Brazilian Architecture: Learning the Style, Features & Buildings

The evolution of architecture in Brazil withholds various cultures and features to adapt to the climate. Continue reading to understand the style of the region and buildings that narrate its history.

Brazilian Architecture

Brazil suffers from a long-dormant culture. Approximately 400 years ago, the first city of Santos was founded near the presently existing region. And as for people living there, agriculture constituted the basis of society. But it is noteworthy to know that despite planters created cultural treasures through extensive farming in earlier times, they contributed to exploiting the country too. They lived with a priest and chapel in their own homes. During the similar period, with bows and arrows, Indians and negroes fought for a free society, ready at all times to resist incursions by the Crown or Church. Gilberto Freyre said that the Portuguese were the first people, who put their family in the center of civilization, and not the trading company. Portugal has continued its tradition of mixing with other races, unlike the United States. Count Keyserling emphasized that one of the good things about Brazil is that, despite racial differences, it has excellent unity among people. There is no racial conflict in the Pedregulho housing estates, unlike in the United States of America Blacks and Norwegians live together harmoniously. But, there is another problem, which to the foreigner seems to be an enormous handicap to the internal peace and the future of Brazil. It is reckless land speculation, which acted like the cancer of Brazilian development. Unless it is reduced drastically, Brazil will not be able to produce fine architecture, but it will be menaced ceaselessly by the tremors of political upheaval. We all know that only the architecture and structures of a country tell us how developed it is. So, today, we will explore Brazilian architecture through past and present developments. 

A Brief Introduction to Brazil.

Brazil was settled in 1520, remaining a Portugal colony until the arrival of King Joao VI of Portugal in 1807 (succeeded by his son, Emperor Pedro I of Brazil). There were three influences in Brazilian architecture and living during this colonial period: the Church (which was as powerful as the King himself), Gold, discovered in Minas Gerais at the end of the 17th century; and the Negro slave, imported from nearby Africa, who built the buildings and worked the great farms that produced oranges, sugar, cocoa, coffee, and manioc flour, the staple of the backcountry. The next foremost influence after this settlement was the constant factor of the land and the climate changes. Since a large part of Brazil is hot and humid, only the southmost high mountains have a real cold. Sao Paulo, located on the high plateau, also has an annual temperature of less than 60 degrees. 

In Rio and Salvador, the temperature is considerably high. Similarly, in the Equator in Recife and Belem, the average temperature is about 80 degrees. The geographical conditions of the country help us to understand the architectural style of the place, hence it becomes crucial for us to know these facts. 

You must understand that the highlands and the coastal plain, both were cool and dry, hence becoming the most susceptible option to settle down. Hence, in general, the buildings along the coastline, Santos, Rio, Vitoria, Salvador, Recife, Fortaleza, and Belem were the best places to settle down. In the book, The Conquest of Brazil, Roy Nask explains the population of Brazil,

“is by no means due alone to heat and humidity per so. Equally, it is due to the fact that a by-product of heat and humidity- the evergreen hardwood forest- has always proved a devilish hard nut for the primitive agriculturist to crack.”

Now, in addition to all these factors, the foremost building material, easily accessible here was wood. But it never became the popular building material in Brazil as dampness and termites could loosen the strength of the wood building.

Brazilian Architecture in Nutshell.

We have already looked at the building preferences of the place. Now, it must be known that the entire history of Brazil covers only four centuries. In this short period of time, there were numerous transitions from the conquest of the place to the rise of rural patriarchy, and slaveholding society to the disruptive impact of the industrial revolution and town planning. Hence, every single building represents constant social and historical change. The first one that came here was the Portuguese Baroque style and Portugal’s 18th-century predilection for azulejos or tiles, which developed Brazilian architecture. Earlier in the 1500s, the Portuguese just found the primitive huts of the Indians. But they brought a living culture at its highest point of energy. Within four years of the arrival of the Portuguese, the first houses of stone and mortar were built in Rio de Janeiro. And in less than a century, some villages became the town of hundreds of houses, built in the Portuguese way. There were churches, monasteries, fortresses, and other government buildings, scattered along the coastline. But, in comparison to the Portuguese Baroque churches, the Brazilian churches have a rather severe frame, enriched by gems of Carvin, and often, especially in Baia and Minas Gerais. Let me tell you a few common types of structures in Brazil architecture through points.

1. Ancient Structure.

São Bento Monastery in Rio is the earliest and most magnificent structure from the Benedictine foundations. In the cities of Salvador, Recife, Olinda, and Ouro Preto, the ancient Brazilian architecture was splendid monasteries, lined with gold, blue, and white Portuguese tiles.

Ancient Brazilian Architecture of São Bento Monastery

2. Village Church.

Typical village churches of the great plateau may be made of stucco or masonry with orange stone cornices and pilasters; the frontispiece may be gray soapstone elaborately carved around wooden doors with heavy bosses painted apple green or violent. Throughout the interiors were elaborately carved leaves, figures, and emblems. A richly ornamented ceiling was made of wood and stucco, and stone vaults and domes were absent curiously. There was an elaborate pulpit on each side of the main body of the church. There was tier upon tier of candlesticks, vases, and flowers above the altar in the Capela Mor (chancel). Located at the back or side of the church, the sacristy was invariably richer than the capela mor with its painted and gilded ceilings, heavy furniture carved from jacaranda wood, intricately patterned stone floors, and a central sink beautifully worked.

3. Warehouses.

As the fazendas grew large and spread out their thousands of acres of coffee trees or sugarcane into what had been virgin forest, huge warehouses were built in Santos, Salvador, and Belem, where coffee, sugar, or rubber could be stored until they could be shipped abroad. There are rows of pale pink, yellow, and blue warehouses along the low shores of Recife. Buildings at Salvador have broad, flagable peaks framing seven to nine windows stepped up to the peak.

The great wealth resulting from the plantations and shipping went to a relatively small number of men, many of whom had titles – Marquez, Viscount, or Barao – they had brought with them from Portugal or had been given by the young empire. 

In addition to their farms, they also often built elaborate stucco or tile-covered solar houses (villas) in the city. Several streets in Rio and other cities are named after them. There were times when white or multicoloured Portuguese pottery vases and statues with shining glazes enlivened the global ends.

As early as 1808, vicissitudes in the mother country had already had unexpected consequences in the colony of Brazil. Prince Regent of Portugal, then Dome Joan VI, fled to Rio de Janeiro before the Napoleonic onslaught. Since 1763, Rio had become Brazil’s capital instead of Bahia, where the court was first established in 1809. Following Napoleon’s disappearance, Lebreton had a mission to import French artists in 1816, the same year he founded his new school.

It was Lebreton who spread Pervier and Fontaine’s gospel to painters like Debret, a student of David, and architects like Grandjean de Montigny, who designed the Belas Artes school, Customs House, and other buildings in Rio. The architect Auguste- Henri-Vitcor Grandjean de Montigny became the first professor of architecture in the new Imperial Academy. One of the later members of this association was Louis Vauthier. He designed Recife’s Teatro Santa Izabel, which is kind of similar to the Palais Royal in Paris. It had a dignified porch, surmounted by the big arched windows of the foyer.

In 1822, when Brazil was free from Portugal’s rule, there was an extensive development of official and academic architecture. And after the middle of the nineteenth century, the Brazilian architecture styles included, ‘the modest Turscan’, ‘the imposing Gothic’, ‘the handsome Moorish’, or ‘elegant chalet’. Throughout the nineteenth century, the country saw the massive and sophisticated work of the architects of the French Mission and their followers; a tradition of common sense, balance, and constant change to suit the needs of the ever-changing conditions of Brazil. Le Corbusier focussed on all the contemporary achievements, which served as the basis of modern architecture in Brazil. His ideas have the architecture a vigor and direction.

After all these developments, Brazil saw the Modern Art Week, which was first held in Sao Paulo in 1922, enforcing the spirit of the new age through painting and sculpture. It did give rise to the authentic renaissance, later established as the relationship with the highest values of Brazilian life, sources of past, land, and people. And sooner, Architecture also felt the results of the Modern Art Week. In 1927, there was a competition for projects of the government palace of the state of Sao Paulo, which scandalized people with its modern design and provided an air-said shelter. This way, there were developments in architecture in Brazil, and are still in continuation.

Features of Brazilian Structures.

In modern architecture, there are two prominent features: large surfaces of glass covered with brise-soleil and free structures standing on pilotis, with the ground floor open whenever possible. We will learn these two foreign terms more descriptively.

Brazilian designers have applied Le Corbusier’s brise-soleil (in Portuguese, sunbreaker) in several ways. It is possible to solve any sunlight problem with the help of sunlight graphs and tables, which have been used by architects for several decades now. A brise-soleil, whether mobile or fixed, can be designed according to the orientation of the building and its purpose, with a wide range of materials: reinforced concrete, aluminum, asbestos cement, sheet metal, glass wool inserted between glass sheets, plywood sections, or shutters installed in sashes.

Even though any type of brise-soleil is an imitation of the old traditional methods for protecting against glare and heat, the brise-soleir is unquestionably a new addition to our architecture, both in its independence from millwork in general and by its plastic integration with the facade, which gives a distinctive dynamic even when fixed, but particularly when movable. According to Le Corbusier, architecture is the skillful, correct, and magnificent interaction of volumes under light. Through the constant shifting of shadows across the surface from sunrise to sunset, the brise-soleil adds infinite modulation to the play and the columns, giving them a sense of a fourth dimension.

It is not uncommon to find reminiscences of and variations on colonial screens and shutters in the details of the brise-soleil and in the millwork, expressions from the past reoccurring in the language now evolving, or new solutions to tropical and subtropical climate problems. Now, in addition to this, an open work panel of hollow tiles or precast concrete, whether severe or fanciful, can soften glare or cast shadow patterns resembling lace. The original form also used muxarabis or balustrades for a more obvious, and emphatic architectural accent. In cases where a free structure isn’t natural, an honest and integrated structure is another option. With a generally hot and humid climate, heavy rainfall makes less resistant facings, such as stucco, impractical. Having suggested that the tiles be revived, Le Corbusier provided us with yet another service. Besides blue and white, as in the past, the tiles serve splendidly to emphasize the non-supporting character of vertical surfaces in all colours and shades. A lively note of regionalism is introduced by repeating patterns based on a certain number, usually four, or by large compositions, representational or abstract, based on a certain number of tiles.

Azulego Marco da Fundação da Cidade do Salvador

But one must note that these panels of azulejos are now sadly overdone in new buildings, which create trivial or vulgar use.

The technique of pilotis is utilized on the ground level. This method is mainly applicable in Brazil due to its climate, as it involves excavating the ground to enhance the integration of interior and exterior spaces. In Rio de Janeiro, recent legislation has been enacted stating that the ground floor, when constructed with pilotis, is not included in the count of floors permitted by the Building Code. Although this legislation came too late to have a significant impact on the older neighborhoods, where numerous new buildings with enclosed ground floors must be situated between solid structures, it encourages more open and flexible urban planning in the newer districts. Undoubtedly, the concept of pilotis should be more closely linked to contemporary ideas of city planning and the unrestricted use of land, which are currently prevalent. Looking at the few existing examples, one can envision how much more comfortable and appealing Copacabana would have been if all the apartment buildings, currently aligned along streets parallel to the beach and forming an impenetrable barrier to any kind of airflow, had been elevated on pilotis, allowing the sea breezes to freely permeate the entire district, reaching up to the mountains behind.

Studio MK27 in Brazil using Pilotis

These two features are most crucial in Brazilian architecture. Now, let us move on to the next section.

Famous Structures of Brazil Architecture. 

1. Gloria Church, Rio de Janeiro.

Construction Date – 1852

Architects – Julio Frederico Koelier and Philippe Garcon Riviere.

The Gloria church is a masterpiece of Neo-Baroque architecture. Inside, there is a present and elegant decoration. The structure is made of stone, having white walls and unique white and blue painted tiles, rising approximately one meter from the ground.

It has finely carved wood decorations on the main altar and side altars, some in the Rococo style and others in the Neoclassical style.

Brazilian Architecture of Gloria Church, Rio de Janeiro

2. Church of Sao São Miguel das Missões.

Construction Date – circ. 1760

Architect – Joao Batista Primali

This church stands out among other Jesuit mission churches in Brazil due to its distinct pedimented portico, which is separate from the main body of the building. Unlike most Jesuit architecture, it features low massive proportions, a squat lateral tower, and a simplified version of the prevailing Baroque style. The facade bears a striking resemblance to the old cathedral of Buenos Aires. The challenges faced before the Jesuits’ expulsion from Brazil in 1767 may have hindered the completion of the construction. Currently, the church falls under the jurisdiction of Servico da Patrimonia Historica e Artistico Nacional and is designated as a World Heritage Site.

Brazil architecture remains of Church of Sao São Miguel das Missões

3. Brazilian Congress Building.

Construction Date – 1964

Architect – Oscar Niemeyer

The Brazilian Congress building is the national monument of Brazil, which also has its place on the postcard of the country. It shows the edgy architecture and is an artistic representation of a set of scales, designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

There are two towers flanked by two domes, which serve as parliamentary offices. The downward-turned dome is on the building that houses the Senate while the inverted dome sits over the Chamber of Deputies. You can learn about history and the Brazilian government on a free tour of this Brazilian landmark.

Architecture of National Congress of Brazil Building Oscar Niemeyer

4. Co-Cathedral of St. Peter of Clerics, Recife.

Construction Date – 1729

Architect – Manuel Ferreira Jacome and Nazzoni

The church is the belated influence of the style of Louis XIII. It has narrow facade towers above the lower building of the square-sized plot. Being part of an architectural characteristic style, it is erected around the courtyard of Saint Peter and is the most visited place in Recife. In addition to this, it shows the sacred music participation, with the interiors covered in beautiful muted paintings. The doors of the building are decorated with rosewood and marble. One specialty of this structure is its comfortable sitting as cushions adorn the worshippers, and the seats are covered with fine and intricate embroidery.

Brazil Architecture of Co-Cathedral of Recife

5. Fiscal Island.

Construction Date – 1899

Architect – Not known

Built in 1889, Fiscal Island was a governmental building used for the port authority when Dom Pedro II was the Emperor of Brazil. With the usage of loud colors and neo-gothic style, together with its amazing location on the shores of Guanabara Bay, it has become one of the eye-catching landmarks of Brazil. 

Ilha Fiscal Brazil architecture

The monument is a reminder of the country’s monarchy by the Portuguese.

Final Words.

By now, you might understand a few basics of Brazilian architecture. The only motive to write about it is to introduce the solutions for controlling heat and light on a large exterior glass surface and proper ventilation so that you could know most about architectural structures to deal with this problem.

If you have any further questions, please free to ask in the comments!


1. Modern Architecture in Brazil by Henrique E. Mindlin.

2. Brazil Builds; Architecture New and Old, 1652- 1942 by Philip Lippincott Goodwin.

Related Reads.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments