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Narciso Rodriguez in Rio

Tierney Gearon

Photo: Tierney Gearon

For Rodriguez, the epitome of the Brazilian vernacular is Niemeyer's Canoas House, which the architect built for himself and his family in the hills overlooking the southern bays. Leaving Ipanema, we head south through Gávea, one of Rio's wealthiest neighborhoods, which abuts one of its poorest—the hillside favela of Rocinha. The Estrada das Canoas climbs through the ever more lush vegetation of Tijuca until the coastline below disappears into a distant white fringe. The house is easy to miss, it blends so perfectly into the landscape.

The essence of Canoas House is the lily pad—shaped concrete canopy whose contours might have been lifted from the surrounding mountains. Like a domestically scaled Sugarloaf, a giant granite boulder anchors the fluid composition of transparent glass and solid-cast concrete; the glass wall suddenly seems one with the pool outside. It's an escapist's dream firmly anchored in the ebb and flow of a Carioca lifestyle. "It's like this little oasis or station in the mountains," says Rodriguez as we circle every aspect of the house. "It's not the first time I've seen materials used to such effect, but it is the only time I've seen it done in such a beguiling way."

On the drive back to the city center along the scenic coastline of the Avenida Niemeyer, which begins in Leblon, Rodriguez remarks on Niemeyer's insistent sensuality, how it distinguishes his buildings from those by Frank Lloyd Wright or even Frank Gehry. Later that evening the discussion continues over drinks at Bar d'Hotel. It's full, as usual, with a colorful in-crowd of music glitterati and glamorous women of recently acquired gender hopping tables and packing the bar. We bump into Preta, daughter of the great Bahian musician Gilberto Gil. Gil, along with Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, and Caetano's sister Maria Bethânia, founded a musical genre that became known as tropicalismo—a mixture of pop, jazz, and African rhythms. The conversation turns to the Sambadrome, the double-arched monument to Carnival we visited the day before. With a succinctness only a true Carioca could muster, Preta describes it, simply, as "a mulatto ass."

Everything in Rio seems to echo the curves of the body, the waves, the shore—even the sidewalk. Along the beachfront from Leblon to Ipanema, chains of rounded squares loop together in an Escheresque conga line. The rhythm is broken by the headland nestling the Colônia de Pescadores, where the daily catch is cleaned and nets are mended under the shade of almond trees. A few steps on, the sidewalk picks up again, this time in a series of fat-bellied S's that undulate along the crescent sands of Copacabana.

complete without a trip to the Carmen Miranda Museum, located in the Parque do Flamengo, landscaped by Burle-Marx. "Only here would you find all this Hollywood costume in the middle of a tropical park," Rodriguez remarks as we leave the sunlight behind for the starry world of mannequins and memorabilia. He lingers by a beautifully constructed jacket from the forties—short sleeves and body—that stands out as wholly contemporary among the fruit-salad headdresses and sequined platforms. Made of velvet covered in an overlay of fine golden brocade, it is both minimal and luxe. I ask Rodriguez if he knows what the gold material might be. "I guess it's just something subtle and simple—coiled bullion maybe," he says. Like the wall texts that demurely describe outrageous confections of conical breastplates, earmuffs, and slit skirts as "Evening clothes from Beverly Hills parties of the 1950's," there is something satisfyingly surreal about this shrine tucked away in a concrete bunker in the park.

Antidotes to such kitschy divinity are numerous; the most recent is Niemeyer's latest building for the city, the Museum of Contemporary Art, erected in Niterói in 1996. To get there one must cross Guanabara Bay by hydrofoil or drive north to the Rio-Niterói bridge. There are few indications that until 1975 this section of the city was the seat of the region's government seat. And there is absolutely nothing to prepare you for the future shock of the building itself.


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