Oscar Niemeyer's Bold Response to Latin American Suburban Sprawl in the XX Century

Oscar Niemeyer's Copan Building from the ground. Photo© Paula Alvarado

There's a reason Brazilian Architect Oscar Niemeyer's death last week created such a flush of media tributes all over the world, and although I cannot articulately define that reason, I presume it has something to do with what his buildings make you feel. A sense of higher purpose, of possibility, of all that is grandiose about human culture.

I've had the good fortune of visiting a few, namely the Palacio Gustavo Capanema (Ministry of Education) in Rio, the celebrated museums in Niteroi and Curitiba, and the mind-boggling urban experiment and tremendous political achievement that is the young capital of the country, Brasilia. But it was the Copan Building in Sao Paulo, which I visited earlier this year, the one that haunted me the most.

A famous postcard of Brazil's largest city and economic center, the first thing to love about the building is that it was constructed to bring together all classes by including massive units for the rich and tiny studios for the working poor: a rarity in a country in which the gaps between classes are palpable just walking the street. (Perhaps related: Niemeyer was a communist who was affiliated to the party most of his adult life, which is supposedly a reason he did not project much for the US.)

Also notable are the mix use of space (apart from residences, it has 70 businesses and commercial offices on the ground and lower floors) and its massive size, of course: with a total of 1,160 apartments, 5,000 residents, 115 meters of height, 35 floors, and two subsoils, it is so large and populated it has its own postal code (and a church).

There's such a nod to contemporary urban trends, that if a building like this was launched these days it would almost be no news. Only this was done in the 1960s, when suburban sprawl was not only making Pete Campbell miserable, but also influencing the development of cities in Latin America.

Architect and architectural historian Styliane Philippou writes in a fascinating paper:

"At a time of explosive urban growth in Latin American cities, suburban developments allured those who could afford it to flee the city and retreat in suburbia. Niemeyer’s high density residential environment, right in the centre Brazil’s industrial metropolis, configured a site of resistance to urban flight and the ‘bourgeois utopia’ of the North American suburban, picturesque enclaves insulated from the workplace."

"The dynamism of the curvilinear volume of the Copan is strongly accentuated by the continuous horizontal shadow-casting brises-soleil – three per storey – and all the more powerful amidst the cylindrical towers and hard edged skyscrapers of downtown São Paulo. Catherine Séron-Pierre suggests that this ‘monumental, stratified wave provokes a real rupture in the brutal, repetitive landscape of the city’ (SéronPierre, 2002; p.77). At the very least, it articulates a site of tension. Presenting the Paulistas with an alternative model of urban, and implicitly social, organization, the curvaceous residential Copan challenged the postwar American, masculine order of the vertical city and the life of its citizens."

Oscar Niemeyer's Copan Building first floors. Photo© Paula Alvarado

Copan, whose name is an acronym for its original developer (Companhia Pan-Americana de Hotéis e Turismo, or Panamerican Company for Hotels and Tourism), had a rough patch in the 1970s and 1980s, when the center of Sao Paulo was outcast-land and the building came to be considered a vertical slum. But at the end of the eighties, owners took the administration in their hands to prevent dubious-activity-renters and the building now accommodates a healthy mix of people.

As impressive as other Niemeyer's works are, Copan remains the most solid statement for me. Its functionality and social meaning are only heightened by its attractive, which has allowed it to conquer every Sao Paulo postcard with pride. Niemeyer used to say architecture did not change anything, but that it was important to believe it can make life better. And more than in function, he believed in beauty.

If ever in Sao Paulo, Copan has daily visit hours in which you can go up the terrace to appreciate the view. To set a time, call in advance.

Thanks to Airbnb, you can also stay in the building.

Oscar Niemeyer's Bold Response to Latin American Suburban Sprawl in the XX Century
Of all of Niemeyer's impressive works, the 1960s Copan building in Sao Paulo is the one speaking directly to contemporary urban trends.

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