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Narciso Rodriguez in Rio

Tierney Gearon

Photo: Tierney Gearon

"There is this great, glamorous, insanely seductive quality to a city built from such extremes," Rodriguez says as he leads me to the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Glória do Outeiro, an early-18th-century structure whose curvilinear volumes were beloved by the Brazilian Modernists. Inside this Baroque jewel, which rests on terraced limestone, we are greeted by decorative scenes made up of azulejos, the distinctive blue-and-white hand-painted tiles brought here by the Portuguese. As if to remind you that this is indeed Rio and not Lisbon, a stroll down the nave reveals nymphs cavorting in a series of shockingly anatomical scenes based on Solomon's "song of songs." But our wonderment is soon cut short. It's Saturday, and families bearing infants swaddled for baptism are gathering.

For a designer committed to the reinvention of a streamlined minimalism, it's curious that Rodriguez should be seduced by such Baroque ecclesiastical architecture. "I was raised the same way Brazilians are, with a deeply embedded sense of Catholicism," says Rodriguez, who is fond of delivering cryptic truisms. But I sense that there's more to it than just upbringing. His designs, though indisputably classic, always have an element of surprise that gives austerity a sexy edge; it might be a bit of embroidery smuggled in under the arm, or the fraying of a hem. One suspects that at heart Rodriguez believes purity is best sullied by the operatic.

We drive to the Centro district, along the Rua Primeiro de Março, where shutters painted in pastel shades of Brazil's national colors—green, yellow, and blue—open onto wrought-iron balconies that lend the street the feel of 19th-century Paris. Nearby is one of the largest and wealthiest of Brazil's imperial churches, the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelária, which fuses Neoclassical and Baroque to startling effect.

The church stands at the end of Avenida Presidente Vargas, one of the wide boulevards built in the forties under the national leader whose name it bears. As part of Brazil's then newfound commitment to progress, buildings, even churches, were swept aside to create broad avenues. Just a few blocks south, however, the flavor of Rio's old downtown survives. Around the saara, an area of vendors selling fake jewelry and watches, are carnival outfitters and shops filled with paraphernalia for the practice of candomblé (a syncretic religion popular with the urban middle class). The narrow balconies of the small houses seem to lean into the cobbled streets. A few blocks away is the famed Confeitaria Colombo, a tearoom built in 1894, a pièce de résistance of beveled mirrors and porcelain that is popular with Rio's new bohemia.

But for all of Rodriguez's interest in parts of Rio that seem to have been preserved in amber, he can't help but marvel at the city's deranged, seductive eclecticism. Apartment buildings painted in Copacabana pastels shoulder unclad concrete high-rises, Neoclassical columns, and ultra-Modernist glass façades. Standing in the square out- side the Theatro Municipal, Rodriguez reaches for an apt metaphor—and finds one. "Rio is a spectacular car crash of styles and periods," he says. "It's like a big bouquet of flowers gathered and bunched together by the mountains." The theater itself, built in 1909 as a direct homage to the Paris Opéra, was precisely the kind of building that challenged Lucio Costa, Roberto Burle-Marx, Niemeyer, and the other founders of modern Rio to create a city true to their own experience of Brazil.

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