Occupying nearly half of the South American landmass and containing more than 50 percent of the continent's population, Brazil seems at first glance to be a market ripe for foreign architects. Although a long-ruling military government and repressive politics placed the country at the margins of world events from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, political democratization since then has brought it back to center stage. An economy that had boomed in the face of the recent global recession, and preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics piqued foreign interest in a nation with more than 200 million people. U.S. exports to Brazil reached nearly $44 billion in 2012, up 68 percent from their 2009 level. But Brazil represents not just a vast untapped consumer market for U.S. investors; North American architects recognize the opportunity to offer their services as well, especially in the urban design and infrastructure sectors.
It might be tempting to make comparisons to China and oil-rich countries in the Middle East that enthusiastically called on big-name designers to create architectural bling in recent years, but Brazil hasn't welcomed foreign architects in the same way. Unlike those nations, Brazil has a strong Modernist architectural heritage, though it is sometimes ignored. “The thought is, 'With excellent architects in Brazil, why hire a firm from overseas?” says Zeuler R. M. de A. Lima, author of Lina Bo Bardi, a comprehensive look at one of Brazil's leading 20th-century architects (page 90).

To help open the door to U.S. firms, the American Institute of Architects partnered with the U.S. Department of Commerce in October on an architectural trade mission to Recife and Rio. “We were essentially a matchmaking service,” says Jessica Salmoiraghi, AIA's director of federal relations and counsel. “We set up one-on-one meetings and held receptions attended by local business owners.” While the AIA is unable to confirm if any of the participants landed work in Brazil, a similar mission in 2012 led by British Prime Minister David Cameron, which included leaders from Zaha Hadid's and Norman Foster's firms, yielded substantial results. Foster has since set up a studio in São Paulo, and Hadid's office confirms it is working on a hotel in Rio.

Foreign architects have found success in Brazil before. Le Corbusier led the way in the 1930s, collaborating with Lúcio Costa and Affonso Eduardo Reidy on the pioneering Ministry of Education and Health Building in Rio. More recently, Santiago Calatrava began building the Museum of Tomorrow as part of the effort to transform Rio's waterfront. But it is not always easy going. Christian de Portzamparc's Cidade das Artes, while partly open, sits unfinished, with a lawsuit pending against the French Pritzker Prize laureate.

Though Herzog & de Meuron's simple 21,000-square-foot Arena do Morro gymnasium just opened in the Mãe Luiza favela in Natal in northern Brazil, its much larger Cultural Complex Luz for São Paulo, in the works since 2009, was recently suspended. There is also the inevitable backlash by locals still resistant to foreign designers. Not even the Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza was spared the outcry by citizens of Porto Alegre, where his Iberê Camargo Foundation opened in 2008. But the success of that building has softened the criticism. “Porto Alegre has become a destination for architectural tourists,” says Hugo Segawa, a professor of archi- ​tecture at the University of São Paulo and author of Architecture of Brazil: 1900–1990. “It shows that bringing in foreign architects and their expertise could be a good thing.”

While global firms SOM and KPF have gotten their toes wet completing buildings in Brazil, firms such as Perkins+Will, Gensler, and AECOM have established offices there. José Gelabert-Navia, Perkins+Will's regional director for Latin America, has been traveling to Brazil from Miami for over eight years. “We can work very effectively with partner offices in the rest of South America,” he says. “But it became obvious that, if you don't have an office run by Brazilians, you can't work in Brazil.” When health-care products company Covidien, which had discussed working with Perkins+Will, embarked on a substantial building project in Brazil, it prompted the architectural firm to form a strategic partnership with São Paulo firm Rocco Vidal in August 2012. The staff has since grown from 50 to 70—comparable in size to its New York office. “There is an extraordinary opportunity in Brazil for the expertise we bring in health care, research, and master planning,” says Gelabert-Navia.

Gensler found its niche designing for tech companies. Luca Panhota leads the firm's São Paulo studio, which opened in 2010 when working on local offices for Facebook, Intel, and others. Though Brazilian, Panhota had practiced architecture almost exclusively in the U.S. “Contractors were shocked by the detail of our drawing sets,” he recalls. “Normally, they try to solve everything during construction, without the architect's input.” Another challenge architects face is Brazilian law itself, which requires public building projects to go to the lowest bidder. “We were invited to bid on the Olympic velodrome,” says Panhota, “but we declined.”

With nearly 50,000 employees worldwide, AECOM sees urban regeneration projects as an entry point in new markets. Even though its 2010 scheme to redevelop São Paulo's blighted Nova Luz district appears to have been abandoned, working in Brazil is an “investment in time,” according to Bill Hanway, project leader of AECOM's winning bid for the 2016 Rio Olympics master plan. And despite AECOM's enormous size, Hanway admits that success is “strongly based around personal relationships.”

A smaller firm with a big stake in Brazil, Davis Brody Bond has offices in New York and Washington, D.C., and opened a third, in São Paulo in 2007. “Our client made us do it,” says partner Steven Davis, whose work with global manufacturing firm Valeo spanned more than a decade. “They said they could no longer pay us in the States.” Brazil's protectionist laws impose at least a 14.75 percent tax on foreign professionals, though clients may end up paying as much as a 40 percent premium.

Led by Harvard-trained São Paulo native Anna Dietzsch, the office has also completed several neighborhood-revitalization projects, including the award-winning Victor Civita Plaza in São Paulo, which transformed a brownfield site into a recreational area and was among the first public-private urban renewal projects in Brazil.

Despite such groundbreaking work, Dietzsch admits that the process can be frustrating, especially for a “squeaky clean” firm, as Davis puts it. “The architect has much less control in Brazil,” says Dietzsch. “And, whereas architects generally earn two-thirds of the design fee, and engineers get one-third in the U.S., it is the reverse in Brazil.”

Some Brazilian clients know from the start that they want a foreign architect. For example, private developer WTorre hired Arquitectonica to design a high-end mall and office towers in São Paulo. Eskew+Dumez+Ripple is now designing a multiuse theater for the site. “I think they were looking for a firm that could do more innovative work than they could get in Brazil,” says partner Steve Dumez.

The Fundação Roberto Marinho, established by the billionaire founder of Brazil's Organizações Globo, hired Santiago Calatrava to design the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio in 2010 and–after throwing out the results of a first competition among Brazilian architects–Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) to design Rio's Museum of Image and Sound in 2009. “Rio sees itself as a global city,” explains Elizabeth Diller. “There is interest in bringing in foreign architects.” It was DS+R's multidisciplinary approach that struck a nerve with the culturally diverse jury. “Rio is a place of tremendous organizational problems, incredible natural beauty, a wealthy population, tourists, and favelas,” adds Diller. “That collision is something we saw as an interesting opportunity right on Copacabana Beach.”

While most foreign firms doing a project in Brazil hand it off to the local architect after design development, DS+R chose to execute construction documents from New York, while still working closely with Rio firm Indio da Costa on 3-D modeling and construction supervision. “A lot of what's been built in Brazil in the last 20 years is pretty straightforward,” says DS+R project leader Chris Andreacola, noting a dearth of innovative architecture. “In some ways our project represents a reemergence of Rio de Janeiro.” The project is expected to be completed in time for the Rio Olympics.

As Brazil's economy slows and the impact of big events like the World Cup and Olympics wears off, firms such as Davis Brody Bond that are committed to their Brazilian presence plan to stay the course. Steven Davis points to construction giant Odebrecht as an example of a Brazilian company that finds his firm's mix of North American expertise and local execution very attractive. Hugo Segawa, the author and professor, believes foreign designers can help reconnect architecture to popular culture—the way Niemeyer had—though he cautions, “We don't need 'star' architects, but good, everyday architecture, and education.”

Josephine Minutillo, a former senior editor at RECORD, writes about architecture for many publications.