The Brazilian Mashrabiyeh


Brownbook Staff


Nelson Kon & Denilson Machado


In 1936, Brazil’s minister for education and health, Gustavo Capanema, invited Lúcio Costa – the architect who would later go on to design the master plan of Brasília – to create him a ministry among the winding streets of Rio de Janeiro’s Centro bairro.

Unsatisfied with Costa’s design, Capanema invited Swiss-French heavyweight architect Le Corbusier to Rio de Janeiro to act as consultant. It was he who suggested a modernist block, and a young Oscar Niemeyer, then an intern at Costa’s practice, who came up with its adaptations, shifting the orientation of the building, lifting it 12 metres off the ground, and adding its distinguishing brise soleil.

A little run down now, 70 years after its construction, the Gustavo Capanema Palace still stands as one of the most important, influential and successful modernist buildings anywhere. It is also, however, a fine example of the Brazil’s Islamic architectural influences.

Though many would consider the concrete slats of its brise soleil an early version of what would later become a pure modernist Brazilian vernacular, the façade, in fact, has Arabic roots, taking inspiration from the mashrabiyeh – the handsome wooden screens that once masked the exteriors of buildings throughout the Arab world.

Despite a nine million strong modern Arab community in Brazil, it was the Portuguese who first introduced the mashrabiyeh – known locally as muxarabi –during its colonisation of the country as an architectural response to the country’s tropical climate, keeping buildings cool with a steady flow of ventilation.

‘The mashrabiyeh is actually an architectural piece that was introduced to Brazil in its beginnings, by the Portuguese,’ says Suzanna Glogowski, an architect at Studio MK27 in São Paulo. ‘It was brought to Portugal, and then it was brought here,’ she continues, explaining how the Brazilian use of mashrabiyat reflects the architectural influence Portugal itself received during its Moorish occupation between the eighth and 15th centuries.

Glogowski is the ‘co-author’, or co-architect, of Studio MK27’s Bahia House, a single story home located in Salvador, the largest city in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. It sits in a verdant setting, adjacent to the city’s zoo, and boasts a fine example of how the mashrabiyeh has been carried through, and adapted to, contemporary Brazilian projects and taste.

‘Our main idea was to highlight the historical aspect,’ she says, of the expansive wooden screen that shields one side of the house. ‘It wasn’t a demand from the client. We wanted to highlight it ourselves as a piece that we think is important in the colonial architecture of Brazilian décor,’ she says.

‘We made the mashrabiyeh really big, which wasn’t common traditionally – almost the whole estate is covered by it. The other contemporary aspect is that you are able to open it, like a curtain.’ Glogowski says that the mashrabiyeh is a staple element of Studio MK27’s projects. ‘It’s something that we really like to use a lot of.’

From Salvador to São Paulo, mashrabiyat can be spotted on homes old and new along Brazil’s 7,000-something kilometre coastline, be they traditionally wooden – as in the lattice work of Guilherme Torres’ BT House in Maringá – or constructed with industrially produced fireclay bricks, punctured with symmetric holes.

Designed by modern master Isay Weinfeld, Iporanga House – a beach side private residency in Guarujá – is another example of the mashrabiyeh’s use in cutting-edge, contemporary architecture, though, this time, at the request of its Arabic owners.

‘Because of our heritage, we always appreciated the Arabic Moroccan architecture and details, including the mashrabiyeh,’ says Tatiana Douer, the home’s owner, whose family is of Lebanese and Syrian heritage. Douer requested that a mashrabiyeh be included in the project ‘as a way to give a different detail to the modern house.’ ‘The architect used it as a feature to make us feel like we are always outside, and that the outside is always inside,’ she says.

This article can be found in Brownbook’s July/August 2014 Issue.

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