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Brazil’s Infrastructure Design Surge is Calling U.S. Architects

The Summer Olympics and the World Cup will draw the world’s attention to Brazil’s design and building prowess in the next few years, but longer-simmering infrastructure needs are what’s drawing in American architects.

By Sara Fernández Cendón

Until Brazil was selected to host the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympic Games in 2016, only three countries had hosted both events back-to-back. Successful bids for either event are usually equal parts proof that the country already has what it takes and a promise that it will do whatever else necessary to make things run smoothly.

In Brazil’s case, the “promise” part has generated a handful of projects for architectural firms around the world; Populous is responsible for conceptual design a stadium in the city of Natal, for example. And some observers believe that World Cup building delays could generate a rush of last-minute opportunities for foreign construction professionals. But even if these two headline-grabbing events haven’t been fully planned and designed by foreigners new to Brazil, the country is evolving into an emerging market for American architects, built on its intense thirst for upgraded commercial and transit infrastructure. Firms like HKS and Gensler have established a presence in Brazil, opening locations in São Paulo in the last several years. Just last year, RTKL and Perkins + Will opened offices in São Paulo, too. These firms’ investment in Brazil shows that even if the promise of the big events hasn’t translated into a flood of work for U.S. architects, the strength on which the country built its successful bid—an economy that has stabilized and grown substantially in the past decade—points to the real opportunity: services and infrastructure that have not kept up with the nation’s economic boom.

Jessica Salmoiraghi, the AIA’s director of federal relations and counsel, is helping coordinate the Architecture Services Trade Mission to Brazil, to take place Oct. 6–10. “Airports, industrial design for manufacturing plants, healthcare, lighting design, urban planning, smart cities, BIM processes—firms that have those skillsets can find opportunities in Brazil,” she says. “This is not something just for large firms. There are small firms that have been very successful working in Brazil, but they have niche specialties.”

The trade mission, a joint effort between the Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration and the AIA, will bring a group of architects, including AIA President Mickey Jacob, FAIA, to the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Recife. On the trip, American architects will meet with other architecture firms (e.g., AECOM) doing work in Brazil, as well as the financial services company Ernst and Young, about the business climate there. They’ll also meet with local economic development officials and other design and construction industry groups.

The needs of an emerging economy

Brazil’s GDP has been growing at very healthy rates in recent years. According to Brazilian government statistics, from 1999 to 2009, 31 million people entered the Brazilian middle class, bringing the number of middle-class citizens to 95 million, or 52 percent of the total population. At the same time, Brazil, which is slightly smaller than the U.S. in terms of landmass, has only 13 percent of the amount of rail lines in the U.S. This means most goods are transported by truck, yet only about 14 percent of Brazilian roads are paved, according to the World Bank.

“Brazil needs investment for enhanced infrastructure such as roads, airports, railroads, and ports to facilitate the transport of goods and resources needed to meet the demand by its emerging economy,” says Eduardo Egea, AIA, associate principal and senior vice president at HKS.

Egea says HKS in Brazil is focused on healthcare, hospitality, and commercial work. Working with both Brazilian and American real estate clients, RTKL has designed a number of shopping centers and master plans for mixed-use sustainable communities.

Miguel Rodriguez, FAIA, is president of Rodriguez Architects, which is based in Coral Gables, Fla. In addition to working in a U.S. region that often serves as gateway to Latin America, Rodriguez is constantly exposed to international markets as the AIA’s liaison to the Pan-American Federation of Associations of Architects (FPAA). He believes in the importance of niche specialization for small firms seeking work overseas. “If you have a specific expertise that is needed, even if you’re a small firm, there’s always going to be an opportunity. The endgame is not to go it alone, but to find ways to collaborate with others.”

Another kind of niche opportunity in Brazil is the ability to explore unorthodox solutions in a business culture known for flexibility and informal agreements. Patrick Giannini’s practice, GIANNINI Arquitetura + Design, specializes, curiously, in single-family residential and industrial architecture. The interaction between those two very different project types has led Giannini, who moved to Brazil six years ago, to investigate new possibilities in residential construction as a way to solve common problems he faces working in Brazil. Construction workers are poorly equipped and poorly trained, which requires much more supervision and often causes waste and delays, Giannini says. Looking to sidestep these problems, Giannini is attempting to develop a semi-prefabrication process.

Good work, if you can get it

Giannini is frank about the downside of the flexibility he’s found in Brazil’s business culture. He talks about unexpected delays, or last-minute changes made at the job site without consulting the architect. The country is also well known for its bureaucratic abundance. According to World Bank data on the ease of doing business, Brazil ranks 130 out of 185 countries. Brazil also ranks low in transparency, with a score of 43 (out of 100) on the 2012 corruption perceptions index by Transparency International. Giannini recommends patience above all, and, secondly, investing time in the country. Investment can take the form of a local office, with the additional advantage of helping clients avoid taxes associated with hiring a foreign service provider.

Eurico Francisco, AIA, a Brazilian architect who has worked in the U.S. for more than two decades, agrees. “You have to be physically present, invest time in relationships, demonstrate you’re genuinely interested in the client’s business,” he says.

In terms of partnering with local firms, Francisco says foreign architects must show a spirit of collaboration. Brazil has a proud architectural tradition—including two Pritzker Architecture Prize laureates—and while most firms are interested in learning from foreign partners, it’s safe to assume that they, too, expect to make significant contributions to the project. Giannini says the typical collaboration structure involving a design architect and an executive architect is not as common in Brazil. “The Brazilian firms want to participate in the design project,” he says. “They really want to be a co-author in the product.”

Finally, architecture fees in Brazil have historically been low compared to American fees, and American expertise can appear particularly costly to Brazilian clients, especially when currency exchange rates aren’t favorable. However, as the market for architectural services in Brazil has become more international, local architects are asking for fees comparable to American firms, potentially elevating fees for everyone looking to build in Brazil.

In addition to pursuing opportunities to work directly in Brazil, Rodriguez, whose biggest client is a Brazilian manufacturing concern with U.S. operations, believes in what he calls a “reciprocal” approach. This means starting in the U.S. with a Brazilian client, and following the client back to Brazil, or making connections in Brazil with clients seeking to expand to the U.S. After all, as international markets become global markets, there’s no reason to think working with Brazil can only mean working overseas.


Populous’ conceptual design for Estadio das Dunas in Natal, Brazil. Image courtesy of Populous.

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A steel house designed by GIANNINI Arquitetura + Design in the mountains outside of São Paulo in Santo Antônio do Pinhal. Image courtesy of Patrick Giannini.

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RTKL’s Alphaville Brasilia master plan in Brasilia, a mixed-use town center development. Image courtesy of RTKL Associates.

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A shopping center in Uberlândia, Brazil, designed by RTKL. Image courtesy of Sonae Sierra.

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