With remarkably little fanfare, after more than two years’ planning and six months’ restoration and construction, a major new cultural venue opened in São Paulo in November 2013 in the form of Red Bull Station, in the heart of the city’s downtown in a stunningly repurposed, previously neglected 1920s building.
Two main differences mark Red Bull Station out from the rest of the city’s sterling array of cultural hubs: it was conceived as a space for the production of culture, in the form of music and art, rather than as a platform for ready-made exhibitions and shows; and it’s sponsored – or to be more exact, 100 per cent paid for – by the makers of a well-known energy drink.
With a long-standing track record of investing in edgy sports and the arts – part of a hipster-targeting marketing strategy – Red Bull has long been active in the São Paulo art scene. Its Red Bull House of Art artists’ residency programme has held three previous editions here since 2009, including two at Centro’s magnificent Sampaio Moreira building, which is now set to become home to City Hall’s Cultural Secretariat.
When the process of seeking out the next venue began some two years before its opening, and the team was shown the former electrical substation that was to become Red Bull Station, the decision was taken to create a permanent space this time, which would also be home to a recording studio, with space for exhibitions, workshops, gigs and other events.
The building’s surroundings could scarcely be more urban, and hardly more São Paulo, set close to the intersection between the mighty 9 de Julho and 23 de Maio avenidas, on a sweeping curve on the valley of Anhangabaú heading out towards Liberdade. Caught in a web of heavily trafficked roads, flyovers and pedestrian walkways adjacent to the Terminal Bandeira bus station, it’s an inhospitable spaghetti junction of impressive proportions.
|The fountain on the roof of Red Bull Station|
The ‘station’ itself, once owned by the São Paulo Tramway, Light and Power Company, had the task of distributing the electricity to São Paulo’s fleet of trams, hence its location at this arterial spot. The sleek fountain on the building’s roof, beside a terrace shaded by a sweeping new ‘marquise’ (a poured-concrete covering, also used to collect rainwater for later use), was once an essential element in the substation’s functioning: it was part of a cooling system in which water was pumped through the building to cool the immense transformers.
The building’s deft, beautiful retrofit, which has restored the listed façade but created the interior almost anew, was done by none other than Triptyque, a quartet of young French and Brazilian architects who have become, in recent years, some of the most sought-after architects in Brazil. The team added a colossal set of metal platforms and stairways down one side of the building, linking its five levels and providing an easy flow of visitor circulation up, down, in and around the building.
But perhaps the most impressive architectural aspect of the project – aside from the très Triptyque blend of sheer concrete and beautifully restored or otherwise exposed original elements, which include panels of distressed, stippled paintwork built up over years of repainting – is the stunning recording studio on the ground floor. A heavyweight concrete module which has been inserted into the heart of the building, the studio will be home to Red Bull’s Bass Camp – an immersive programme for would-be music professionals.
The ‘mannequin’ Fancy, Rodolpho Parigi’s alter-ego
Meanwhile upstairs, the six artists selected for the first cycle of Red Bull’s residency programme include Ale Domingues, working with innovative forms of lighting media; the edgily compelling performance artist, Fabiana Faleiros; and Chico Togni, whose work incorporates cardboard and other salvaged materials to surprising effect. Raquel Uendi works with photography as a form of sculpture, using a high-resolution printer to ‘develop’ some of her images before folding and arranging them on the wall; Thiago Honório works in a number of media, creating thoughtful, thought-provoking installations; and Rodolpho Parigi, perhaps the best known of the bunch, with a successful career as a painter in full swing, is experimenting with an alter ego, a mannequin called Fancy.
Long-legged Fancy, who walks the hallways in full drag, and who made an appearance at the opening night, striking a series of rigid, tragical poses on a pedestal in one of the exhibition spaces, is emblematic of the experimental nature of the art being promoted during the residencies. The idea, says the residency’s young curator, Paula Borghi, is that the artists are given the chance to work with experimental practices that might not be saleable, but that contribute to their development in the long run. An exhibition of the works produced during the first residency is set to open on 14 December 2013.
It’s impossible to doubt Red Bull’s sincerity and deep-pocketed generosity when it comes to its sponsorship of this and other inventive sporting and arty endeavours around the world. What’s harder to work out is how it all translates into sales of those slim cans of fizzy pop, which is, after all, the company’s line of business. A clever mesh of cool-hunting and stealth-marketing with old-fashioned arts endowment, Red Bull Station is emblematic of a very modern world, in which advertising, marketing and ‘content’ creation bleed seamlessly into one.
If it’s free, you’re the product, goes the internet-age adage. At Red Bull Station, almost all the activities are free, from the art residencies and music programmes to the talks, workshops, gigs and exhibitions – but they’re not only free of charge, they’re also open to one and all, with almost the entire building intended to be open for free circulation. The only thing, as it happens, that’s not free here are the fizzy drinks: the small café sells simple meals and snacks – and, naturally, those ubiquitous, blue-and-silver cans of energising drink.
Red Bull Station is at Praça da Bandeira 137, República (redbullstation.com.br). Open 11am-9pm Tue-Sat. Admission is free.
Note: access to the venue is less than straightforward. It can be reached via the pedestrian walkway from Terminal Bandeira bus station: cross over to the far side of the bus station via the zebra crossings, passing the bus platforms, and take the stairway up to the pedestrian walkway above. Turn right, and you'll very soon see the building, to your right.