Sao Paulo is home to some of the most famous buildings in South America. While the city displays Neo Gothic and Colonial architecture, it’s the buildings built by Brazil’s famous Modernists like Oscar Niemeyer and Lina Bo Bardi, as well as the contemporary structures of living legend Ruy Ohtake, that make Sao Paulo a hot spot for architectural tourism.
In the 20th century, Brazilian architecture became nearly synonymous with Modernist architecture, a minimalist approach focusing on form following function, using concrete and glass as building materials, and clean lines. While the Niemeyer-designed city of Brasilia is the poster child of this, Sao Paulo contains some of the most well-known Modernist works produced within the country: Edifício Copan, Sesc Pompéia, and the MASP. Contemporary Brazilian architecture has been heavily influenced by these concepts, however there are breaks from it, not only in design but in ideology, particularly in how a building can create equality.
While places like the Copan and SESC were designed to dissolve social hierarchies within their walls, contemporary structures, like Ohtake's Redondinhos actually help to promote this idea outside those walls and in the neighborhood (attracting new resources and infrastructure to the area), highlighting a way in which Brazil's flavelas (slums) could transform into nucleos urbanos (urban nuclei) in practice and in the public consciousness.
Shaped like a giant tilde, Edifício Copan swerves through central Sao Paulo and it known for its originality of design by Oscar Niemeyer and its rehabilitation by longtime caregiver Don Alfonso. When the building was initially commissioned by the Pan American Hotel Company in the 1950s, Sao Paulo was in a construction boom, and vertical expansion was on the rise. Niemeyer bucked the norm and opted for his beloved sinuous lines, making the Copan stand out from its waifish skyscraper neighbors, a horizontal behemoth with 1,160 apartments and its own zip code. After completion though, the Copan and surrounding neighborhood changed drastically, becoming a hub of drug deals and prostitution. When Don Alfonso became the building’s caretaker in the 1990s, he drove out crime, planned and secured funding for its physical restoration, and became a minor celebrity in the process. Currently, the Copan houses 4,000 residents and 70 businesses.
When Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi was handed a former drum factory and tasked to make it into a community center, she began to renovate it with the idea of creating a free space, not only easily accessible but publicly owned and enjoyed as well. She added towers and aerial walkways to connect them to the original structure, making a trip from the changing room to the tennis court a new experience, with all of Sao Paulo spread out below. She created new spaces within it by portioning rooms with thin concrete walls, and installing an indoor river to meander through it. The result of her careful planning was a space in which all ages participating in all kinds of interest could co-exist without hierarchy. In addition to a boardwalk known as “the beach,” the complex contains a theater famously split in two, swimming pools, cafeteria, library, exhibition halls, and chess area.
Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo (MASP)
The striking red piers of the Sao Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) frame its glass box above Avenida Paulista, simultaneously floating and espousing an immovable, protective presence for all who gather underneath it. Designed by the brilliant Lina Bo Bardi, the museum not only displays art, but serves as a facilitator of its creation. Bands, painters, and movement artists perform in the wall-less ground floor section of MASP, serving as a public meeting space. Bo Bardi combined both modernist and brutalist elements in the design and extended her populist style in the presentation method of the top level’s gallery exhibit. The open floor plan displays pieces encased in simple glass panels, dissolving the hierarchy employed by museums in conventional displaying methods.
A modernist watermelon and beloved creation of Japanese-Brazilian architect Ruy Ohtake, the Hotel Unique draws guests and revelers to Avenida Brigadeiro to admire its shape and drink at its rooftop bar. Ohtake, famous for many other structures like the Brazilian embassy in Tokyo, built the Unique to be a hotel with 95 rooms, each floor with more than the one below, due to the building’s inverted-arch-shape. From the outside, visitors can see Ohtake’s use of negative space beneath the building, while inside, the floors of the rooms appear to be rising. Rooms contain furniture crafted to fit their particular shapes: beds built into the wall and even tables make a slanting floor feel level. Stay in the Unique to get a more rounded view of it, or just visit the Sky Bar to sit by its ruby-red pool and see panoramic views of the city.
Sao Paulo Cathedral (Sé Cathedral)
Located in the exact center of the city at Praça da Sé, the Sao Paulo Cathedral shows off neo-gothic architecture with a twist in the form of its Renaissance-style dome. Measuring 72,118 square feet with an 8,000-person capacity, it is the second largest church in the city, distinguishable not only by its teal roof but also by its two 300-feet-tall towers. Designed by German architect Maximilian Emil Hehl, its construction began in 1913 but did not finish until 1967. Inside, marble reliefs of armadillos, cacao trees, and coffee pay homage to Brazil’s flora and fauna, while underneath the church, a massive crypt with more sculptures depict Biblical scenes and Catholic saints. The crypt itself is a veritable who’s-who of dead Brazilians, with such luminaries as Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, the creator of airship design entombed there in bronze.
For a sampling of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Oscar Niemeyer’s work and modernist architecture, head to Ibirapuera Park. Originally commissioned as part of the city’s 400th anniversary celebration, Niemeyer designed the buildings that now house the Afro Brazilian Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC), and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Due to budget cuts, the buildings had to be simplified from their original plans. Thus, their cumulative effect is generally seen as being greater than their individual ones, though the red-tongued Ibirapuera Auditorium and the concrete dome of the Oca (reminiscent to the huts of indigenous Brazilians) definitely stand out on their own.
Inside Sao Paulo’s largest flavela Heliópolis, 19 brightly colored cylindrical buildings, designed by prolific architect Ruy Ohtake, rise four stories above the street. Each of the buildings contains 18 apartments without corridors, intentionally designed that way after Ohtake fielded concerns from residents about illicit activities happening in other area housing projects’ corridors. Ohtake added other innovative touches, giving them a rounded shape and allowing for both direct sunlight and ventilation to easily enter the buildings.
A misquote of Ohtake saying Heliópolis was the ugliest part of Sao Paulo led to him beginning a dialogue with Heliópolis’s community leaders in 2003. He worked with the community to design new buildings for Heliópolis, and liaised with a paint company to teach residents practical painting skills. A massive beautification of Heliópolis ensued, and today the bright yellows and deep purples of its facades stand as reminder of this relationship and the investment the residents of Heliópolis have in their community.