The museum, an angular gray concrete structure by Affonso Reidy, is surrounded by a Roberto Burle Marx garden. The famed Brazilian landscape artist designed many of Rio’s parks, Brasília’s hanging gardens and Copacabana’s iconic sidewalk mosaics. Marx’s signature was using native plants in abstract arrangements, explains Costa, who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of all manner of local trivia—artists and architects, imports and exports, the Dutch settling in the north and the Portuguese in the south. Inside, a Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition is on display, but Costa finds the view more appealing. “You’re more tempted to look out than to look in,” he observes. “I’m sure [Reidy] had total sense that the building would be so much more important than anything you put in it. It’s a very self-centered way of design, but it’s great.” The place is practically deserted today and the desolate concrete monolith exudes an eerie beauty. “People don’t really go to museums in Rio,” says Costa, citing a recent Vik Muniz exhibit as a rare example of something that got the city excited about the arts. “I shouldn’t say it’s not sophisticated, but you know, they go to the beach.”
Yet Rio is known as a city of contradictions and divides, which are perhaps nowhere more evident than in the favelas—on panoramic view from the Santa Teresa hills. While Costa notes that the slums are essential to Brazilian culture, they are also highly symbolic of poverty, drug wars and corruption. Crawling up the hills like weeds, the slipshod houses make for a mesmerizing image, but when a favela photo op is proposed, Costa isn’t interested. Instead, he diverts attention uphill to the retro tram that runs along the historic streets of Santa Teresa, where Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus was filmed. At the peak is Hotel Santa Teresa, an oasis of chic perched among the colonial mansions. In a former life, it was a place of refuge for divorcées, or divorciadas, but it has been reborn as a luxury boutique hotel replete with a spa and a restaurant with a chef imported from France. The manager interrupts lunch to greet Costa, offering the hotel’s finest suite for photos and boasting that Calvin Klein was a recent visitor.
A museum, a hotel—such destinations don’t necessarily paint an intimate portrait of Costa as a Rio de Janeiran expat. In fact, some—specifically the Museu Carmen Miranda and Garota de Ipanema—are, by the designer’s own admission, kitschy, a little touristy. Then again, Costa, who left Rio for New York 25 years ago and became an American citizen in 1995, is a visitor himself these days. His trips to Brazil are less frequent than he would like—a week or so once or twice a year split between Rio and Guarani. When in the former, Costa typically stays at a friend’s house in Ipanema, but this trip has him at the Philippe Starck–designed Hotel Fasano. “Rio was a period of my life and then, poof, I’m gone,” says Costa. “I was very young living here, just kind of floating. New York was a foundation for everything I do today. Rio was the bridge.”