It is one of the finest examples of Brazilian 1930s modernist architecture, designed in 1935 and 1936. It was designed by a team composed of Lucio Costa (future designer of the master plan of Brazil's modernist capital Brasília), along with Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Ernani Vasconcellos, Carlos Leão, Jorge Machado Moreira, and Roberto Burle Marx. Oscar Niemeyer, who became Brazil's best-known architect later, had a role as an intern in Costa's office. The group invited renowned Swiss-French Modernist architect Le Corbusier to oversee the project. Construction was begun by the Getúlio Vargas government in 1939 and was completed in 1943, to house Brazil's new Ministry of Education and Health.
In 1960 the national capital moved to Brasília, and the building became a regional Rio office for the ministry. The Ministry of Education and Health has since been divided into three: the Ministry of Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Culture, all in the building to the present day.
The building is named after author and educator Gustavo Capanema, who was the first Minister of Education of Brazil. It is located at Rua da Imprensa, 16, in the downtown Rio area of Castelo. Delighted with the shape of Guanabara Bay, Corbusier suggested that the building should be located next to the sea, instead of on an inner downtown street, but the government declined
The project was extremely bold for the time. It was the first modernist public building in the Americas, and on a much larger scale than anything Le Corbusier had built until then. Modernism as an aesthetic movement had a great impact in Brazil, and the building—which housed the office charged with cultivating Brazilian formal culture—included various elements of the movement. It also employed local materials and techniques, such as azulejos, blue and white glazed tiles linked to the Portuguese Colonial tradition, in modern wall murals.
Despite being a large office building of 15 stories, the structure has a distinct lightness to it, as it is raised 3 metres (9.8 ft) above the sidewalk on pilotis (pillars) with access unobstructed from surrounding sidewalks and pedestrian areas. The building embraces bold colours and contrasts of right angles and flowing curves, such as the vitreous blue curving structures on the roof hiding the water tanks and elevator machinery. An internal concrete frame allowed the two broad sides of the building to be entirely of glass. Tropical sunshine on northern glass walls is controlled by Corbusian brises-soleil (sun-shades) made adjustable in a system that was the first of its kind in the world.
Modernist tropical gardens were laid out by the great landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, and included native plants of Brazil the plant palette, unique at the time. A midlevel roof garden was designed to be seen 'in plan view' from the many floors of office windows above. Trees at ground level included majestic Imperial Palms (Roystonea oleracea).
The building also included specially commissioned works of other Brazilian artists. Most notable are the mural tiles outside and large wall paintings inside by Cândido Portinari, one of Brazil's most famous painters.