Tucked away on a quiet street in Rio de Janeiro, a few blocks from one of the world’s most iconic Botanical Gardens, sits a colonial bungalow framed in century-old Imperial palm trees shooting high into the sky. Pass by on a Friday afternoon, as Bossa Nova tunes lilt over the walls, and you’d rightly be struck by the sense that here lies the ultimate incarnation of tropical bohemian chic, that special brand of design that Brazil seems to effortlessly ooze and the rest of the world seeks to recreate. Yet rather than a private house, this is the studio of one of Brazil’s leading contemporary architects Thiago Bernardes.

Aerial view from Hotel Arpoador, last project from Bernardes Arquitetura. Photo: Leonardo Finotti

When it comes to architecture and design, Brazil is unwavering in its global mastery and Bernardes is a household name. The son and grandson of two of the country’s most celebrated architects, Sergio and Claudio Bernardes, Thiago’s position within the annals of architectural greatness was sealed with his ground-breaking evolution of the city’s Modern Art Museum MAR, a building as evocative and simple as it is ground-breaking and contemporary.  Built in partnership with his father’s former partner Paulo Jacobsen, MAR quickly became a global symbol for the revitalization of the city’s downtown dock area ahead of the 2016 Olympics. As Brazil faces yet another cycle of increasing social and economic challenges, Thiago shares his view on stepping out of his family’s shadow, the truth behind sustainable architecture and how he believes architecture can influence the way we live.

Thiago with his grandfather Sergio Bernardes and his father Claudio. Photo: Tuca Reinés

Born into a family of the Brazil’s most eminent architects, was there a question of you working with anything else?

I say I wanted to be a marine biologist, but ever since I can remember, I was surrounded by architecture, the way my father and my grandfather looked at the land and the way man lived alongside it. Looking back, architecture had me in her grasp and there was no escape. To be honest, I tried to escape, mostly because I was afraid of my relationship with my father and grandfather, to be in their shadow. To many people, it looks like I had it easy, being born into this family of great architects, but that was the hard part, how to find myself in their greatness, to build a name for myself independently from them.

So how did you do it?

I started very young at 17, and almost as soon as I began to work, I opened my own studio aged 19. Instead of taking opportunities that came my way because of them, I avoided them in a bid to carve out my own path.

Casa Península. Foto: Fernando Guerra

What did you learn from them?

My grandfather was much more than an architect, for him, architecture was a way to influence the political, social and environmental challenges that Brazil faced at the time. It gave him a platform and a voice where people began to listen to him. In comparison, my father was an architect in the 80’s and 90’s during one of the toughest times in Brazil, when the country was in crisis and so his work was very focused internally in Brazil. After he died, advances in communication meant that suddenly Brazilian architecture was back on the world stage. I learnt a lot from them both, each had a special relationship with the way they saw the world. They believed architecture has a way of bringing happiness, wellbeing and a way for people to feel a greater connection with the world. They believed that architecture can inspire people to open up. Architecture is not just about aesthetics, it has to be functional and rational, but equally it comes from the inside out and this is a vision I share with them.

Capela do Joá. Photo: Tuca Reinés

Brazil is facing a tough time both economically and politically. Do you feel, like your grandfather, that architecture has a role to play in this? Do you think that architecture can change the world?

Alone, I don’t think it can. Having said that, I believe architecture has the potential to make a big difference as it enables people to reimagine how they can live together in harmony. Yet this needs to be supported politically and economically to make a lasting change. My grandfather learnt this the hard way: he tried to change society through architecture, and when he saw that he couldn’t, he left it behind and got more involved with politics.

What are you working on at the moment that most inspires you?

We have a lot of different projects we are juggling, from residential houses to public projects, and these are what keep the studio going. Yet what I am most focused on, what inspires me most, is a mini-city that I am developing outside Paraty, a former fishing village set along the coast between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. At the moment it is all on paper, it hasn’t become real yet, but it is my vision of a new way for people to live in Brazil. The way people are crammed into cities like Rio and São Paulo and the quality of life that they put up with isn’t sustainable anymore. With this ‘mini-cidade’ (mini-city), I want to show them that there is a different way of living in community while connecting to the land, a way of escaping the excesses of consumption of modern society. I am working with a variety of experts, looking at everything from education to how to dispose of garbage. We have incredible social injustice in Brazil and we also have an incredible amount of land. It doesn’t make sense anymore for the land to be divided into big private estates: We need to use it differently. I can’t do it by myself though, I am just one piece of the puzzle. This project near Paraty is a first step, but in reality, if it is successful, it could be replicated in any part of the Brazilian countryside.

MAR (Museu de Arte do Rio), in Rio de Janeiro's downtown. Photo: Leonardo Finotti

Your architectural style is renowned across the world for its integration with nature. Do you identify with a style when it comes to your work?

Each project I work with has its own evolution, its own soul. There is never a set concept or style, but each is developed in relation to how it fits into the land where it is located. I love working like this. When I am working on a new project, I can’t sleep thinking about the different materials, styles and technologies that could work. I actively avoid fashions and trends, which give architecture a short shelf life. What most concerns me is how we can use technology to minimize our impact on the land.

Casa Península. Photo: Fernando Guerra

Would you say you style of architecture is particularly ecological? What are the most advanced sustainable practices that you would recommend people adopt when it comes to building?

Sustainable, or ecologically friendly, housing is not so much about the materials you use but about the intelligence you employ when it comes to the building. The most important thing is to integrate the architecture within the natural environment and not the other way around. For example, you position the windows and walls for natural insulation so you don’t need air-con. What I am most interested in these days is how to build with the least impact on the land, so we are looking at new ways of dry-construction where we do a lot of the process off-site and thereby cause a minimum footprint on the surrounding environment. When we design a project, we don’t just think about it artistically and conceptually, but we consider who is going to build it and how. As architects, this is our responsibility.

Casa Península. Foto: Fernando Guerra

What was it like to design MAR?

It was a special project to work on that arose out of the serious challenge of how to turn two derelict buildings that were so different in style into a single museum. The result was closely connected to the consideration of how the flux of the people would flow through the building. We wanted the experience to begin from above, for people to come out of the elevator and see the hill where Rio was first created. At first we made the roof terrace that links the two buildings below flat, but it was ugly, it looked like the bus station. Then the plastic melted and it took on this curved character. It became the third piece of the puzzle, what defines it.

You work a lot with private clients, how would you describe your creative process?

It’s very silent and introspective. I take a look at the land and I read its history, its story and what it needs, what it is calling for, I read the wind and the sun.  It sits in my mind and I can’t sleep thinking about it, and then I begin to design. I listen to the land and I balance what it needs with the needs of the client. The more challenges and problems the land brings, the cooler the project turns out to be. This is how things have to be created. The hardest project for me is a flat piece of land with no environmental challenges! I’ve had clients come to me who have seen one of my projects and want me to create something similar for them but it doesn’t work like that! It has to make sense! I have to keep evolving and adapting the design and materials to each individual reality.

Casa Delta. Photo: Leonardo Finotti

What inspires you most?

The challenges of the land, and the desire to create an architecture that brings a lasting feeling of peace. That is what I want my legacy to be, to create projects that inspire people to feel a deep sense of peace. I want my office to be a place of creative thinking. I don’t work alone, but with a team of incredibly talented people, each with their own personality and their own ego. So my job is to balance everyone’s egos, and to do what is best for the collective. I love to work with people who are sincere and straightforward. I believe in the energy of things, in how it flows, and what people feel. What we create comes from the energy of our team as a collective and people feel this, even if they can’t see it. I am nothing more than the architects I work with, and I don’t ever want to be.