Northeastern architecture marked by typical features of colonial structures

centro histórico de João Pessoa
Baroque Architecture, Colonial Brazil

Arquitetura Nordestina has baroque buildings erected by the sugar society mark the starting point of the long and diverse path taken by Northeastern architecture over five centuries.

On the balconies of the sobrados of old São Salvador there are memories of maidens from the times of the emperor,” sang Dorival Caymmi in the early 1940s.

The sobrados are still there, full of stories, in the center of the city, and constitute one of the country’s most remarkable architectural ensembles.

Salvador’s houses are not isolated: they belong to a vast heritage built over the centuries in northeastern Brazil.

This heritage includes a large number of fortresses, built to defend the colony’s extensive coastline from the harassment of invaders and pirates (there were fifteen forts in Salvador’s Baía de Todos os Santos alone).

Arquitetura Barroca no Brasil

The great architectural heritage of the Northeast, however, is the countless churches that are scattered mainly along its coastal strip.

Most of them were built by the religious orders that accompanied the colonizers, especially the Jesuits: the Society of Jesus worked intensively in the region until 1759, when it was expelled from Brazil – it therefore had time and influence to imprint on the colony what is called the Jesuit style, marked by “more Renaissance compositions, more moderate, regular and cold, still imbued with the severe spirit of the Counter-Reformation”, according to the arguiteto Lucia Costa.

Churches from the 16th to the early 18th century have simple, generally rectangular plans and sober, bare façades.

Inside, however, one finds the elaborate ornamental solutions typical of the Baroque – as if, echoing the ideals of the Society of Jesus, they valued the virtues of the spirit rather than of appearance.


The Europeans with their architectural style dominated the Tupiniquin lands, especially in sacred architecture, with the luxury and richness of details in the decoration of the churches. The houses, in turn, were initially simpler. Even the big house of the farms had few decorative elements, despite the huge internal space and the beautiful balconies;

This is because much of the wealth generated in Brazil went to Europe. The luxury in the residences began to become more evident, however, with the arrival of the Portuguese royal family to the country, who landed in Salvador in 1808 and soon after went to Rio de Janeiro;

With the advancement of urbanization of cities in the 17th century and the need to protect housing against the attack of pirates on the coast, the semi-detached houses appear, following a more compact model.

The façades practically formed a large “wall”. The open area, in turn, was behind. Commercial activity was carried out on the first floor – hence the predominance of large doors. The dwelling was on the upper floor;

Rua de João Pessoa com a presença marcante das cores na decoração das casas
Street of João Pessoa in Paraiba with the striking presence of colors in the decoration of the houses

Revitalized from the end of the 20th century, many buildings in northeastern Brazil received colorful paints on their facades, making the streets more cheerful and becoming a tourist attraction.

See also Colors of houses and buildings in the colonial architecture of the northeast


Also in the churches of the northeast, the azulejaria began to gain ground at the end of the 17th century. At that time, the material used in churches in Bahia was ordered and brought directly from Lisbon, Portugal.

In fact, it was from the Portuguese that Brazilians adopted the taste for tiles, used to form panels that depicted customs of the colonial era and also traditions of Christianity;

In houses, this decorative element began to conquer the facades around the 19th century, as in São Luís and Belém. Maranhão is also noteworthy, as it began to cover its houses with tiles thanks to the development of cotton exploitation in the region.

Houses and Military Forts

Although it has maintained the containment of the external layout as a central characteristic, Northeastern religious architecture has undergone transformations over time: the simple pediment without towers of the 17th century evolved into the facades flanked by bell towers of the 18th century churches.

The altarpieces also became more profuse and finely ornamented over the centuries, boasting rich gilded carvings – hardwood carvings covered in gold leaf.

Often, the same building has several styles, the result of the constant renovations, extensions and reconstructions that the works underwent as the sugar society prospered. A key element in the ornamentation of colonial churches is the painting of the theta.

Illusionistic perspective techniques developed by 17th-century Italian artists began to be used in Brazil in the second quarter of the 18th century, most prominently in Recife and Salvador with its fortresses and churches.

 Igreja de São Pedro dos Clérigos
Igreja de São Pedro dos Clérigos PE

This feature can be seen on the ceiling of the nave of the Church of São Pedro dos Clérigos, in the capital of Pernambuco, and in that of the church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia in Salvador – the latter painted by José Joaquim da Rocha, one of the great names of the Brazilian Baroque.

Finally, it is worth highlighting the wide use of azulejos, which came from the Metropolis in the 18th century to embellish the exterior of buildings, the domes of towers (such as that of the Franciscan Convent of João Pessoa), the cloisters and sacristies – curiously, these places for the private use of priests were lavishly decorated in Northeastern churches, possibly because they were also used by members of the local aristocracy.

The magnificent sacristy of the Basilica Cathedral of Salvador, where the large wooden chest inlaid with tortoiseshell and ivory stands out, is an example of this sumptuousness.

Baroque architecture

Interior da igreja de São Francisco de Assis em Salvador
Interior of the church of São Francisco de Assis in Salvador

Erected by the sugar society, the baroque buildings are a kind of initial landmark of the Northeastern architecture, translating a cultural trend that began in Europe in the 16th century, but with a Brazilian touch.

Fases da arquitetura religiosa e Arquitetura Barroca

Very present in the churches of the northeast, Baroque architecture is characterized by the curves and richness of details in the buildings and monuments, as well as the grandeur in its buildings, with the intention of exalting the principles and customs of Christianity, spreading its ideas through art.

The construction of most of the churches in Bahia, in particular, was due to the action of the religious orders that accompanied the colonizers, especially the Jesuits.

Initially, the parishes had sober and bare façades. At the beginning of the 17th century, elaborate Baroque solutions emerged, giving these places a unique touch.

Convex or concave facades, which reinforce the idea of movement, rounded columns, arches, abundance of gilding, paintings rich in details and exuberant decorative elements are among the striking features.

Vsee also History of the Baroque of Minas Gerais 


sugar culture
sugar culture

The sugar culture determined the development of a particular type of architecture.

The rural properties were real complexes that included the big house, where the masters lived, the senzala, where the slaves were housed, and the indispensable chapel, in addition to the mill itself, with its machinery.

As sugar production prospered, the buildings became more luxurious.

The initial rammed earth was replaced by masonry, and the low and bare house by the manor house.

The Solar do Unhão, built for the residence of the judge Pedro Unhão Castelo Branco in the 17th century, is an example of both the refinement and the accumulation of functions of rural properties: it housed a large house, a slave quarters, a chapel, warehouses and a pier.

In 1962, the complex was restored by the architect Lina Bo Bardi and today houses the Museum of Modern Art.

The entire life of the owners took place within the limits of the mill; in the early years of the colony, the cities were little more than commercial warehouses and administrative centers, with modest houses.

When, at the beginning of the 19th century, the process of urbanization accelerated, the most sumptuous buildings began to appear, the grandiose townhouses that housed the elite’s lavish houses.

In the capital of Maranhão São Luís – whose wealth came from cotton, not sugar – the façades of the sobrados were covered with Portuguese tiles, like those used in churches in Pernambuco and Bahia.

In the Northeast, as throughout the colony, sobrados also performed a dual function for small traders, who carried out their activities on the first floor and lived on the upper floor.

In the semi-arid northeast, on the other hand, properties linked to livestock farming had simple masonry houses, devoid of ornamentation, but – as in the big houses on the coast – with porches or verandas that often served as living rooms.

There were two types of houses in colonial times

The architecture of the northeastern region of Brazil is very much marked by typical features of colonial structures, inheriting from Portuguese urban traditions the streets in regular layout and the buildings on the alignment of the lot, whose facades border the boundaries of the land.

Architectural Platibanda in the northeast
Architectural Platibanda

The colonial houses have about ten meters of facade and great depths. The streets, in turn, are defined by the fronts of the houses. Sidewalks were unusual.

There are two predominant types of housing from the colonial period, quite common in the architecture of northeastern Brazil: the single-storey house and the sobrados. One-storey houses are more popular.

They were also characterized by the beaten floor. In contrast, the economically more favored classes adopted the sobrado, which, in addition to having two floors, has a parquet floor.

Both have gable roofs, which discharge rainwater to the front and back of the houses. To solve this issue, gutters and eaves were adopted to lead the waterfall to a specific point.

Architectural Platibanda
Architectural Platibanda

Characterized as the highest part of the façade, the platbands had the function of hiding the roof, avoiding the discharge of rainwater into the streets and, more than that, decorating the houses in the city center.

Enrichment from the monocultures of the northeast – such as sugar cane in Pernambuco – gave rise to the desire for social affirmation, which led to the emergence of a variety of ornaments for the platbands, mixing Gothic, neoclassical and even art nouveau styles, classified by Lemos (1989) as “neocolonial”.

The style brings together solutions inspired by the past, which became popular during the 1920s and the beginning of the following decade.

It is common to find in the cities of Recife, Natal, Salvador and the northeastern interior public buildings with platbands adorned with sculptures of women in china, eagles, symbolizing independence and freedom, royal signs, baroque shells, arches, balusters. It is also common to find on platbands the year in which the construction was completed.

A rich collection of platibandas can be appreciated in the historic centers of the capitals and historic cities of the Northeast.

Arquitetônico Platibanda
Arquitetônico Platibanda

It is important to mention that the revitalization of houses in historic centers in the Northeast has boosted tourism and, consequently, the economy of these cities, such as João Pessoa, Salvador and inland cities such as Ilhéus and Canavieiras.

The lime-based paintings of each house, elaborated on irregular facades and platbands, are the result of centuries-old artisanal practices of whitewashing – a technique that has gradually been replaced by new materials and processes without the same characteristics.

Later, platbands were no longer included in municipal codes. However, their use remained common in some regions of the northeast, although the southeast of Brazil has modernized in industrial terms, reflected in architecture.

The memory of the golden age of monocultures in the northeast is alive in the houses of the reference cities. However, in the interior, platibandas are common not only because of history, but also because of cultural ties related to identity.

What is Platibanda?

The architectural term Platibanda designates a horizontal strip (wall or railing) that frames the upper part of a building and has the function of hiding the roof.

Facade of the house with platbands
Facade of the house with platbands

It can be used in various types of construction, such as houses and churches, and became a characteristic ornament during the Gothic style.

Modernly, it is common to use platbands in houses that were once residential and now house some type of commerce.

In order to hide the property’s former vocation, the façade is modernized and a platiband (which can be a wall higher than the roof, thus hiding it and taking away the appearance of the house) is placed.

In addition to this utility, platbands were also designed to enhance the construction and decorate the building.

Among the most common elements in this type of structure are the record of the year of construction, baroque shells, eagles and sculptures of women, among others.

In capitals such as Salvador, Recife and Natal, you can find many houses and public buildings in which the platibandas stand out. In addition to being a reference to the times of monocultures, they are linked to the cultural identity of the Northeast.

The lime painting of platibands and facades is a handicraft practice that has been practiced for a long time and is very characteristic of the region.

Video about Rural architecture of the Seridó hinterland

Arquitetura rural do sertão do Seridó


The Seridó is a micro-region of the semi-arid region of Rio Grande do Norte, characterized by a caatinga vegetation and very eroded land due to the regime of scarcity and uneven distribution of rainfall.

Settlement began in the 17th century and today the region is home to around 300,000 people, 42% of whom live in rural areas.

Livestock was the activity that led to the settlement of families in the sertão potiguar and the cultivation of cotton, which later presented itself as a very profitable economic activity, was the expander and strengthener of the population’s settlement in the Seridó.

The cattle ranches in the region are examples of great importance to the architectural heritage of Brazil.

Although built with modest forms, without the signature of architects, their constructions were based on vernacular knowledge (both in making and appreciating), containing intrinsic logic linked to their function.

Unfortunately, this collection, fundamental to the identity of the region and to Rio Grande do Norte, has been dilapidated, so this research aims to contribute to the preservation and dissemination of culture, tradition and rural built heritage of Seridó-RN.

See Rural architecture of the Seridó hinterland

See Inventory of Rural Buildings in the Seridó


In the mid-19th century, newly independent Brazil was building its new face, turning its back on the colonial and baroque past.

Palácio do Campo das Princesas PE
Palácio do Campo das Princesas PE

Thus, in 1840, Recife was afforested and gained public transportation network with stagecoaches and piped water; erected at that time the Palácio do Campo das Princesas, of 1840, the Santa Isabel Theater, of 1850, and the Liceu de Artes e Oficias, of 1880.

Other cities were remodeled, and many capitals transferred from the old colonial cities: the capital of Piauí went from Oeiras to Teresina, in 1852, and that of Sergipe, from São Cristóvão to Aracaju in 1855.

The transformative impulse continued in the early years of the 20th century, when a major urban reform along the lines of that undertaken in Rio de Janeiro instituted urban sanitation measures and remodeled the city, demolishing much of the old Bairro do Recife.

The same occurred in other capitals, such as João Pessoa and Salvador.

Forum of Teresina (1972), Acácio Gil Borsoi
Forum of Teresina, Acácio Gil Borsoi

The modern architecture that flourished in Brazil between the 1930s and 1960s arrived in the Pernambuco capital through the hands of professionals such as Acácio Gil Borsoi from Rio de Janeiro and Delfim Amorim from Portugal, two of the creators of the so-called Recife School, which would spread throughout the Northeast.

Among the architects who introduced new elements to the region’s landscape were Luís Nunes, Mário Russo, Mário Láscio, Carlos Alberto Carneiro da Cunha and Liberal de Castro.

From the 1970s onwards, revitalization projects recovered the historic center of several colonial cities, such as São Luís and Salvador.

At the same time, in the hinterlands and outskirts one finds popular houses of unique features, small and very colorful, with ornate platbands – a complement to Jesuit austerity, Baroque excess and modern rationality, a spontaneous, cheerful and solar architecture like the Northeastern culture itself.

Northeastern Architecture

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