Rio’s Lost Paradise

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.


What’s wrong with this picture? Torre Charles de Gaulle on the left is a fully functioning building complete with satellite dishes and a/c units. Torre H, on the right, is a windowless abandoned shell.


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.

Associação dos Adquirentes da Torre H

The area is boarded off and guarded 24 hours a day. To the right you can see the bold, red letters added by the adquirentes (buyers).


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.


Plans showing just a few of the intended 76 towers, each bearing a letter from A to H. The road running along the top of the map is Avenida das Americas, the main street running through Barra. Source


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.


I still find this photo hard to comprehend. This was Avenida das Americas, the main street that still runs through the centre of Barra. I cross this street on foot every day – it has 14 lanes of traffic. Source


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).


An advert in Jornal do Brazil, 1971.


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”


Sound familiar?


This is Barra today.


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.


The overall shape of the building led to each apartment being a section of a wedge. How do you fit furniture into those weird shaped rooms? Also, notice that there are 13 apartments to a floor. Source


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).


What might have been. A maquette from the Paraíso Ocupado exhibition created by Osterholt and Uitentuis. Source


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.


25 replies
  1. Phil
    Phil says:

    This is fascinating! It’s hard to believe that *someone* can’t figure out a way to resolve this issue. It’s not as if they haven’t had plenty of time to deal with it. The fact that one tower has been inhabited all these years, while the other was never completed, makes it all the more interesting and bizarre.

    It would be interesting to view interior shots of the apartments in the tower that is inhabited, just to see how people deal with the floor plan. It looks as if the kitchen is smaller than the bathroom, and the only way to get to the bath is through the bedroom. Awkward layout!

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      It really is an interesting (and rather tragic) story isn’t it? The more I learned, the more compelling I found it, from Costa’s description of what would happen to Barra if his plan hadn’t come along (ha!) to all those poor people who were persuaded to buy apartments.

      Here is a link to one of the apartments in the other Tower (Torre Charles de Gaulle).

      The pictures make it look fairly ‘compact’ don’t you think? I’m not really up on my square metres, but I think that 39m2 is quite small isn’t it?

      • Phil
        Phil says:

        Yes, it looks even smaller than I thought it would, and that bathroom is very cramped looking. I’m not surprised that they don’t show photos of the kitchen, in fact it might be impossible to get far enough back to photograph it (it looks as if they had to stand in the shower to photograph the banheiro).

        39 square meters is about 420 sq. feet, which is tiny. I was also surprised that the windows weren’t bigger….I expected floor-to-ceiling views.

        I sure wouldn’t want to be shelling out property taxes for an apartment that had never been completed and in which I had never lived. I hope that the owners can claim it on their income tax 🙂

  2. The Gritty Poet
    The Gritty Poet says:

    Niemeyer and Costa are so overrated, and this is just one more example to prove it. Sure they speculated over what Barra would become, and were right (but c’mon, it was pretty obvious). Yet when given a chance to do something about it they could only come up with another ugly project where function is not taken into account at all. And the folks who purchased those apartments are paying until this day for something that could at least have been designed in a way to make construction feasible.
    It is easy to place all the blame on the developer; is it fair though?

    • Phil
      Phil says:

      Since art and architecture involve subjective judgments, I can only say that I disagree with your assessment of Niemeyer as “overrated,” and I certainly don’t see this project as further proof supporting that belief, but that’s just my opinion.

      As for the developer, I don’t believe that anyone has placed “all the blame” on him, but based on the information I’ve seen, the guy was at best a shady businessman, and at worst, a crook. According to the website mentioned in Tom’s post, “The contractor did set up a tricky manoeuvre at the time the construction work started: using a legal loophole, the developer subdivided the land and transferred part of the tariff to the buyers.” (The English is a bit stilted, but the meaning is clear). Thus, the ongoing burden of property tax that the owners must bear is not the fault of either Niemeyer or Costa, and while there may be enough blame for all involved, on this one very important point, it appears that the developer was indeed the culprit.

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Hey Gritty,

      I’m not expert on Niemeyer so I can only comment in a very superficial way. I like the look of his buildings, the shapes he used, though they often seem a little cold and lifeless. But I think I included my main criticism of him in the text – those buildings look pretty nice from the outside, but who’d want to live in those weirdly shaped apartments? It seems to me that Niemeyer prioritised form over function and I’m sure that was a contributing factor to the problems of the project.

      Costa was responsible for a hugely ambitious design that was never going to happen (“optimistic and probably straight-out unrealistic”). So these guys can certainly be accused of being naive/unrealistic and should take a share of the blame. But this Athayde character sounds (to me) like he had malicious/corrupt intent and should take more of the blame than the others.

      • The Gritty Poet
        The Gritty Poet says:

        “the shapes he used, though they often seem a little cold and lifeless.”

        Aseptic anyone? This is my reaction to a large part of his work.

        “So these guys can certainly be accused of being naive/unrealistic and should take a share of the blame.”

        I get the feeling that when guys like these screw up they are given a certain poetic pass if you will; while the naiveté and “idealism” guiding their reasoning turns out to be just as harmful as that of the often so called evil capitalist

        Meanwhile real art goes unnoticed:

        • tomlemes
          tomlemes says:

          Yeah, fair point. It’s like those ‘cool’ minimalist places you see – sure they have “clean lines” and all that stuff, but I always wonder where they keep ironing board, know what I mean? Give me a cosy hobbit hole any day 🙂

          Regarding blame, I feel more annoyed at someone who hits me on the head on purpose compared to someone who does it by mistake – don’t you?

          I enjoyed your joke – fruit puns are grape!

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Oh no. My condolences to him. I really hope they manage to finish the job and if not at least find a way to compensate everyone quickly. This has dragged on way too long.

  3. Lindsey
    Lindsey says:

    I looked at one of the units in the finished building when we were apartment searching but it is just WEIRD up there. Each floor just a big ring with the elevator in the middle. The units were crazy and seemed impossible to fit anything in there… We would have had to get rounded sofas! Not very realistic or pretty…. But the idea of Barra was nice.

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Yeah, thank goodness we were saved from that fate. Now have the gorgeous architecture and wonderful town planning that makes Barra such a draw… rs 😉

  4. Richard
    Richard says:

    Great blog Tom, I was telling this story to my boss who visited the other day. There is also the other abandoned cylinder on the beach at Sao Conrado, the former hotel. Why no one has bought that and re-opened I don’t know. That would be interesting to know more about too.

    I almost moved into a temporada in CDG when I first arrived. It was the landlady that stopped me rather than the shape.

    On another note, I used to cross the 14 lanes of the avenue every day too, I swear that took longer than the kilometre i had to walk to get to the avenue.

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Hi Richard,

      Thanks for that! I think I know the cylinder in São Conrado you’re talking about. I didn’t realise it was abandoned. There is also a beautiful old hotel near where I live in Santa Teresa – it has been abandoned for years and now has dozens of people squatting inside. It’s tragic to see the place crumbling and with the views and underground parking space (Parking! in Santa Teresa!) I just can’t understand why some ambitious developer hasn’t taken it on. It would be a goldmine for sure.

      Ah, you know the 14 lane crossing… The daily reminder that Barra is for cars, not people :-/

  5. Flip Shelton
    Flip Shelton says:

    Hi Tom
    Great read, Thank you. Moved to Rio last September and can see all three of these round eyesores from our apartment. What do you do when you are not writing about Rio?

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Hey Flip!

      Ah, I’m glad you liked it – it’s a pretty interesting story, even if you’re not a fan of the buildings right?

      When I’m not writing about Rio I’m mostly working my day-job (one of those, erm, ‘interesting’ jobs in IT) over in Barra. Of course I have few other hobbies (eating, boozing, hanging out, etc) 🙂

      So you’re living in Barra? How do you find it over that way? How are you feeling about Rio after 6 months?


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