Sao Paolo’s Modernist Buildings: Beautiful & Soulless

A recent trip to São Paulo has our editor in chief thinking about the nature of cities.

Each time I visit a global metropolis, I take a rather unscientific survey: Is this city humane or inhumane? Soulful or soul-sapping? Textured or bland? Then I go on to ask: Do I feel secure here? Is the rhythm of movement pleasingly brisk? Does the city connect to the chunk of earth it occupies?

My hometown of New York City (population 8,244,910) is made up of a peninsula and islands, one slim with a disciplined grid and a grand park in the middle. From my historically textured downtown neighborhood, I can walk to the newly revived waterfront or sit in a park and listen to impromptu musical performances. Humane, soulful, textured: this fast-paced city began as a financial deal and grew up with this ethos of trade.

Before a recent visit to São Paulo, the financial center of Brazil, I studied photos of its array of modern high-rises; thousands of them crowd the skyline of this city of 11,244,367. Though I felt a wave of alienation, I was determined to come face-to-face with the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer, Lina Bo Bardi, and Ruy Ohtake.

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For years I had marveled at Niemeyer’s 38-story condo, the Copan, with its dramatic, undulating facade. But when I entered the massive concrete building’s ground floor, I found a dank interior with questionable detailing, cluttered with cut-rate businesses, reaffirming my long-held belief that a city can be truly experienced only on its streets and inside its buildings. Starchitecture has nothing to do with effective place-making.

When I walked the wealthy Jardins District, with its purveyors of high-end brands and eateries, I noticed men wearing white shirts and black suits, cleaving close to the fancy addresses fronted by double gates, creating wrought-iron cages­­—presumably to capture thieves. (The Los Angeles Times reported that more than 4,100 people were killed in São Paulo in 2012.)

As I watched the well-dressed with their branded shopping bags being buzzed into their safe havens, I wondered if they indeed felt secure, if their security men in black really did deter the desperate poor from wresting some of that well-guarded wealth. Humane? A place that tolerates such dramatic income diversity cannot be humane. Soulful? A settlement carved out of the jungle by Portuguese, German, and Japanese immigrants and African slaves who, together, created distinct music and food is definitely soulful. But a chunk of São Paulo’s soul is missing in its modernist buildings. Any city will become a fearful and bland habitation without the texture created by a diversity of people and a variety of architectural expressions.

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