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Electric avenue: Avenida Paulista as a microcosm of urban Brazil

Avenida paulista sao paulo 1958 1966 architectural review brazil 1465 ciro miguel commissioned for the access for all exhibition catalogue

Both agora and acropolis, the Avenida Paulista in São Paulo is a melting pot for all sectors of society

São Paulo boasts nearly 49,000 streets, but one of them stands out: Avenida Paulista operates as both an agora and an acropolis for the 21.6 million inhabitants of Brazil’s economic capital. Like the agora, it is the city’s main public space, always available to be used and occupied for both intimate encounters and enormous gatherings. People go to the avenue to work, to eat, to shop; crowds unite to protest against politicians or to celebrate a football team championship; groups pop into its museums or sit and watch life pass by; some even call it home. From the poorest on the pavements to the wealthiest in the offices, it is a concentration of contrasts, a microcosm of urban Brazil, with all its dynamism and its divisions.

Like an acropolis, Avenida Paulista is the city’s highest point. If you walk up you are arriving, if you walk down you are moving away. Dozens of urban routes start and end on this street. São Paulo is a formless and seemingly endless metropolis, but Avenida Paulista is always there. As a reference point, a landmark both geographical and cultural, it reminds us of where we are in the city and who we are as a society.

‘Avenida Paulista operates as both an agora and an acropolis in an ancient Greek city for the 21.6 million inhabitants of São Paulo’

When Avenida Paulista was inaugurated on 8 December 1891, São Paulo was a small town of around 65,000 inhabitants. At the time, the new avenue was outside the urban perimeter. It was a vast single plot of land urbanised by its owner, the Uruguayan engineer Joaquim Eugênio de Lima.

Inspired by the great Parisian boulevards of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, a wide avenue more than 2.5 kilometres long was built. Carriages and trams shared the traffic lanes and on the large and tree-lined pavements pedestrians could stroll, delighted with the most modern place in their provincial citadel.

De Lima divided the area into large portions to be sold to the economic elite, composed of coffee farm owners, their exporters, the biggest local merchants and, in the first half of the 20th century, industrialists, many of whom were European immigrants. Amid large gardens, the richest of society built mansions in an eclectic blend of styles: Neoclassical, Florentine, Art Nouveau, Moorish, Brazilian Neocolonial and Spanish Mission Revival.

Jules martin avenida paulista no dia da inauguração, 8 de dezembro de 1891, acervo do museu paulista da usp architectural review brazil 1465

Jules martin avenida paulista no dia da inauguração, 8 de dezembro de 1891, acervo do museu paulista da usp architectural review brazil 1465

Jule Martin’s drawing of Avenida Paulista, which opened on 8 December 1891

Avenida Paulista may have symbolised modernity, but – simultaneously and contradictorily – it was also a quiet, aristocratic enclave. In 1909, this grandiose urban space was the first city road to be paved, but there were none of the crowds, movement and fuss that appear in Paris, London and New York. It was modernity for a few – a characteristic that persists in Brazilian society today.

Adam von bulow residence 1902 avenida paulista sao paulo architectural review brazil 1465

Adam von bulow residence 1902 avenida paulista sao paulo architectural review brazil 1465

Adam Von Bülow’s residence on Avenida Paulista, 1902

Eventually, having been a kind of suburban garden city, the avenue was incorporated into São Paulo’s urban area, which quickly expanded far beyond its reaches. Between 1900 and 1950, São Paulo went from 240,000 inhabitants to 2.6 million, one of the highest urban growth. In these decades, Avenida Paulista remained a small wealthy residential neighbourhood.

Edificio gazeta radio tower by jose carlos de figueiredo ferraz avenida paulista sao paulo 1958 1966 architectural review brazil 1465

Edificio gazeta radio tower by jose carlos de figueiredo ferraz avenida paulista sao paulo 1958 1966 architectural review brazil 1465

The Edíficio Gazeta radio tower conceived by engineer José Carlos de Figueiredo Ferraz, 1958-66

The old centre had begun to build upwards in the ’20s and then legislation mid-century left few impediments to the construction of tall buildings on the avenue. Heirs of the original house owners began to sell their enormous properties, moving to more distant residential neighbourhoods such as Jardim América and Morumbi, and Avenida Paulista began to have the skyline by which we recognise it today.

‘What appears to presage Avenida Paulista’s economic decay is, in fact, its democratisation’

The first of these buildings were residential, such as the Anchieta (1941) by the MMM Roberto brothers of Rio de Janeiro, the Três Marias (1952) and the Nações Unidas (1953) by another Carioca, Abelardo Reidy de Souza, the Paulicéia (1959) by the French Jacques Pilon with the Italian Gian Carlo Gasperini, and the Chipre and Gibraltar (1952) by the Italian Giancarlo Palanti, a former partner of Lina Bo Bardi in interior design. Not only did these six projects indicate how São Paulo was a city of foreigners, but they were authentic representations of the architectural Modernism that was developing in Brazil, characterised by pure geometries, ribbon windows, concrete structures and lack of ornament.

Facade of edificio gazeta radio tower by jose carlos de figueiredo ferraz avenida paulista sao paulo david smith architectural review brazil 1465

Facade of edificio gazeta radio tower by jose carlos de figueiredo ferraz avenida paulista sao paulo david smith architectural review brazil 1465

Source: David Smith

The inclined facade mural of the Edíficio Gazeta building

However, the most remarkable ’50s building on Avenida Paulista is the Conjunto Nacional – like SOM’s Lever House on steroids – designed by Brazilian architect David Libeskind, who started the project when he was aged only 26, out of work, and asking for a chance to show his ideas. Occupying an entire block, the 26-storey tower with offices and apartments is topped by a clock visible from various parts of the city. The ground-level base consists of wide corridors with dozens of shops and a cinema, and in the middle a spiral ramp covered by a geodesic dome leads to the floors above.

Conjunto nacional 1952 1956 david libeskind family collection casa da arquitectura portuguese centre for architecture architectural review 1465

Conjunto nacional 1952 1956 david libeskind family collection casa da arquitectura portuguese centre for architecture architectural review 1465

Source: LIBESKIND FAMILY COLLECTION / CASA DA ARQUITECTURA – PORTUGUESE CENTRE FOR ARCHITECTURE

The Conjunto Nacional, 1952-56, by David Libeskind

Conjunto Nacional is a major contributor to the democratisation of Avenida Paulista: from the pavement, we can enter the building without barriers or doors, drawn in by its appealing interior. The mixed-use of the Conjunto Nacional was not a trend in the following decades, but it was an indication that most of the later towers of Avenida Paulista would have a corporate purpose.

Photo conjunto nacional 1952 david libeskind family collection casa da arquitectura portuguese centre for architecture architectural review 1465

Photo conjunto nacional 1952 david libeskind family collection casa da arquitectura portuguese centre for architecture architectural review 1465

Source: LIBESKIND FAMILY COLLECTION / CASA DA ARQUITECTURA – PORTUGUESE CENTRE FOR ARCHITECTURE

The Conjunto Nacional, 1952-56, by David Libeskind is the most striking building of its time on the avenue

At the end of 1950, construction began on the main building on the Avenida Paulista: the Museum of Art São Paulo (MASP) designed by Lina Bo Bardi. Since 1916, the site of the MASP had been the Belvedere Trianon – a small palace for high society balls and dinners. Then, at the same address, a provisional pavilion was set up in 1951 for the first São Paulo Art Biennial. Many futures were imagined for the place until the museum was proposed on the site.

Lina bo bardi tests a glass picture stand at museum of art sao paulo masp 1967 casa de vicro henrique luz architectural review brazil 1465

Lina bo bardi tests a glass picture stand at museum of art sao paulo masp 1967 casa de vicro henrique luz architectural review brazil 1465

Source: Henrique Luz

Lina Bo Bardi tests a glass picture stand at Museum of Art of São Paulo (MASP), 1967

Opened in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II in 1968, Bo Bardi designed a building suspended on four giant red pillars, forming two porticoes and leaving the ground level open as an expansion of Avenida Paulista’s public space. If the avenue pavements are wide but mainly used for walking from one spot to another, the MASP’s great span is a place where you can stop, contemplate and listen to what is happening around you, a window providing a view of the metropolis beyond the corridor of Avenida Paulista’s tall buildings.

Circo piolin 1972 lina bo bardi masp sao paulo instituto bardi casa de vicro henrique luz architectural review brazil 1465

Circo piolin 1972 lina bo bardi masp sao paulo instituto bardi casa de vicro henrique luz architectural review brazil 1465

Source: © INSTITUTO BARDI / CASA DE VICRO

. Circo Piolin, temporarily installed under the museum in 1972, was described by Bo Bardi as ‘the greatest spectacle in the world’

When John Cage visited the museum in 1985, he referred to this free span as the ‘architecture of freedom’. For the composer of 4’33” this freedom relates to and relies on indetermination and chance. It is a space open for events not controlled by an author or an authority, nor responsive to a specific functional demand.

The MASP’s upper floors contain Bo Bardi’s celebrated glass easels (recently reinstalled under the coordination of Metro Arquitetos) and the Southern Hemisphere’s most important art collection. The gallery forms the ceiling to the public space below, which plays host to musical presentations, film festivals, flea markets, artistic interventions, and, in particular, protests. Since it is difficult to control what happens there, the MASP’s open space is a kind of anti-panopticon: equally suitable for large riots against the government and for anonymous demonstrations of affection. This space would be far less important were it not on the Avenida Paulista: the strength of the free span depends on its location. In return, the avenue receives an environment in which people can pay attention to the life that plays out there – unseen but uninhabited mundane experiences.

Avenida paulista site plan

Avenida paulista site plan

Source: Gabriel Sepe, Guilherme Pianca and team, commissioned for the Access for All exhibition catalogue, Architekturmuseum der TU München at the Pinakothek der Moderne

Click to download

By 1980, São Paulo had grown to become a giant metropolis with 12.5 million people. In these decades, Avenida Paulista became the economic centre of Brazil: glass corporate buildings were erected and dozens of companies set up new headquarters. The avenue’s appearance was both uniform and unique, with black signposts and urban furniture designed by João Carlos Cauduro, Ludovico Martino and Rosa Kliass.

Avenida paulista sao paulo 1975 architectural review brazil 1465

Avenida paulista sao paulo 1975 architectural review brazil 1465

Avenida Paulista in 1975

From this period, the most emblematic building is the FIESP headquarters (São Paulo State Federation of Industries), designed by Rino Levi’s architectural office and built between 1969 and 1979. Shaped like a pyramid, this tower is wrapped in a dark metallic skin, its geometry making it impossible for avenue passers-by to see what happens on the building’s interior but allowing those inside to see out.

Fiesp headquarters building by rino levi 1979 avenida paulista sao paulo architectural review brazil 1465

Fiesp headquarters building by rino levi 1979 avenida paulista sao paulo architectural review brazil 1465

Source: FAU-USP LIBRARY

The FIESP headquarters building by Rino Levi 1979

For almost two decades, the FIESP building’s ground level was barred and accessible only to institution managers and employees, a common condition among Avenida Paulista’s buildings from this era. However, Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s renovation of the ground floor in the 1990s is representative of a change in the relations between the towers and the avenue. Together with MMBB, the 2006 Pritzker Prize-winning architect created a structure that converts the base of the FIESP building into a cultural centre with an exhibition area, library and theatre. What had hitherto been impenetrable became public space.

Ciro miguel fiesp building  for the access for all exhibition catalogue architekturmuseum der tu münchen at pinakothek der moderne

Ciro miguel fiesp building for the access for all exhibition catalogue architekturmuseum der tu münchen at pinakothek der moderne

Source: Ciro Miguel, commissioned for the Access for All exhibition catalogue, Architekturmuseum der TU München at the Pinakothek der Moderne

Since its reconfiguration by Mendes da Rocha and MMBB in 1996, the FIESP building is a particularly popular weekend destination

This is a trend on Avenida Paulista that began in the late 20th century and continues today. Many large companies relocated their offices to the new centralities of São Paulo – the Avenidas Faria Lima and Berrini, on an axis parallel to the Pinheiros River filled with mirrored high standard corporate towers. What appears to presage Avenida Paulista’s economic decay has, in fact, shown to be its democratisation. The ground floors are increasingly open.

Avenida paulista lina bo bardi concert under masp sao paulo brazil architectural review 1465

Avenida paulista lina bo bardi concert under masp sao paulo brazil architectural review 1465

The Avenida Paulista hosts a wide variety of events including concerts under the MASP

A number of shops, galleries, shopping malls, cinemas and restaurants appeared, converting Avenida Paulista into a cultural corridor: the MASP is now in the company of Casa das Rosas (1991), Itaú Cultural (1995) and more recently the Instituto Moreira Salles (2017), Japan House (2017) and SESC Avenida Paulista (2018).

Pedestrian reclamation of avenida paulista sao paulo architectural review brazil 1465

Pedestrian reclamation of avenida paulista sao paulo architectural review brazil 1465

Pedestrian reclamation of the Avenida Paulista

However, what best symbolises the current popular character of Avenida Paulista is not a new construction, but a change in public policy: since 2016, every Sunday the avenue has been closed to cars and open exclusively to people – pedestrians and cyclists. Every week sees spontaneous parties, picnics, children playing and learning to ride bicycles, teenagers rollerblading, young people sunbathing, musicians performing. We find a different activity with each block – crowds having fun simply by being on Avenida Paulista.

Avenida paulista protests movimento dos trabalhadores sem teto movement of workers without a roof or mtst demonstration 31 december 2018

Avenida paulista protests movimento dos trabalhadores sem teto movement of workers without a roof or mtst demonstration 31 december 2018

Source: Ciro Miguel, commissioned for the Access for All exhibition catalogue, Architekturmuseum der TU München at the Pinakothek der Moderne

Avenida Paulista hists protests such as the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Movement of Workers without a Roof or MTST) demonstration on 31 December 2018

This vibrant atmosphere of joy on Sundays correlates with the vibrant atmosphere of citizens coming and going on weekdays to work, study, or protest. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, Avenida Paulista is a site of perpetual energy, movement and transformation. What happens here is significant for the city and for the whole country.

 

Instituto Moreira Salles by Andrade Morettin, 2017

From the avenue, an escalator leads up into the core of this vertical cultural centre, which includes exhibition spaces, a library and a cinema-auditorium. What would usually occupy the ground level has been elevated to the fourth floor, the reception, café and bookstore paved in the distinctive cobblestones of the pavement visible below. The detailing and execution stand out in comparison to much Brazilian civil construction today, yet what is most eloquent in this project is its glass facade. Glass-skinned towers are common on Avenida Paulista, but the IMS is unique, achieving what Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky called ‘phenomenal transparency’. For those inside, there is no definition of the city’s silhouettes, except for its incessant movement of car headlights, traffic signs and neighbouring offices. The urban noise remains. Those outside see the shadows of people inside the building. As the hours of the day pass, the glass becomes more or less reflective, and at night, IMS becomes a lantern.

Nelson kon instituto moreira salles by andrade morettin 2017 4mg 3816 27 architectural review brazil 1465

Nelson kon instituto moreira salles by andrade morettin 2017 4mg 3816 27 architectural review brazil 1465

Source: Nelson Kon

Nelson kon instituto moreira salles by andrade morettin 2017 architectural review brazil 1465 4mg 1622 23

Nelson kon instituto moreira salles by andrade morettin 2017 architectural review brazil 1465 4mg 1622 23

Source: Nelson Kon

Nelson kon instituto moreira salles by andrade morettin 2017 architectural review brazil 1465 4mg 2428 30

Nelson kon instituto moreira salles by andrade morettin 2017 architectural review brazil 1465 4mg 2428 30

Source: Nelson Kon

Nelson kon instituto moreira salles by andrade morettin 2017 architectural review brazil 1465

Nelson kon instituto moreira salles by andrade morettin 2017 architectural review brazil 1465

Source: Nelson Kon

Instituto moreira salles by andrade morettin drawings

Instituto moreira salles by andrade morettin drawings

Click to download

 

Japan House by Kengo Kuma and FGMF, 2017

São Paulo is home to the largest Japanese population outside Japan, and this new building acts as a sort of Japanese cultural embassy in Brazil. The first architectural challenge was the conversion of a bank into a cultural centre. The focus of the project is the facade on Avenida Paulista: wood blades (hinoki, a typical Japanese cypress) of different dimensions are arranged vertically and horizontally, with different inclinations in relation to the frontal plane of the building, creating an unusual brise-soleil. This generates an entangled, formless perimeter which shifts as one walks parallel to the facade. Minimalism predominates on the three floors inside the building – the exhibition areas are flexible white cubes and the furniture in the café, library and shop is delicate with slender components.

Tatewaki nio jh 8631 rev2 japan house kengo kuma and fgmf 2017 sao paulo architectural review 1465 brazil

Tatewaki nio jh 8631 rev2 japan house kengo kuma and fgmf 2017 sao paulo architectural review 1465 brazil

Source: TATEWAKI NIO

Japan house kengo kuma and fgmf 2017 img 2384 v3 japan house são paulo  rogério cassimiro architectural review 1465

Japan house kengo kuma and fgmf 2017 img 2384 v3 japan house são paulo rogério cassimiro architectural review 1465

Source: JAPAN HOUSE SÃO PAULO / ROGÉRIO CASSIMIRO

Tatewaki nio jh 8370 japan house kengo kuma and fgmf 2017 sao paulo architectural review 1465 brazil

Tatewaki nio jh 8370 japan house kengo kuma and fgmf 2017 sao paulo architectural review 1465 brazil

Source: TATEWAKI NIO

Japan house kengo kuma and fgmf 2017 drawings

Japan house kengo kuma and fgmf 2017 drawings

Click to download

 

SESC Avenida Paulista by Königsberger Vannucchi, 2018

The SESC (Social Service of Commerce) is a private Brazilian organisation supported by entrepreneurs in business, trade and services. It is responsible for dozens of cultural, sporting and leisure centres, as well as health and food services. The most recent of those centres is the SESC Avenida Paulista. An obsolete office building now combines a variety of uses: a library, theatre, fitness room, dental clinic, children’s activity areas, and exhibition rooms. The 17 previously near identical floor plans, have had areas cut and extended to create specific variations on each floor according to its new function. The ground floor opens to the pavement, creating a covered events space, flexible and available for collective activities, such as fairs and musical concerts. At the top there is a restaurant, café and terrace, providing the highest public view of Avenida Paulista.

20180504 konigsberger vannucchi sesc avenida paulista 225 architectural review sao paulo brazil 1465

20180504 konigsberger vannucchi sesc avenida paulista 225 architectural review sao paulo brazil 1465

Source: PEDRO VANNUCCHI

20180509 konigsberger vannucchi sesc avenida paulista 856 architectural review sao paulo brazil 1465

20180509 konigsberger vannucchi sesc avenida paulista 856 architectural review sao paulo brazil 1465

Source: PEDRO VANNUCCHI

Sesc avenida paulista by königsberger vannucchi drawings

Sesc avenida paulista by königsberger vannucchi drawings

Click to download

Lead image of Avenida Paulista by Ciro Miguel, commissioned for the Access for All exhibition catalogue, Architekturmuseum der TU München at the Pinakothek der Moderne

This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Brazil – click here to purchase your copy today