As the narrative is typically told, the Ministry of Health and Education building, designed and built between 1937 and 1943 at the direction of President Getúlo Vargas and the minister of health and education at the time, Gustavo Capanema, represents the germ of Western European modernist ideals in Brazilian architecture.
After a failed design competition, Lucio Costa was commissioned to design the building. In 1936, he assembled a team of Brazilian modernists to take on the project: Oscar Niemeyer, Alfonso Reidy, Jorge Moreira, Carlos Leão, Ernâni Vasconcelos. When Costa was dissatisfied with the first result from the team, he asked the government permission to bring in Le Corbusier as a consultant on the project.
Under the guise of a lecture series, Le Corbusier visited Brazil for four weeks, consulting on the Ministry of Health and Education building and several other projects. Such an endeavor gave Le Corbusier a chance to demonstrate the "universality" of his design principles. Indeed, the building displays Le Corbusier's typical pilotis, roof gardens, and brises-soleil. According to Lucio Costa, it was the first time the glass curtain wall was used in Brazil, and in South America in general.
Out of all the architects on the team, Niemeyer worked the most closely with Le Corbusier. As Costa put it, "Le Corbusier's greatest legacy was Niemeyer himself."
The building met much local criticism, but influential institutions championed it on the international scene, including the Museum of Modern Art in its 1943 exhibition Brazil Builds, and the New York Times.
The building commands an entire city block, but opens up much of its ground space to a public garden, landscaped -- as so many of the modernist projects are -- by Roberto Burle Marx. Burle Marx made use of native Brazilian plants at a time when they were not considered worthy of such projects.
The ground level is also graced by Cândido Portinari's lively blue and white tile murals on the facades.
At the moment, the building is under renovation, which allowed me a close-up view with the blue brises-soleil that are being removed, restored, and re-installed, among other restoration efforts.