Access for All: São Paulo’s Architectural Infrastructures

May 7, 2020

Text by Daniel Talesnik, curator of the exhibition Access for All: São Paulo’s Architectural Infrastructures on view at Center for Architecture. Originally scheduled to be open between February 11-May 23, 2020, the exhibition remained open until September 7, 2020. [Center for Architecture closed in response to coronavirus (COVID-19)]


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The rooftop pool at SESC 24 de Maio by Paulo Mendes da Rocha + MMBB Arquitetos. © Ciro Miguel.

For decades São Paulo has seen investments in architecture that help alleviate the lack of public space in the city. Many of these projects also provide São Paulo’s 12 million inhabitants with access to recreational, cultural, and athletic programs, much-needed in this dense metropolis of tremendous inequality, high crime rates, congested traffic, and severe public health issues. Access for All presents a selection of these projects, built from the 1950s to the present, organized in three categories: large-scale, multi-programmatic projects; open public spaces; and projects located along the city’s iconic Paulista Avenue.

The projects, from Lina Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompéia to Andrade Morettin’s Instituto Moreira Salles, weave in and out of the city, blurring the boundaries between buildings and the public realm of the street through the use of internal alleys, ramps, stairs, and elevated or sunken plazas. With a focus on how architecture can serve residents, Access for All highlights how these projects are used today, rather than their formal characteristics. Regardless of when they were constructed, the projects are analyzed as they stand, through newly commissioned photographs, films, architectural drawings, illustrations, models, and interviews, as well as archival documents.

This exhibition was originally presented at Architekturmuseum der TUM, München (2019), a fragment was presented at the Bienal Internacional de Arquitetura de São Paulo (2019), and the exhibition traveled to the Center for Architecture, New York (2020). Three of the case studies will be presented at the “Co-habitats” section at La Biennale di Venezia (2020), and an expanded version of the exhibition at Schweizerisches Architekturmuseum, Basel (2021). The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by Park Books.

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Access for All: São Paulo’s Architectural Infrastructures, Center for Architecture, New York, 2020. © Pedro Kok.

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Access for All: São Paulo’s Architectural Infrastructures, Center for Architecture, New York, 2020. © Pedro Kok.

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Access for All: São Paulo’s Architectural Infrastructures, Center for Architecture, New York, 2020. © Pedro Kok.

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Access for All: São Paulo’s Architectural Infrastructures, Center for Architecture, New York, 2020. © Pedro Kok.

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Access for All: São Paulo’s Architectural Infrastructures, Center for Architecture, New York, 2020. © Pedro Kok.

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Access for All: São Paulo’s Architectural Infrastructures, Center for Architecture, New York, 2020. © Pedro Kok.

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Access for All: São Paulo’s Architectural Infrastructures, Architekturmuseum der TUM, München, 2019. © Pedro Kok.

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Access for All: São Paulo’s Architectural Infrastructures, Architekturmuseum der TUM, München, 2019. © Pedro Kok.

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Access for All: São Paulo’s Architectural Infrastructures, Architekturmuseum der TUM, München, 2019. © Pedro Kok.

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Access for All: São Paulo’s Architectural Infrastructures, Architekturmuseum der TUM, München, 2019. © Pedro Kok.

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Access for All: São Paulo’s Architectural Infrastructures, Architekturmuseum der TUM, München, 2019. © Pedro Kok.

The following text has been excerpted from the exhibition catalogue Access for All: São Paulo’s Architectural Infrastructures (Park Books, 2019).

Just what is it that makes today’s São Paulo so different, so appealing?

São Paulo é um país inteiro. (“Sao Paulo is a whole country.”)
—Taxi driver in São Paulo, March 2019

The epigraph that opens this Introduction can be understood in at least two ways. The first is that São Paulo has grown so big that it could be a country.1 The other reading has to do with the diversity of its inhabitants, mainly since São Paulo is a destination for domestic migration in Brazil, where “all” the country is represented in its population—a diversity that can be extended to include the richness of different nationalities among the inhabitants, including the largest Japanese immigrant population in a city in the world.

As one of the worlds megacities, São Paulo has for decades seen an investment in architectural infrastructures that attempt to mitigate its open space shortages as well as fulfill the constant need for recreational, cultural, and sports programs. This exhibition catalogue presents buildings and infrastructural projects at different scales, focusing on their programmatic characteristics rather than the formal qualities usually emphasized in scholarship on Brazilian architecture. These buildings and open spaces—which can be public, semi-public, or privately owned—arguably attempt to create inclusive places for urban society. While many cities around the world are still chasing the so-called “Bilbao Effect”—the creation of a monofunctional “signature” architectural work by a famous architect that can attract tourism—this exhibition advocates for architectural infrastructure that adds programs of different natures, and that are aimed at social sustainability for local citizens. This aspect of urban growth in São Paulo —quite a vertical and densely-populated city; a city of great resources and also tremendous poverty; a city with high crime rates; a city with severe traffic issues; a city with public-health problems—illustrates how architecture and infrastructure can contribute to a city’s urban development in multiple ways.

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Map of São Paulo inside the metropolitan area. © Guilherme Pianca, Gabriel Sepe, and team intervened by Kathryn Gillmore.

This exhibition occurs at the crossroads of the Architecture Museum of the Technical University of Munich’s longstanding interest in the social impact of architecture and my personal interest in “big buildings” that are heavily programmed, often creating encounters and frictions between program elements that do not usually meet in run-of-the-mill architecture, in dialogue with their immediate surroundings and the city at large. This interest was expanded to the “open spaces” that are found within some buildings in São Paulo, and that provide much needed areas of encounter and leisure for citizens. By the same token, the concept was expanded to include the Minhocão expressway in its Sunday and evening incarnations, when it is closed to vehicular traffic and offered as mitigating open space that enables a vibrant urban scene.

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Alexander Deyneka, V rayonnom klube (At the local club), illustration for Bezbozhnik u stanka (Atheist and the Machine), No. 3 (Moscow, 1927).

The Sunday Minhocão leads us directly to Avenida Paulista, which has also been closed to vehicular traffic on Sundays and that provides an example for coordinated strategies between open spaces provided by buildings and the sidewalk and street space at multiple levels (some physical and some visual). The examples selected were built from the 1950s to the present, meaning that the exhibition is both a historical survey and an analysis of current architectural production. All of the projects, regardless of the period of their origin, have been analyzed in their current state. The exhibition has left out mono-programmatic buildings, with the exception of MASP and the “Free Market Pavilion” at CEAGESP, which are included because their open spaces serve as much more than a museum or a market respectively. Also, housing, transportation, and work-oriented projects have not been our focus, although there are projects like the Conjunto Nacional which incorporates an office tower.

The exhibition and catalogue are structured around three categories:

Big Multi-Programmatic Buildings

This category is directly inspired by the “social condenser” idea of the Russian Constructivists in the Soviet Union in the 1920s: buildings such as workers’ clubs that had the aim of dynamizing society through sports, culture, and education.2 If one removes (or tones down) the ideological component of these Soviet examples, it is possible to see the kernel for the Serviço Social do Comércio (SESC) buildings, which deliver cultural and recreational services to “workers of commerce” in Brazil. These buildings have proliferated in São Paulo, particularly since the 1960s when the SESC Consolação set the model for the Downtown-Athletic-Club-like approach of these projects.3 This agglomeration of programs of different natures has seen many variations, including two of the buildings in this section of the exhibition: Lina Bo Bardi and team’s SESC Pompéia, finished in 1986, which matched the refurbishment of an existing factory with a new sports tower, and Paulo Mendes da Rocha and MMBB’s SESC 24 de Maio. This last project is the outcome of a complex intervention in a preexisting building that, together with the addition of a service tower, results in moments like the double-height gymnasium on top of a single-height dentistry service woven together by a side ramp. Talking to a colleague in São Paulo, I was told that the SESCs were buildings for all ages, and I thought he meant that they cater to all age groups, but he then explained that the real meaning was that one person can go to the same building throughout his entire life and will find suitable activities. In this category, we have also included Eurico Prado Lopes and Luiz Telles’s Centro Cultural São Paulo, finished in 1982: a city-commissioned project and a variation on the theme, where the architects distributed an array of cultural, educational, and leisure programs in a whale-like sunken building that is complimented by outdoor plazas and rooftop green areas and a direct connection to the subway. Alexandre Delijaicov and team’s Centro Educacional Unificado (CEU) Inácio Monteiro was chosen to represent the network of these facilities distributed on the periphery of the city: school facilities by day which also serve as community centers, universities, and a series of other infrastructures. Finally, Lina Bo Bardi’s Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), finished in 1968, is at the juncture of all the categories of this exhibition, but is included in this section due to its almost prototypical aspect. Although a museum, it represents the big multi-programmatic dimension with galleries stacked over an open space which constantly switches uses, above a sunken auditorium, restaurant, and another exhibition area, among other programs. The open space is created by the void between the above and below ground elements and connects to Avenida Paulista, putting an open-space/street strategy at play.

If one looks at the dates of the buildings in the “big multi-programmatic” category, many were designed or completed during the years of dictatorship in Brazil, particularly the SESC Pompeia and the CCSP which were both commissioned during this period. An idea hovering over the exhibition is that buildings can last longer than political systems. Although these buildings do not represent the political system under which they were built via their architecture, it is interesting to see that in these cases the architecture is more stable than the system that built them. Even in times of repression in São Paulo, there was a preoccupation with collective infrastructure, something that is addressed in some of the essays in this catalogue, particularly in Guilherme Wisnik’s “Architecture as Infrastructure: The Political Design” and Renato Anelli’s “Architecture and Metropolitan Culture: CCSP and SESC Pompéia,” essays that analyze a historical dimension of these São Paulo architectures that can give perspective and ideas to critically reflect on architecture and the current political moment in Brazil.

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Big multi-programmatic buildings: Library at the SESC Pompeia. © Ciro Miguel.

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Big multi-programmatic buildings: Library at the SESC Pompeia. © Ciro Miguel.

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Exploded perspective drawing, Centro Educacional Unificado (CEU) Inácio Monteiro. © Danilo Zamboni.

Open Spaces

This category deals with open spaces that are part of the design of buildings and in service of the city. The first example, Oscar Niemeyer’s Marquise at the Ibirapuera Park, finished in 1954, has served as a blueprint for open space in São Paulo. Using the simple idea of roofing a sidewalk that varies in width, this space hosts varied sports and leisure activities, while also connecting a series of buildings. The Companhia de Entrepostos e Armazéns Gerais de São Paulo’s (CEAGESP) main market, finished in 1964, illustrates how a space for a market can alternate uses and activate its surroundings through the sheer fact of being a completely open building that acts as linear covered plaza. Brasil Arquitectura’s open spaces at the Praça das Artes Building, which act as a passage between three streets, offer a much-needed, safe open space for activities and repose in an otherwise rundown area of the city center. Finally, the Minhocão, from 1969-70, is the odd example in the exhibition: this 3.5 kilometer expressway transforms on Sundays when it is closed to cars, making it useful in understanding the range of open space in this city.

Despite great need, not all of the open spaces in São Paulo are successful, as Vanessa Grossman argues in the essay “The Park and the Slab: The Marquise at Ibirapuera by Oscar Niemeyer” in her description of the emblematic failure of open space at the Memorial da América Latina (Latin America Memorial), also designed by Oscar Niemeyer and inaugurated in 1989. The failure of this social, political, and cultural center with vast open spaces between the buildings stands in direct contrast to the success of the Ibirapueira Park’s Marquise by the same architect. Ana Luiza Nobre, in her “The Ground as a Project” essay also analyzes the nature of open space in Brazilian architecture, illustrating via a historical analysis the idea of architecture detaching itself from the ground in São Paulo and the type of spaces that can thereby be created.

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Open Spaces: View of Marquise Ibirapuera with the Museum of Modern Art in the back. © Ciro Miguel.

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Ground floor plan 1:2,000, CEAGESP-MLP (Free Market Pavilion). © Guilherme Pianca, Gabriel Sepe and team.

Avenida Paulista

Inaugurated in 1891, the Avenida Paulista today has only the Casa das Rosas at number 37 as proof of the elitist past when it was lined with mansions. During the 1950s, the plots of land along the avenue started to be developed as high rises. With the addition of the subway, it undoubtedly became the main thoroughfare of the city. Apart from an analysis of the avenue and its multiple dimensions (through hosting the biggest LGBT Pride parade, a yearly run, protests, Carnaval, New Year’s Eve festivities, et al.) and the fact that it has a dimension as an open park when it closes to vehicular traffic on Sunday, we have chosen four buildings besides the MASP along the avenue, each representing a different strategy of open space coordinated with the street from within the building. The Instituto Moreira Salles by Andrade Morettin Arquitetos, inaugurated in 2017, provides an example that accumulates all the strategies developed along the avenue, lifting the first floor to create a plaza and higher-level terraces with visual connections to the street. In other words, it both amplifies horizontally and multiplies vertically the open space of the street inside the building. The 1956 Conjunto Nacional by David Libeskind has a gallery on its first floor that is a literal continuation of the sidewalk into the building and also connects different streets, thus creating an augmentation of public space into the building. The 1966 Gazeta building provides a rare example of theatre-like monumental stairs where people lounge on Sundays, capped by a deep lobby that offers public tables. Meanwhile, at the Federação das Indústrias do Estado de São Paulo (FIESP), (Rino Levi, 1979; partial refurbishment, Paulo Mendes da Rocha and MMBB Arquitetos, 1998), the street level splits when entering the building, creating a variation of the expansion of the street by distributing programs and plazas on two levels.

José Tavares Correia de Lira’s “Architecture, Public Space, and Exception” addresses the evolution of Avenida Paulista and other case studies in the exhibition, providing a politically charged and nuanced understanding of the topic. Finally, Fraya Frehse’s “In Favor of a (Rare) Aesthetic Contact with the Street in São Paulo” is both a comment on the exhibition’s argument and a critique specific to São Paulo.

Despite the fact that the exhibition shows a critical number of projects that represent São Paulo’s architectural infrastructures and how it is possible to construct the city from within buildings—and also in the case of the projects in Avenida Paulista to create myriads of interactions between the street and the buildings—we are aware that there is a need for more of these types of infrastructure in such a heavily-populated city. Also, with the exception of the CEU network, the examples presented are all in the central area of São Paulo. The periphery is different. Different sources provide different data, hundreds of thousands of São Paulo’s citizens live in slum-like conditions and a critical number of existing housing faces the reality of landslides and flooding. (Although São Paulo generates over 10 percent of Brazil’s GDP, conservative estimates establish that a fifth of its population lives in poverty). We started by focusing on the existing knowledge about these buildings in São Paulo and then excavated new evidence to support and illustrate our arguments. We suggest a conception of architecture/architectures that is not only essential to urban processes but one that can, at its best, generate new urban and urbanization processes. This is a reading of architecture that has political undertones and that reaffirms the possible agencies that complexly-programmed buildings have in supporting life in cities, and it is our ambition that our analyses are useful for cities around the world. Although not strictly speaking a “Learning from São Paulo” exhibition, it does have a pedagogical ambition that will become available for future use.

The accessibility of the buildings considered in the exhibition has been a key preoccupation for us. Not all of them have free admission or are completely open, but parts of them usually are. This focus on accessibility was accompanied by surveys conducted by Mariana Lourenço with the management of the buildings in order to understand their biggest challenges, expenditures, the profile of users, etc. Part of the success of these buildings has to do with the way they are administered, the specialized staff, and the fact that through a symbiosis between the architecture and the maintenance/security, they are safe places. We have also commissioned an interview from Enrique Walker with Paulo Mendes da Rocha and Marta Moreira about their SESC 24 de Maio Building.4 This building was one of the last of the case studies to be opened to the public. On the one hand, it represents the accumulated intelligence of many of the buildings and open spaces in this exhibition and, on the other, the long gestation of the design process produced enough friction between the original building, the project, and the problems that arose along the way to result in some of the best moments of the building. The arguments of the exhibition and the catalogue are supported with archival evidence and new architectural drawings by Guilherme Pianca and Gabriel Sepe, illustrations by Danilo Zamboni, and photographs by Ciro Miguel. The exhibition also includes a series of six on-site interviews by Pedro Kok that weave together critical analyses of the case studies by local experts and some of the designers of the buildings with a sense of place.

Just what is it that makes today’s São Paulo so different, so appealing? Beyond a more complete subway system, better control of security, and other such details, what makes the city exciting today, at least in part, can be explained by the analyses of the case studies selected for this exhibition, and a series of other buildings of a similar nature—especially when they are understood as a network that supports life in the city, havens that make the urban intensity more bearable, that favor encounters between people, and that in the most interesting cases empower them via sports, cultural, and educational activities.

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Exterior view of Moreira Salles Institute (IMS). © Ciro Miguel.

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Avenida Paulista: View of the stairs of Gazeta building. © Ciro Miguel.

Exhibition Credits

Curator: Daniel Talesnik
Director Architekturmuseum der TUM: Andres Lepik
Curatorial Assistants: Marcello Della Giustina, João Bittar Fiammenghi, and Pia Nürnberger
Exhibition Architecture: Mariana Vilela
Photography: Ciro Miguel
Original illustrations: Danilo Zamboni
Original Architectural drawings: Guilherme Pianca, Gabriel Sepe and team
Graphic Design: Kathryn Gillmore
Videos: Pedro Kok
Support: in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council
Dates: February 11-May 23, 2020

1 São Paulo has an area of 1,521 km2 with circa 12,176,000 inhabitants, and Greater São Paulo has an area of 7,946.96 km2 with circa 21,571,000 inhabitants. The city of São Paulo consists of 9 administrative zones divided in 32 regional prefectures that are subdivided in 96 districts. Each of the districts with circa 120,000 inhabitants, and some reaching up to 320,000. (The municipality of Guarulhos alone has an area of 318.68 km2 with circa 1,324,000 inhabitants, which is a good comparison with Munich’s 310.43 km2 and circa 1,464,301 inhabitants).
2 For more on the Constructivist social condensers see the special issue on the topic of The Journal of Architecture, 22:3, (2017).
3 For more about the Downtown Athletic Club see Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
4 The other architects are Milton Braga and Fernando Mello Franco, partners of Marta Moreira in MMBB Arquitetos.