For the first time in its history, São Paulo’s International Architecture Bienal will not be taking place in the bright, curvaceous interior of the Bienal building, created by Oscar Niemeyer in 1953. As a result of a fierce dispute between the organisers of the event and the Bienal Foundation, this year’s exhibition will be spread between the nearby Oca building, also by Niemeyer, and spots across the city, from street installations to metrô stations.
That forcing of the show out into the city might yet turn out to be an advantage, because this year’s edition gives special attention to a set of up-and-coming architectural studios, many of which say they are keen to shake up the city’s architectural traditions, turn their attention to urbanism, and change public life.
Seven practices with fewer than ten years in operation, and some with far less, recently returned from New York after having won this year’s ‘New Practices’ architectural awards alongside seven US studios. The winning plans of all fourteen studios will be on show at the Bienal.
All the São Paulo studios, to a greater extent, perhaps, than their US counterparts, are heavily invested in the idea of trying to fundamentally change their city. It’s not that they don’t love and appreciate São Paulo’s blocky, unending march of uniform, off-white concrete Modernist skyscrapers – we love them too. But they’re happy to be a part of a ‘new opening to diverse influences across disciplines and from different parts of the world,’ says Luís Pompeio Martins, a partner at 23 Sul.
‘The city was dominated for decades by a certain kind of architectural monotony,’ says Lucas Girard, his partner in the practice, ‘which was dictated by the logic of getting as much economic return from buildings as cheaply as possible.’
Young guns take charge
One of the younger studios to have shown in the New Practices exhibition, 23 Sul started up five years ago, when most of the team were still students. At their offices in Vila Madalena, they show off one of the projects that got them to New York: a never-realised model for Cohab Raposo Tavares, a community in São Paulo’s impoverished periphery, something they started on in university.
The studio was in New York alongside more famous local names such as Triptyque, whose Harmonia 57 building, its living façade watered with a mist sytem, is one of São Paulo’s best known contemporary projects, having garnered considerable coverage in breathlessly appreciative blogs within the design community. A more recent Triptyque project, Fidalga_77, was also part of the studio’s submission to the award, and consists of a block of flats, already constructed and also in Vila Madalena.
Another set of plans that has already been built is that of Yuri Vital’s Box House, in Vila Brasilândia in the north of the city. But alongside the actually constructed projects, many of the studios submitted plans that are as-yet unrealised and in some cases, are arguably unrealisable, intended instead to interrogate the nature of cities and buildings.
Vazio, the only practice not from SP – they’re from Belo Horizonte – submitted a hyper-ambitious project called ‘The Ultimate Skyscraper’ – an elaborate set of drawings of a Tower of Babel-like structure, like a surrealist dream of a city. The studio Pax designed a massive structure, ‘Mobilizarte’, consisting of inflatable transparent plastic, movable pieces intended to be arranged into variously configured structures for major events.
Shaking up the city's foundations
The eclecticism of the submissions are a sign that new practices here in São Paulo are willing to shake off the weight of the city’s established styles. Speaking of the city’s up-and-coming studios, ‘Nothing has come together that has congealed into a movement or a name,’ says Victor Paixão at Pax. ‘There’s only one name I can think of,’ he ventures, ‘and that’s eco-architecture.’
‘But that only means that you pay attention to ecology,’ says partner Paula Sértorio. ‘And that can’t be a defining difference, as it’s an obligation for all of us.’
Although they all shy away from labels – who doesn’t? – the people at the diverse collection of architecture studios tend to say a lot of the same things. They want to ‘intervene’ in the lives of people in the city. Architecture should be about more than ‘structuring space in private buildings or homes’. Urbanism can be effected at ‘micro levels’, too. And unsurprising for anyone who has been to São Paulo, they all say that its architects should address the problems of ‘mobility’, ‘of public spaces and communal interaction’, and that designs should be more ‘receptive’, and ‘collaborative’ rather than relying on the top-down and exclusionary architectural models that dominate SP today.
‘The last thing we want to do is replicate the model that produced this highly fragmented and disconnected city,’ says Alexandre Hepner at Arkiz, which presented ‘The Semiotic Machine’ – a layered, cross-cutting object meant to represent an ‘interest in discussing the question of cultures, “meaning” and social communication’ – in New York. ‘Our task is to break down walls and re-connect spaces,’ he says. ‘Maybe soon this generation will actually articulate itself as a new movement. We’re certainly interested in contributing, and believe the city has a lot to gain.’