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No.16: Museu de Arte Contemporanea, Niteroi

issue 45 Oct / Nov 2008

Phillip Rose of Speirs and Major chooses a UFO of a building on the Brazilian coast.

The Museu de Arte Contemporanea is situated in the city of Niterói on the eastern side of the Rio de Janeiro estuary. The museum is perched on top of a cliff at the edge of the city and is visible from Rio across the water. Only 16m high, it appears to float and the simplicity of the exterior lighting turns the building into a shimmering spaceship by night. The saucer-shaped modernist structure has done for Niteroi what Gehry’s Guggenheim museum did for Bilbao and looks stunning from every angle, particularly for those entering Rio by sea.
It has been likened to a UFO in every description and in the film ‘Oscar Niemeyer, an architect committed to his century’; Niemeyer is seen flying over Rio de Janeiro in a UFO, which then lands on the site. The MAC was designed by Niemeyer with the assistance of structural engineer Bruno Contarini in 1991 and completed in 1996. The structure is composed of reinforced concrete and glass and there is a beautiful contrast between the hard concrete surfaces and the soft undulating curves of the structure. The museum encompasses three floors with a cupola 50m in diameter.
In recent years, architect Oscar Niemeyer has trusted the lighting of some of his projects to movie and theatre lighting designer, Peter Gaspar. Age may be a factor in this decision as Niemeyer is 101. Externally the building is lit with 36 x 600W PAR 64 lamps installed in the Boa Viagem (Bon Voyage) that the museum projects over. A water pump in the 817m2 reflecting pool circulates the water and creates waves. These in turn create water shadows which disguise the imperfections on the façades concrete surface. Although this dynamic effect is artificial it appears from a distance as if there are natural reflections from the water adjacent to the building.
The entrance to the building is through a red passageway. At night, the passageway is lit in red to further emphasize the route. Within the mezzanine entrance there is an ogee where the lining of the walls meet. Concealed in this wall there are cool colour temperature fluorescent lamps proving indirect lighting and creating the impression of a bright sunny day outside.
Although the museum looks small from the outside, it opens out like the Tardis upon entering the Great Hall. A ring shaped skylight is incorporated in a concave ceiling to simulate natural light and create ambient lighting. The skylight is covered in diffuse polycarbonate material. It directs all the ambient light toward the centre of the hall due to the geometry of the concave ceiling so the light doesn’t reach the surrounding wall and negates glare or reflections on the art displayed there. Like a cloudy day, this diffuse light creates no shadows and is extremely uniform. As with the clever exterior lighting, this simple solution creates perfect gallery lighting and again gives the impression that there is a connection to the outside.
However, exhibition lighting is also required and achieved using a track system with rings of track tracing the skylight in three concentric circles. The spotlights are attached by a magnetic system so can spin in all directions. The choice of spherical fittings was chosen as the design mirrored the building’s overall shape. In the smaller halls surrounding the Great Hall, fluorescents are installed under benches which are Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro, and Sugarloaf Mountain.
For what its worth, it’s my favourite Niemeyer too...

“The museum resembles a UFO over looking the water with a futuristic form that is typical of Oscar Niemeyer’s work and creates a powerful landmark for Rio’s dramatic unworldly coastline. Overlooking Guanabara Bay, the museum hovers over the Boa Viagem. This is a reflecting pool that surrounds the base of the museum allowing the inter-reflection of sunlight to play on its underbelly and creating the illusion that it hovers above the water. Its distinctive ring of windows provides panoramic views of Rio and creates a stunning backdrop to the art on display. The building is my favourite Neimeyer building and its organic form evokes imagery from my childhood such as Tracey Island in ‘Thunderbirds’, or from a James Bond film. It was seeing buildings like these that started my interest in architecture.”
Phillip Rose
Speirs and Major



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