House & Garden | Diary of a Somebody

Nigel Coates

The architect finds a sense of optimism at large in Brazil, and in Rio a penchant for poodles

Nigel Coates

June 20 2011
Nigel Coates

Day: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

The first non-starter of the week: I’ve completed the strange ritual of packing, and arrive in perfect time at the inner-city airport for a 13.00 flight to Rio. They keep changing the gates so, somehow lost in my writing, I lose track and miss the flight. They’ve changed gates at the last minute, and now have to wait until 15.00. Category B (ie boring) nightmare.

With extended waits, airports expose their true nature as service centres. This one feels more like a station. Planes shuttle back and forth between São Paulo and Rio. The only food available on airside is cheese puffs, the shops uninspiring. Gangs of women in blue overalls push brooms in a sweeping choreographed line that must be invisible to most passengers. They seem to have settled on Gate 1 for my flight.

It’s five years since I’ve been to Rio; over this period the real has doubled in value. Everything seems expensive now, a sign of the booming economy. Since the topic of the week has been design, I can’t help thinking that the excruciating import tax – 80 per cent on luxury goods, apart from the VAT – has inadvertently limited Brazil from the global obsession with international brands. Applying the same principle to design, it means that a chair from Moroso or Vitra costs more than a unique piece made by a Brazilian artist/designer.

Even though there’s no music in the car, my taxi driver is using the steering wheel as a percussion instrument. Cariocas have music in their bones. Driving at 90km per hour down the urban canyon of apartment blocks just behind Copacabana’s Avenida Atlantica, we startle a woman in shorts and flip-flops walking her poodle. She drags it in haste from the middle of the road. Nothing is slow in Rio, but it’s not fast either. Even speeding is tinged with a certain langueur.

Eventually we arrive at my friend’s doorway, a door in a high wall topped with broken glass. He has acquired an ex-seminary, tucked into the lower slopes of a favela-encrusted mountain just three blocks back from Ipanema beach. The plan is to house his design office here, and make a home big enough so that all his friends can stay. It’s got a healthy lack of designer detail: more stripped-down colonial than modernist. What an exciting project lies ahead for my friend; there’s a real sense of optimism that seems so far from the European reality of austerity.

At dusk we stroll along the promenade of Ipanema, over the iconic black-and-white swirls of paving by the famous Roberto Burle Marx. It’s winter here, but still balmy. Not so for locals perhaps. Dogs seem to be the thing in Ipanema; more poodles are being taken out, some with winter coats or little boots. Odd, really, since many men are out walking with their tops off. I’m wearing a flimsy jacket, my concession to the “cold”, but when my friends turn up for dinner they’re wearing winter woollies. We joke about the “winter” in Rio. I think of the grey skies of summer back home.

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