea front, offers a unique visual display of architectural masterpieces. Yet one won’t fail to notice the lack of historical buildings versus the overwhelming presence of modernist constructions that exploit the light, air and astonishing views of the city’s world famous beaches. For despite the sumptuous houses dotted across the city, Rio de Janeiro is best suited to apartment living. Lofts, on-per-floor flats, penthouses…As long as they come with breathtaking views, Cariocas go crazy for them.
In 1970s, a public policy amendment changed the regulations regarding the maximum height allowed for apartment blocks in the city. Buildings could now be higher, as long as they respected a legislated minimum side distance, which brought an end to the European-inspired quartier-city architecture and opened preference to the erection of isolated towers. This sole government bill ultimately redefined the biera mar and by 1975, after a statute permitting the construction of balconies was passed, Copacabana and Ipanema never looked the same. Yet it was the beach at Sāo Conrado with its proclivity of Art Deco buildings that homed the Hotel Nacional, a gleaming glass column of curves and geometry with a unique suspended garden, created by pairing the architectural talents of the inimitable Niemeyer and Burle Marx. Completed in 1972, the hotel and its clientele of artists and celebrities defined the city’s Bohemia for two decades until its abandonment in the mid nineties. Reborn as the luxury Gran Melia Nacional in December 2016, this iconic building continues to respect the artistry of two of Brazil’s most famed modernist greats.
It is from the calçadão that Frescobol Carioca took inspiration for its first ever swimwear collection, looking to the energy of Copacabana and translating the sequenced promenade pattern into what has become the brand’s signature house designs. The graphic curves inspired by several of Rio’s calçadão form the motifs for swim trunks, bags, gift boxes and more. The legacy of the work of Burle Marx is evident in the DNA of the brand, and is integral to its spirit and identity as the physicality of cloth and stitch.