Barra’s Forgotten Skyscraper

RIO DE JANEIRO – Driving along Avenida das Américas in Barra da Tijuca, it is hard not to notice two lone, circular towers among the square apartment blocks and sprawling shopping malls. Located just opposite the ‘Hipermercado Extra’, one of the Oscar Niemeyer-designed apartment buildings sits happily occupied while its brother, Torre Abraham Lincoln, has remained empty and unfinished since construction was halted in 1972.

The tower has become not only a monument to the early days of urban development in Barra but also offers a salutary lesson in the power of the Brazilian bureaucracy to frustrate enterprise.

The two buildings were intended to be the first in a series of 76 individual towers, conceived as the centerpiece of Lucio Costa’s modernist master-plan for the region. Barra would be divided into 46 sub-zones, each with its own character. The aim of the plan was to preserve much of the natural landscapes between towers, with inhabitants living in one of several ‘urban islands’.

The ambitious plan was developed during a time of rapid growth in Brazil, and very much under the influence of American urban design. However, the master-plan was ill-fated, and with the land under private ownership, large scale redevelopment was never a realistic possibility, in contrast to the planned development of Brasília, where the land had no previous owners to hamper the urbanization process.

A number of problems hindered the project from the outset. The construction of the towers suffered from poor material choices, while questions were raised about the practicality of living in circular apartments. The first bureaucratic impasse was reached when Costa attempted to register circular plots at the land registry.

When it became apparent that the tower projects were faltering, construction stopped, and the people who had paid for unfinished apartments were left wondering what would happen to their investment. Using a legal loop-hole, the developers had managed to transfer ownership to the individual investors. This means that, to the present day, the owners of the unfinished apartments are still liable for the ITPU property tax.

Some elements of the initial Barra plans do remain today, with wide streets and extensive parking emphasizing the importance of the automobile in the region. However, developers quickly ditched Niemeyer’s towers in favor of more practical and profitable buildings. Square apartments were easier to build, and buyers preferred gated apartment buildings with balconies and security guards.

In 2004, to highlight the plight of the abandoned tower, more than 300 people squatted the tower for over a month, before finally being evicted by police. This short-lived action united some apartment owners, and triggered the formation of the ‘Associação de Adquirentes da Torre H’. This group aims to find a developer to finish construction, so that owners can finally take up their rightful residence, though the specter of demolition still looms over them.

The story of the towers attracted the attention of Dutch artists Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis, who came to Rio in 2010 to develop their artistic project , ‘Paraíso Ocupado’. They are planning to construct a virtual replica of the abandoned tower, and populate individual rooms with interviews from individuals associated with the building. “The towers are a landmark that reminds us of the failure of the plano piloto for Barra… The stories related to the failure of Torre Abraham Lincoln should not be forgotten because they are like a prophetic warning,” they said.

With Barra growing fast and the Olympics on the horizon, this may be the last chance for Torre Abraham Lincoln to be saved. If it is, it may become a lasting reminder of the problems that saw it abandoned for more than thirty years. In the words of Wouter, “In the new ‘optimistic’ years leading up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, it is important to be aware of corporate greed and corruption. We believe that things should change but that history should not be forgotten. Valuable lessons could be learned from the past.”