The Pampulha Modern Ensemble comprises an innovative Garden City built around an artificial lake.
This neighbourhood of Belo Horizonte was designed from 1940 onward by architect Oscar Niemeyer and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx. It included a casino, a restaurant/dance hall, a yacht club, a golf club and a church. The buildings are among Niemeyer’s earliest works and show his talent to adapt 20th-century modernism to Brazilian surroundings.
Community Perspective: this affluent suburb is mostly a residential zone with calm streets and calm traffic. The church of Saint Francis is considered the highlight. A full loop around the lake is 18km and can be done by taxi, by bike, or on foot.
Map of PampulhaLoad map
When you fly from Salvador to Belo Horizonte as I did, it looks like you have arrived in a different country: ‘White’ Brazil. A prime example is the suburb of Pampulha, created as a Garden City to attract the wealthy. I stayed overnight right at the lake in the Pampulha Design Hotel.
To get around there is a system of Community Bike Rentals for only 6 R$ a day, but I could not get it to work online. So I did the full loop around Pampulha Lake on foot: it’s 18.3 km. Along the way, I encountered many commercial bicycle rental shops, so in hindsight that would be a good option to cover the distances.
From my hotel, I walked clockwise, with the Art Museum (pictured) as the first of the four main monuments on my route. This former Casino has been closed for renovations since 2019. It is fenced off and it didn’t look like it will reopen soon. Its close following of the Corbusian principles is visible in its reinforced concrete pylons supporting the main rooms. It is set in landscaped gardens that barely are hanging in there.
Walking onward, I enjoyed the many views towards the other side of the lake. A footpath (also part of the core zone) fully encircles the lake. More recently a separate bike path has been added too. Some red information panels (with the WH logo) can be found that explain minor elements – a kiosk that once was a loading point for lake boats, the water treatment plant, and private residences for example. I think you will only notice those while on foot.
The Ballroom was a pleasant surprise: it felt like a more friendly building. It also has its own small garden and many ceramic tiles. The Yacht (Tennis) Club is closed to tourists, though you can get good views of it from the opposite side of the lake. Also, it is possible to peer through the bricks in the wall – a Corbusian row of pillars and a straight facade show.
The São Francisco De Assis Church is the undoubted star of the Ensemble. I found it closed (while in service) on Sunday morning when I did my walk, but I returned by Uber late in the afternoon to have a look inside. There’s a 5 R$ entrance fee to let you enter the main hall – it’s small but perfectly proportioned. Both inside and outside the use of ceramic tiles (like modern-day azulejos) is brilliant here. I especially liked those on the pulpit.
The Museu Casa Kubitschek (free entry) is worth a visit too. This work of modern architecture was the weekend residence of the founding father of the Pampulha Ensemble, Mayor Juscelino Kubitschek, later president of Brazil.
After the museum, the sightseeing was over and the walk became more of a physical exercise. Large parts of the lake on the western side are overgrown. The views are gone. And I know now the meaning of ‘sinuous’ in the AB evaluation: the artificial lake has many ‘arms’, so there’s always a long detour to follow the shoreline (there are two dams where you can cheat, but I didn’t!). The path only is interrupted by ‘Mirantes’ – viewpoints, with some benches and toilets too. Most of them have a resident food truck as well, selling cool drinks and snacks.
Although some of the buildings aren’t in the greatest shape, the overall purpose of creating a public space for leisure and exercise has worked well until the present day. While I was there, hundreds of locals were enjoying themselves on a Sunday by cycling, jogging, and visiting the amusement park behind the church.
Read more from Els Slots here.
The brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, where this WHS is located, is a new city: it was founded in 1897. In its older area the eclectic and neoclassical buildings are mixed with the modern ones, some of them works of the architect Oscar Niemeyer, like the residential tower that has his name in Liberdade Square. This area (districts of Savassi, Lourdes, Boa Viagem) is where most of the hotels are concetrated, and I agree it's the best area for a tourist to stay. The Pampulha district is located a bit further, it was added to the city in the 1940's, and despite having the most famous tourist attraction of the city, that is the lake and its Niemeyer buildings, it's mostly a residential zone. It has a different atmosphere than the rest of the city: calm streets, calm traffic, and is all about the modern, but not in a monumental way, except for the two concrete stadiums, Mineirão and Mineirinho, that can be seen from the lake and are, in my opinion, disturbances in the landscape of this site.
The lake isn't small, and the four buildings inscribed in this WHS are not very close to each other. If you are in a good physical condition or have a lot of free time you can visit all four by foot, because walking on the shores of the lake is quite pleasant. I didn't have both, so I just visited two buildings, the church and the ballroom. The yacht club is located between them, but I didn't think it was open to tourist visitation (and I still don't know) so I decided to skip it. The cassino, now a museum, has the most isolated location of the four, so I had to skip it too.
The church of Saint Francis, recently restored, is magnificent. It is very small, more like a chapel in fact, and has a beautiful interaction of architecture and art, as Niemeyer made colaborations with three brazilian artists in this building: Cândido Portinari, Paulo Werneck and Alfredo Ceschiatti. Portinari is a very important artist to the brazilian modernism, he's the most famous of the three and also the one who made more works of art for the church - the panels of painted tiles, both outside and inside, and inside the 14 paintings of Via Crucis and the painted mural behind the altar. Ceschiatti made the bronze scultures of batistery (he also made the angels suspended in Brasília cathedral) and Werneck the outside mosaics with abstract forms (he made a similar mosaic in the nearby Juscelino Kubitschek house, designed by Niemeyer but not part of the WHS). The whole thing was so innovative and shocking for the time when it was built (1943), that people rejected the church, and started using it only in the 1960's. The internal mural of Portinari was specially impressive for me: bold, with a Saint Francis undressing himself, distorted human figures like Picasso ones, and a dog.
On the other hand, the ballroom (Casa do Baile) was very disapointing. Currently the gardens are being restored, so it was a bit of bad luck, with the views of the lake in the beautiful curved marquee turned unpleasant with mounds of sand and people working. Like the church, it is a small building, with basically a round space, used now for arts expositions, and the open air area with the marquee. I think I spent five or ten minutes there. I had the feeling of a place with great potential but totally underused. The complex already has a museum, so I don't understand another art space. Ian Cade said, in his review, that the place had a stand of a brewery, but unfortunately it was gone, I don't know if just for a while, because of the restoration, or if it's gone forever.
Overall, I had mixed impressions. As a landscape, it is remarkable with its suble buildings (so different than Brasília), but it has issues, like the stadiums and the yacht club addition, that can caught more attention than it should. I also don't like everything being turned into museums, specially in such recent buildings. I hope masses still can be celebrated at the restored church, but at least marriages I know will be allowed.
I really hope this site makes it onto the world heritage list. It is an impressive and influential piece of urban planning, but it is elevated to being outstanding by the magnificent church of São Francisco.
Pamphula is an affluent planned suburb in northern Belo Horizonte, set around a man made lake. The usual array of Brazilian modernist architects, artists and designers were involved with the main buildings coming from Oscar Niemeyer. There are some really quite impressive buildings circling the lake, a forum discussion a few years ago first drew my attention to the Yacht Club. I was instantly drawn to this beautiful piece of modern design. In the intervening years I have grown to realise that this mid century modernism is actually my real architectural sweet spot, and it has enhanced many of my trips, and even my life in London.
On a glorious Saturday morning we joined many of the locals in making the lake shore the basis of our leisure activities. First stop was the recently restored Casa Juliano Kubitzek, built for the then regional governor, future president and long time patron of Oscar Niemeyer. It turns out this was an excellent place to start, not just because it is a beautiful house, but also because it's home to a small museum that explains and contextualises the whole area and the relationship Kubitzek had with a generation of modernist artists.
From here it was a pleasant stroll to the church of São Francisco. This small church could comfortably be a World Heritage Site in in its own right, architecturally innovative (the first use of concrete parabolas) but even more important are the astounding ceramic decorations inside. I had seen images of them before and not been that interested, however the reality ranks as one of the finest churches I have ever been in. There was just something so emotive about this exceptional artwork, it left us reeling, not unlike when we left the Scrovegni chapel.
After this we carried on our anti clockwise loop. It took us past the Minero football stadium, site of the previous year’s memorable World Cup semi-final, a tournament that rather cemented our desire to visit Brazil. A little further on we sadly discovered the yacht club, which had originally piqued my interest, was hidden behind a high wall. But a little further on the Casa do Baile proved to be really enjoyable. The curving architectural forms were a perfect setting for the contemporary art on show, but even nicer was the stand from the local Küd microbrewery which attracted a really friendly crowd to their tasty output of English inspired beers.
A taxi took us to the former casino on the opposite side of the lake, which was the most important building in the original establishment of Pampulha, it is now an art gallery and it was impressive. Though after two days in Brasilia and several hours touring modernist buildings we perhaps weren't in the right frame of mind to get the most out of another example, no matter how important.
Feeling the need for new surroundings we jumped in a taxi and headed to the central market in Belo Horizonte, where we discovered one of the city's other great charms; its food! Feijoda and Pão de queijo are very much on my rotation as tasty treats to remind me of my travels.
Pamphula was a really rewarding and exceptionally pleasant site to visit, as a modern urban landscape I think it could probably be justified as a WHS, however when the magnificent church of São Francisco is factored in it is elevated to a site well worth going out of your way to visit.
[Site 7: Experience 8]
Read more from Ian Cade here.
Pampulha Architectural Ensemble is Brazil probably Brazil's next nomination for inscription in WHS list. Pampulha is the name of a upper-class suburb of Belo Horizonte city and was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, a famous architect (who died in 2012 at 104), also responsible for the construction of Brasilia (another WHS). The most famous elemento of Pampulha ensemble is Sao Francisco Church, a tiny temple by the lake shore, which is considered one of Niemeyer's early masterpieces and inspiration for many other buildings in the same style worldwide. I was there last weekend, in a sunny and relaxing Sunday afternoon.
Should Pampulha be inscribed, Belo Horizonte is to become the closest Brazil will have to a WHS hotspot, also including the colonial cities of Congonhas, Ouro Preto and Diamantina.
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