Niemeyer’s small architectural office can be found on the Avenida Atlantica, the great boulevard that defines Copacabana’s beach. There is in all probability no better-known beach in the world, its fame a product of such films as Flying Down to Rio (Thornton Freeland, 1932), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, where Copacabana is represented as the apogee of urban eroticism. In thinking about the erotics of modern architecture, the beach is surely the best place to start. It is a landscape of vital importance, defining an ideal of sociability that architects have frequently tried to emulate or represent. 

Until the eighteenth century, beaches were generally perceived – where they were perceived at all – as places of labour. In art they are littered with the debris of fishing, not leisure. But global exploration from the sixteenth century onwards began to produce images of beaches that contain recognizably modern, and particularly erotic, elements. In accounts of first contact with indigenous peoples the beach can become an erotically charged space, a space in which suddenly, after months or years of voyaging, immense sexual possibilities could be released. In relation to Brazil, there are numerous, fascinating accounts of first contact in which the beach is the spatial frame. In one report to the Portuguese king Dom Joao ii in 1500, Vasco da Gama described landfall in Brazil and contact with a deputation of Tupi Indians. The Indians caused a sensation, particularly the girls, who were ‘very young and very pretty, with very dark hair, long over their shoulders and their privy parts, so high, so closed, and so free from hair that we felt no shame in looking at them very well’. The explorers, greatly impressed, compared them favorably with Portuguese women.

It is too much of an intellectual leap to declare da Gama’s encounter with the Tupi as the beginning of the modern conception of the beach. The modern beach, however, embodies something of the mythology of first contact: it remains a place where convention is conventionally) abandoned, and where erotic possibilities open up. Brazil has a particularly strong relationship with the beach. Most of its population is still found on the coast, and the beach has become central to the country’s urban life, providing a space equivalent in symbolic function to the civic squares of European cities. Stefan Zweig said as much in 1942, when describing the life of the poor in Rio. The climate was accommodating, the food was cheap, and above all the spectacular beaches provided a place for them to go. This ‘super-Nice, super Miami, possibly the most  beautiful strand in the world’ (as he put it) was therefore also the embodiment of a different kind of civil society. The symbolic centrality of the beach in Brazilian cities marks a significant difference between the western European and North American understanding of the beach. For Europeans, the beach is typically a place of periodic escape and disengagement from the city; for Brazilians, the beach is integral to it. The contemporary Brazilian novelist Ruy Castro provides an up-to-date commentary on the place of the beach in the Brazilian city. Europeans and North Americans, he observes, take a trip to the beach as if they were going to a hotel in the mountains or another country. In Rio people just go to the beach, like going to the cinema, the shops or the bank – because it’s there 24 hours a day, all year round, and with an entire city round it, all its services fully available. . . . It’s a whole culture. You go to the beach to read the paper, meet friends, play foot-volleyball, get to know people, get the latest gossip, and even, sometimes, to talk business. It’s a space as natural as a town square, a restaurant or an office.
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