From the elevated rooftop of São Paulo’s Unique Hotel, the city is a sea of identikit apartment buildings, office blocks and single storey villas. Seen from afar, the hard-edged urban sprawl appears haphazard and devoid of creative flair. It is an underwhelming landscape that compares poorly with the more sensual architecture of Rio de Janeiro, about 430km to the north.
Yet those who look a little closer will find that São Paulo’s contemporary architectural charms are actually a joy to behold. At the start of the 20th Century, this city was home to a mere 239,000 inhabitants – it now houses more than 11 million. Despite the whirlwind urban growth, and in many ways because of it, the São Paulo of recent decades has become a hotbed of talented Brazilian architects, including Ruy Ohtake and Paulo Mendes da Rocha. It is their cutting edge structures that now define the city’s landscape and enhance residential life.
“After Brasilia was made the Brazilian capital in 1960, São Paulo became an architectural desert,” explained Eliana Souza, an architectural enthusiast and founder of SPin Brazil Tours. “Buildings were constructed with little thought to their design, to how they fitted into neighbourhoods. Rapid development destroyed the soul of the old city. It was out of this barren environment that the Paulista School of Architecture was born. The Paulista architects wanted to build for the people. The chunkier concrete forms of their buildings mixed with the curvilinear buildings of Oscar Niemeyer, and gradually this helped to improve how the city looked and worked.”
Oscar Niemeyer, the doyen of Brazilian contemporary architecture, may be more famously connected with the architecture of Brasilia, but his imprint can also be seen in São Paulo. Together with the nearby Museu de Arte Moderna by the legendary Paulista architect Lina Bo Bardi, Niemeyer’s striking Ibirapuera Auditorium embodies São Paulo’s love of modern architecture and the avant garde.
Belatedly completed in 2005, the auditorium is part of a group of buildings inside Ibirapuera Park that all belong to a 1950s Niemeyer masterplan. Today the park has become São Paulo’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park, a green focal point where residents can relax, exercise and commune with friends, all while enjoying architecture by two of Brazil’s finest creative minds.
The auditorium’s most dramatic exterior feature is a sinuous awning of crimson painted metal – known officially as the labareda (“flame” in Portuguese) – which juts out over the main entrance like an extended fiery tongue. The building’s beautifully simplistic trapezoidal structure comes to life at night when the unblemished white exterior is illuminated by banks of floodlights. A wide back door opens to an interior stage, allowing for al fresco summer concerts.
Inside the auditorium, red and white is also the dominant colour theme. An imposing, organic sculpture by Japanese-Brazilian artist Tomie Ohtake winds around much of the wall and ceiling of the foyer, its deep red lines accentuating the foyer’s curved white staircase. The auditorium also features art by Tomie and graphic artist Luís Antônio Vallandro Keating.
More work by Tomie can be viewed at the Instituto Tomie Ohtake in Sao Paulo's Pinheiros neighbourhood. Dedicated to showcasing her work, the institute occupies the first two floors of a wildly flamboyant office tower designed by her son Ruy Ohtake, a Niemeyer protégé and one of São Paulo’s leading architects. The curving metallic magenta and violet façade is particularly eye-catching, while basement restaurant Santinho is well worth checking out for its Brazilian cuisine, with typically paulistano dashes of Italian, Japanese and Arab.
Sitting directly opposite the Ibirapuera Auditorium is another futuristic Niemeyer building that perfectly complements its more recently constructed twin. Completed in 1951, and built to commemorate São Paulo’s 400th anniversary, the Pavilhão Lucas Nogueira Garcez is more popularly known by locals as Oca (Indian for “house”). While this exhibition space is said to resemble a traditional Native American dwelling, there is more than a touch of the extraterrestrial to its flattened dome shape and large circular windows.