Sao Paulo: museum of modernism

São Paulo is a museum of modernism: a city that exploded during the years when self-consciously modern architecture was at its most confident, daring and dynamic. A single iconic image of the city might be a cityscape of endless towers fading into the horizon, or perhaps the irresistible photos of luxurious high-rise apartment blocks with barbecues and pools on their terraces, set against the favelas’ jostling red roofs. This is a city of magnificent buildings with nothing to bind them together, all muscle and no connective tissue.

As a result, despite its size, its density and its burgeoning wealth, São Paulo can fail to feel like a city at all. Instead it feels, at street level, like an endless collection of compounds. There are malls and offices, guarded apartment blocks behind heavy electric gates and villa complexes behind high walls and sentry boxes. And on those walls is inscribed the frustration in this separation, as well as the creative tension inherent in the city’s streets. São Paulo is rich with graffiti, some seductive, much stupid and pointless, but the walls that have come to characterise a dysfunctional city centre have been highlighted by taggers and artists and the city’s own form of graffiti merchant, the pixaçãos, who daub their rune-like tags in long black letters across seemingly inaccessible structures. The graffiti seems to compensate for the lack of billboards (they were banned in 2007), so visual clutter is replaced by a more bottom-up expression as walls become fiercely symbolic and contested surfaces.

All these attributes combine to give São Paulo’s disconnected public space a special character. Its peculiarities are exacerbated by its odd structure. Most cities develop a successful core and, as it becomes too expensive, hipper, younger enclaves spring up in the marginal buildings around its edges. The hipper, greener – or just richer – enclaves have developed in São Paulo, in Jardins or Vila Madalena, but they have developed to allow people to escape the centre, which has long been in decline. São Paulo’s downtown evokes those in the US that suffered the “doughnut” effect as wealthier whites abandoned the centres for the suburbs in the postwar era.

The interior of Praça das Artes

Yet there have been architectural efforts to revive São Paulo’s ailing downtown. The city’s greatest architect, the Pritzker prizewinning Paulo Mendes da Rocha, built the wonderful Pinacoteca Museum in the 1990s, inserting a series of new steel structures into the original crumbling carapace. In 1992 he also designed the theatrical and markedly eccentric Arch of the Patriarch, a curving steel canopy floating above a downtown square populated mostly by the homeless. Part of the beautiful Luz station (designed and built in Glasgow and shipped over in bits in 1901) was redesigned as a museum of the Portuguese language in 2006 and there have been many other fine projects. But the most recent is the most impressive of all.

The Praça das Artes, vast and complex, spreads into a convoluted series of leftover spaces in the neglected city centre and the filigree interiors of the site’s remaining historic buildings. Completed in 2012, it houses a concert hall, a conservatory, a theatre museum, rehearsal facilities and a dance school, all within an interlocking composition of concrete volumes. The blocks are defined by different colours of concrete – earthy tones ranging from urban grey-beige to pinky parched earth – and windows are punched through in an abstract, painterly composition. It has the muscle to make an impact without overwhelming the buildings around it. That its walls are already heavily spray-tagged allows it to slot right in.

But more than its mass or its elevations, what defines this vast, parasitic piece of infill are the wonderful urban spaces the architects have created at its centre. Rather than just a single building – which would have been far easier and cheaper – the architects, Brasil Arquitetura, have created a grand public courtyard at its heart. It is a gesture that continues a Paulista tradition of allowing the public realm to flow seamlessly into and under public architecture. At the Praça das Artes the street is drawn into the building beneath the massive concrete floor of the structure suspended above. Inside is merged with outside as the building’s information desk (cast in concrete like nearly everything else here) is undercover but open-air, emerging from the ground like an abstract sculpture. The random collage of cut-outs in the concrete above confuses the differentiation between wall and ceiling, as if the building were wrapped in a single continuous surface.

SESC Pompéia by Lina Bo Bardi

It is only when inside that you realise how huge the centre is. This is an arts complex on the scale of a 1960s commercial building, with towers, slabs, bridges and the activity of a microcosmic city. In this it echoes other projects in São Paulo, most notably the extraordinary SESC Pompéia.

London might be inordinately (and deservedly) proud of its industrial-to- cultural-industrial powerhouse Tate Modern, but São Paulo got there more than two decades earlier with this conversion of a an old barrel fabricating works into the one of the world’s most remarkable cultural and community centres. Kicking against all the expectations of 1970s brutalism, the architect, Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1992), retained the solid industrial buildings on the site and created within and around them a landscape of sociability. There is gallery space, a theatre, a swimming pool and basketball court, a sun-deck boardwalk, a library and much more. The old factory spaces are populated by an eclectic mix of uses and a series of architectural interventions, from a concrete mezzanine that creates a library beneath it to an amoeboid lake excavated into the floor, make a consistently surprising space, always in use. This is a place where one can wander, and wonder, a sprawling reimagination of urban industry as public realm.

Casa de Vidro by Lina Bo Bardi

Bo Bardi’s most famous building, the MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo, 1957-68), also manipulates the public realm – this time by hitching the entire museum up a few storeys and allowing a public plaza to run beneath it. The effect is curious, a concrete and glass slab elevated and suspended beneath a pair of massive, red-painted arches, but it leaves a generous shaded space in the city centre, which might be populated by markets or concerts, picnics or protests.

It is no accident that all these buildings acknowledge civic space in such a profound and adventurous way. Bo Bardi was a dedicated communist who left her native Italy for Brazil with her husband in 1946, and her work reveals a persistent quest to create a kind of urban public space that was very different to the monumental plazas another communist architect, Oscar Niemeyer, was building in Brasilia in the 1950s. These are not formal plazas but rather spaces that encourage people to use them creatively.

The founders of Brasil Arquitetura, Marcelo Ferraz and Francisco Fanucci, worked with Bo Bardi on SESC Pompéia and the twin traditions of sculptural concrete and flowing public space have been fully absorbed. But other buildings, such as Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s Brazilian Sculpture Museum (1988) and even João Batista Vilanova Artigas’ stunning architecture school (1968) – in which a central atrium is open to the elements – create a Paulista urbanism of porous public and institutional space. It is exhilarating, inventive and there is nothing else quite like it.

São Paulo may be very far from a perfect city but it has in these buildings the germ of a building archetype that is more sophisticated, sympathetic, civic and resolutely modern than anything achieved elsewhere.

People in glass houses ...

When it was built, the house of the great Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi was suspended above the rainforest that tickled the edge of São Paulo. Now, the exquisite little glass house sits in Morumbi, one of the city’s most exclusive districts, but a tree still grows right through its heart. The Casa de Vidro, or Glass House, was finished in 1951 but appears as strikingly contemporary today as it did more than 60 years ago. Its particular blend of European modernism and Brazilian élan struck the super-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist as a place that might inspire artists, and he has used it for his latest exhibition The Insides are on the Outside.

Gilbert & George

The title was conceived, like every other part of the show, by an artist, in this case Douglas Gordon. Obrist tells me, “I’ve been doing this exhibition in houses ever since I was a student – I started in my kitchen. These homes produce a more intimate reaction in artists than a gallery or museum.” So far Obrist has curated similar shows – “a homage to the building and to the creator” – in Sir John Soane’s house in London, architect Luis Barragán’s house in Mexico and Federico García Lorca’s in Spain.

The Glass House is lifted on slender piloti (stilts) above the green hillside so that it seems to float in the foliage. “The artists were inspired by this defiance of gravity,” says Obrist. As the show’s second phase begins, the list of artists he has gathered includes Gilbert & George, incongruously here in their stiff suits like firedogs on either side of the grate. Nearby is Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima’s conception of glass bookshelves inspired by Bo Bardi’s house (Sejima exhibited Bo Bardi’s work at the centre of her Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010). Architects Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas will be represented, joined by Madelon Vriesendorp, Cinthia Marcelle, Olafur Eliasson, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Waltercio Caldas, Koo Jeong-A, Ernesto Neto and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, while Dan Graham is building a glass pavilion outside. The exhibition will change throughout the coming year.

The most intimate and revealing installation for me was Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles’ sound and smell installation. A male voice – that of Lina’s husband Pietro Maria Bardi – periodically booms out the phrase “Lina, va fare un caffé” (“Lina, go make a coffee”), which he apparently uttered each time a conversation was about to get political. The house is permeated with the smell of coffee in a moment, which is both painful and intimate, a reminder of the architect’s leftwing idealism (and her husband’s less liberal take) and the changing place of women. The whole ensemble is an elegant and rich exploration of how this most singular of architects still has the power to influence new generations.

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