Edifício Marquês de São Vicente (Minhocão), Rio de Janeiro

The rear-façade of Minhocão, Rio de Janeiro

photography by: Omri Westmark

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As a relatively nascent nation which tries to leave its colonial past behind and redefine its identity, Brazil is replete with modern architectural experiments. Perching on a hilly patch of wooded land, Edifício Marquês de São Vicente is a massive, curvy building, originally designated as a housing solution for hundreds of low-income families during the early 1950’s. Fast forward to today, the residential complex’s dystopian present offers a glimpse into how architects’ good intentions don't always play out as initially expected.

Throughout the 1940’s, the municipal authorities in Rio de Janeiro launched a large-scale campaign to demolish a series of favelas, relocating their residents to a makeshift camp in Proletário Park. With more than 5,000 evictees living in 955 shacks, conditions within the crowded park soon deteriorated. To provide a permanent solution for the thousands of displaced residents, the well-renowned architect Affonso Eduardo Reidy was entrusted with planning a massive residential complex across the slopes of Morro da Gávea.


Reidy’s original plan comprised 748 apartments, two schools, a market, a church, a theater, a nursery and a medical center, spread across 8 buildings. In practice, though, only a single apartment block was constructed. Inaugurated in 1952, Conjunto Residencial Marquês de São Vicente, better known as Minhocão, is a gargantuan edifice whose 308 flats are now home to more than 1,500 people.


According to Reidy (who died before his ambitious project was completed), the winding, snake-shaped monolith was intended as a city within a city, where public corridors and balconies serve as inner streets. At first, thanks to its striking panoramic views and modern amenities, Minhocão was regarded as a coveted place to live in. However, its days of glory were short lived as thirty years after its inauguration, the Lagoa-Barra Highway which connects Barra da Tijuca with the South Zone was built, cutting straight through the very heart of the building.


In fact, twenty apartments were demolished to make room for the busy thoroughfare that passes through the complex. With over 80,000 vehicles crossing via the mid-building passage, Minhocão consequently became rife with pollution and incessant noise, relegating it to a shabby slum. Be that as it may, in spite of its current bleak state, the building remains a modernist gem to marvel at. While visitors are not allowed inside the complex, you can walk around it or alternatively, hitch a ride along its dark guts.