The caretaker, sometimes armed, is on the lookout for intruders. Twice a day he climbs the 37 stories of the residential building he guards. He doesn’t greet anyone as he makes his rounds and no one greets him because despite the fact that it is over 40 years old, the building is empty and no one has ever officially lived there.
The building that I’m talking about is in Barra da Tijuca and was once called Torre Abraham Lincoln – today it is usually referred to simply as Torre H (‘Torre’ means tower). Alongside this abandoned building sits its inhabited and fully functional identical twin, Torre Charles de Gaulle. They make a strange looking pair and immediately caught my eye when I started working nearby.
When I first saw Torre H I had no idea how old it was – I thought maybe there was just a short delay in the construction work. As time passed I noticed that there were no windows being put in, no builders, in fact no activity whatsoever.
Associação dos Adquirentes da Torre H
The area around the base of the abandoned tower is boarded off. The boards have a bold message stencilled in red: Associação dos Adquirentes da Torre H (Association of the buyers of Tower H). Finally I had something to research! The story I uncovered is both fascinating and sad.
These 2 cylindrical towers were originally part if a much larger urban development plan for Barra, put together in the late 1960s by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer. These two were responsible for the acclaimed design of Brazil’s new capital Brasília, so they must have seemed the perfect pair to design Rio’s newest urban development project. As with Brasília, Costa was responsible for the layout, Niemeyer designed the buildings. Together they created an ambitious plan for 76 of these circular towers, positioned in ‘islands’ of 5 or 6, separated by wide expanses of protected natural landscape. Each island would include shops and schools and there would be enough space between the islands to allow air to circulate freely and afford views of the sea.
The redevelopment project as a whole was known as the Plano Piloto da Barra da Tijuca. The building development itself was named Athaydeville, named after the construction developer, Mucio Athayde.
At this time Barra was fairly empty, but unlike Brasília, the land had multiple private owners, meaning that the grand unified plans drawn up by Lucio Costa were certainly optimistic and probably straight-out unrealistic from the start.
A new way of Life
Construction on the first two towers began in 1969. Many people bought apartments from the plans and eagerly waited to move in to their brand new properties. The advertising slogans for the development were full of optimism and hyperbole: Paraíso Existe: está aqui! (Paradise Exists: it’s here!); Viva No Paraíso (Live In Paradise); A Nova Forma de Viver (A New Way to Live).
The press at the time were wildly positive, surely influenced by the success of Brasília. Knowing what we now know about what happened to Barra, this article from the Lewiston Evening Journal feels almost eerie:
“Barra da Tijuca is an unspoiled area flanked by mountains and dotted with lakes. [...] By the year 2000 the new city [Barra] promises ‘a new way of life’ for 2 million of Rio’s anticipate 10 million residents – a life free from congestion, pollution and noise”
And how is this for a darkly prophetic quote from Lucio Costa himself, as he spoke about the way that his design would protect Barra from an ugly future:
“If urban growth had been left uncontrolled, Barra would have become another Copacabana within a few years, with a conglomeration of high rise buildings lining the highway and beach, preventing free circulation of air and blocking the view of the sea”
The dream becomes a nightmare
The project hit obstacles from the start. Niemeyer’s cylindrical towers required circular plots of land, but the government planning department only dealt with square plots. The building materials selected for the construction were sub-standard and people started to question whether anyone would actually want to live in the unconventionally shaped apartments.
In 1972 construction was halted on Torre H due to concerns about its structural integrity. A legal quirk meant that Athayde’s construction company had already transferred ownership to the purchasers, meaning that although they could not move in to their unfinished apartments, they still had to pay property tax.
Costa’s grand plan was abandoned as developers did exactly what he had predicted, lining the beach and main roads with row after row of high rise buildings.
There are all kinds of stories regarding the developer, Mucio Athayde. In the 1980s he announced a new drive to complete the building and managed to sell even more of the apartments. Many question whether he ever had any intention of completing the building work. Then, in 2004, the tower was occupied by 400 local favela residents – the apartment owners made official complaints and although the squatters were removed after a month, it is said that this set off a chain of events that allowed Athayde to declare bankruptcy and thus free himself from any further obligations or responsibility to the owners.
Today something like 250 of the 454 apartments in Torre H have owners. The Adquirentes are still waiting, campaigning for construction to be completed, fighting threats of demolition and hoping the impetus of the Olympic development in Barra might somehow rub off on their 40 year struggle. The apartments are all still eerily abandoned.
Mucio Athayde died in Rio in 2010. In that same year 2 Dutch artists, Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis, visited Rio and found that they were captivated by this “concrete skeleton”. Most of the old photos in this post are from their excellent blog Paraíso Ocupado (Paradise Occupied) – it’s a great site and I would really recommend it to anyone interested as they have researched this whole subject in great detail. As you can probably tell, I (like them) have become mildly obsessed with this strange, sad tale of what might have been in Barra. I believe they are now working on a film related to this story (see more of their work here).
I’m still in the very early stages of learning about the history of Rio, but it strikes me that this sad story says quite a lot about what went wrong with the town planning in Rio over the last 50 years. Costa’s design may have been interesting and ambitious, but it still assumed that everyone would own a car and I’m sorry to say that this aspect of his design was retained in the chaos that ensued. On a positive note, building of Linha 4 of the Rio Metro system is well under way – better late than never.