Brazil’s Daniel Gusmão Forges Ahead

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ARCHITECTURE IS A CHALLENGING profession no matter where you practice it. Brazil offers a particular set of challenges, from standing out from the shadows of the towering global reputation of Oscar Niemeyer and the renowned legacy of Brazilian modernism to surviving the ups and downs of the country’s political and economic environment. But a good fight is exactly what gets architect Daniel Gusmão going. “You can’t be in it for the money. You have to be moved by the challenge, by the love for design,” he says. “That is probably true for most professions, but for architecture and in Brazil even more so. You have to be inspired by the obstacles, without a doubt.” Then, he adds, smiling, “once you decide to face off the challenges, you harness the rush of adrenaline into a creativity stimulant.”

The strategy seems to be working for Gusmão. His eight-year old office is responsible for new projects in Brazil that are getting a lot of attention and collecting awards along the way. One of these projects will reach a global audience in August: in partnership with the British firm AECOM, Daniel Gusmão Arquitetos Associados designed the master plan for Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Park for the 2016 Summer Games. The project places the sports venues along a sinuous promenade (inspired in part by the famous Copacabana sidewalk motif) that aims to create a layered experience for the public flowing in and out of the sporting events. For the Olympic site Gusmão also designed the Velodrome stadium (with an oblong roofline inspired by the movement of a wobbling coin), the international media center, and the media hotel.

Another high-profile project, the annex to BNDES, the Brazilian Development Bank, promises to be a landmark in downtown Rio. The project brought a complex challenge, for as an annex to the monolithic glass tower of the bank headquarters, the new building will occupy a site adjoining an early seventeenthcentury Franciscan monastery that partly owns the lot. In hopes of bringing more visitors to its programs, the monastery administration stipulated that the project allow access to its historic property. Drawing inspiration from Louis Kahn (whose work he got to know while studying for his master’s at the University of Pennsylvania), Gusmão proposed a solution that negotiates the transition from a twenty-first-century setting to the much earlier, much more sober one. “I discovered in Kahn’s work the poetics of space, that poetic power of an empty space as light filters in,” he says admiringly. He designed a daring access ramp that cuts through the main facade of the BNDES annex and leads to an elevated interior garden that connects to the monastery grounds. The garden, an open concrete shell that is at once austere and inviting, serves as a gateway to the historic building. The project is scheduled to start construction in 2018.

What may turn out to be one of Gusmão’s most important commissions arrived quite unexpectedly at his doorstep (literally) about a year ago. Carlos Barroso, an artist and collector who had seen an exhibition on Gusmão’s Annex project, knocked on the office door, unannounced, and asked the architect if he would be interested in designing a museum to hold his collection. For more than twenty years Barroso had been amassing a comprehensive collection of modern Brazilian architecture items and memorabilia—a historical archive of more than eight thousand pieces relevant not just to Brazilian culture but to the world at large, considering the impact Brazilian modernism has had on architecture. As if that were not enough motivation, the site Barroso found for the future Museu de Arquitetura Modernista Brasileira (MAMB, or Museum of Brazilian Modernist Architecture), twenty-four acres a couple of hours northeast of Rio, contained the Casa de Mendes, a relatively unknown country house Oscar Niemeyer had designed for his own use in the 1940s and many thought had been demolished. It will be restored by Gusmão’s office to become the centerpiece of the museum.

For the museum itself, the architect has designed a building that has the flavor of 1950s Brazilian modernism, but infused with a contemporary feel. Present is the openness to the outside, the connection with nature, that is such a staple of Brazilian modernism; but here that quintessential modern element, the brise-soleil, is more integral to the architecture, made into a horizontal pattern that envelops most of the building with occasional larger openings to more generously frame the view. With the preliminary design concept completed, the project has now moved into the fundraising phase, searching for supporters worldwide who are interested in helping turn the ambitious project into reality.

Originally from Niterói (across the bay from Rio de Janeiro), Gusmão spent formative professional years working at KMD Architects, a giant firm with offices around the world, where he got a taste of working in a global manner. That experience will come in handy, since he is expanding his practice beyond Brazil, flexing his design muscles in a series of partnerships with foreign offices that will take him to San Francisco, California, and to Tijuana and Guadalajara, Mexico. And through a series of speaking engagements abroad, he will show the world that in spite of the challenges his country faces, Brazilian architecture is thriving and as relevant as ever. 

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