The US Embassy in Rio de Janeiro was the first completely modern embassy commissioned and built by the State Department's Office of Foreign Business Operations (FBO) - reorganized and renamed the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) in 2001 (Sennott, 401). It was the FBO's largest project since World War II (Loeffler, 61). Leland King, who was in charge of managing architectural projects for the FBO, retained Harrison & Abramovitz to design the new U.S. Embassy in Rio (Loeffler, 61). Wallace K. Harrison & Max Abramovitz were well-known architects who had formed a partnership in 1945 (Loeffler, 61). They were working on the U.S. Embassy in Havana and the United Nations buildings along New York's East River during the mid-twentieth century as well (Loeffler, 61). With a rectangular footprint, this 13-story tower is made up mostly of offices; however, upon completion two floors of the embassy tower were designated for residential use (Loeffler, 62). Each floor had eight efficiency apartments. This was the FBO's first attempt to combine staff housing with designated office space.
The Consulate is located on the north corner of R. Mexico and Av. Pres. Wilson, with the main facade facing and set back about 100' from R. Mexico. Aside from the 1-2 story irregularly-shaped library attached to the main facade, which is within the 100' landscaped setback from R. Mexico, the building has a rectangular footprint. It is a twelve-story tower structure that is capped by a "penthouse loggia" (Loeffler, 62). The unornamented exterior surface emphasizes the planar quality of the building envelope. The finish material is Italian travertine ("U.S. Architecture Abroad"). All four elevations contain windows; the longer elevations have eighteen bays, and the shorter elevations have seven bays. The loggia roof has circular openings along the elevations that face R. Mexico and Av. Pres. Wilson - one opening for every two bays. The nearest green space is across Av. Pres. Wilson at Praça Quatro de Julho, a public park approximately 150' x 150'. The structure is about 2000' west of the Santos Dumont Airport and 1500' northwest of the coast.
The Embassy originally appeared stark in its context due to lack of ornament, and even though the height and the modern style were not radical for Rio at the time it was built in 1952, the structure stood out in its immediate surroundings.
At the time of its construction in 1952, it was the tallest and considered the most conspicuous building ever constructed by the State Department (Loeffler, 62).
An embassy is a "tangible emblem of a foreign nation's presence" and no other country explored this building type as a tool for cultural diplomacy as vastly as the United States did (Sennott, 400-401). After World War II there was a rise in demand for office buildings within the United States and overseas. In this golden age of development and emerging era of optimism post-war, the modern style allowed Americans to break free of the past and the mentality of being held back by tradition. American President, Harry S. Truman, enacted a new foreign policy in the Truman Doctrine in 1946, declaring worldwide "containment" (Chasteen, 286). This was in response to the advent of the Cold War and the infiltration of Communism in foreign nations. With the belief that "the right to freedom from oppression was universal", Truman proclaimed "that foreign policy should never lose sight of its reasons for existence: the American democracy and its principles" (Pierce, 166). The focus of this policy was on Europe, but the scope was worldwide.
The structure is in the style of an office tower, typical of Harrison & Abramovitz. The use of Italian travertine and the placement of a logia on top emphasizes its monumentality, evoking Classical grandeur. However, modern design was generally broadcasted as "clean and friendly" in comparison to the "pretentious classicism" still being utilized by other countries during the mid-twentieth century (U.S. Architecture Abroad). The design of the Embassy in Rio, among others, was later critiqued for being an "isolated modern creation ... with no relation to the urban fabric" (Saarinen, 288). Fire stops were not installed in the building, which was a requirement of construction both in Rio and the United States; therefore just before completion, a fire started by a welding rod spread to the top of the building through a pipe shaft (Loeffler, 62-63). The elevators had to be replaced, and months passed before the $150,000.00 in damage to the building was repaired (Loeffler, 63). This generated discussion about meeting safety standards of the United States and locales abroad.
The US Embassy in Rio de Janeiro was recognized at the time of its construction in 1952 as a major statement in the modern style. When Brasilia became the capital of Brazil and subsequent location of the Embassy in 1971, the building in Rio was preserved and continued to serve an administrative purpose for the United States as the US Consulate. American Architects Harrison & Abramovitz completed a wealth of projects between 1945 and 1976, most of which serve as prime examples of the mid-twentieth century office tower. Most of their work is in the northeastern and midwestern United States, but the fact that some of their work was done internationally, including the US embassies in Rio de Janeiro and Havana as well the the UN buildings speaks to the epitomization of their Modernist design.
As of 2013, there are no foreseeable threats to the preservation of this building. It is physically maintained as it continues to function as an administrative building for the United States in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The former U.S. Embassy (now U.S. Consulate) blends in better now with its urban context than it did originally, yet it still stands out as a remarkable modern building. The structure is significant because it is one of the few examples of American idealism realized through architecture in a foreign nation in the mid-twentieth century.
Chasteen, John Charles and James Atwood, editors. Problems in Modern Latin American History: Sources and Interpretations. Scholarly Resources, Inc., 2004: 286-289.
"The History of the Building of the U.S. Consulate in Rio de Janeiro". Consulate General of the United States website. Accessed January 23, 2013.
Pierce, Anne R. Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman: Mission and Power in American Foreign Policy. Westport, CN: Praeger, 2003.
Loeffler, Jane C. The Architecture of Diplomacy: Assessing America's Embassies. Princeton Architectural Press,1998: 60-64.
Saarinen, Eero, Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, and Donald Albrecht. Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future. Yale University Press, 2006: 288,290.
Sennott, Stephen, ed. "Embassy". Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture: A-F. Taylor & Francis, 2004: 400-401.
"U.S. Architecture Abroad: Modern design at its best now represents this country in foreign lands". Architectural Forum. March 1953.
"The U.S. Consulate in Rio de Janeiro". Consulate General of the United States website. Accessed January 23, 2013.