forty-nine. ‘White Heaven.’
‘white heaven’ is the pet name given to Sao Paolo by a perceptive few. the sky rarely shines true blue, and the blanket of haze and slight moisture that hangs in the air most days turns an otherwise unromantic skyline of dirty off-white into a dream-like vagueness. this past Sunday, the heart of the historic Centro was turned into a movie set. roads, transmogrifications of once-rivers, were blocked, and the streets were piled with tumble-weeds of shredded + tangled office paper. i watched as a crew member threw scraps in front of an industrial-sized fan, this need for false weather a rare and odd sight.
in other parts of the city, such as Paulista Ave, which shoots straight down the city’s highest ridge, fur-barked trees drop violent yellow flowers. like tears, they litter the sidewalks whose cracks become collectors of color. these small tragedies that mar the downtown’s elevated, wealthy areas are manually swept away in a battle to fight off the jungle in which the city was built. today, on noisy Rebouças, a cheap blanket, of the type used to protect walls or furniture during a move or a renovation, lay abandoned after a night’s sleep, and the squashed remains of large avocados were scattered here and there. the tree above, whose limbs were heavy with fruit, provided both potential feast and potential ambush.
if there was ever a strange city, this would be it. when speaking of the difficulty in comprehending it, i was told to ‘let it go. the more you try the less you know.’ there is little that is cohesive for me to tell. i stumble upon surprises, like the avocados, while thick traffic murders all thought. often, the one that does exist is, ‘what is that?’ it takes a retreat to my room, or a conversation, to figure it out: rooftop catwalks between two towers = a shared heli-pad. numerous facades covered in some sort of hieroglyphic script = an ongoing graffiti battle played out between favela gangs who come to the city center to claim the nth facade: the one owned by the disowned. the goal is to scrawl as high as one can in a territorial vertical war. the city may be quietened of advertising, and storefronts left with the rain-print of sign removal, but the city is definitely not devoid of signs.
the roads read as rivers, the towers as trees, trees so thick they become a sea, which returns their concrete masses to water. water’s transformed dominance is in the Anhangabau River, which once cut a watery swath to the west of the city’s original escarpment. it is now covered in concrete and above it runs an urban highway (9 Julho) that emerges and disappears under giant swaths of second ground. between these crevices, and the sheer density of towers which hug the topography, i have never seen anything comparable to the city’s panorama, or the maze of walkways, overpasses, underpasses, floating parks and dungeon stairways that saturate areas such as Anhangabau. at the scale of the Cinque Terre, Italy, this climbing, criss-crossing, disappearing acrobatic is one thing; at the scale of a metropolis, quite another. the audacity of such built endeavors is perhaps a response to the brashness of the original landscape, which is nicely exhibited in 19th c. maps at the Patio de Colegio, where the city was founded. with such high highs and low lows, one is always aware of up and down, but rarely of where ground 0 might be. even the buses are topographic: embarkation is flat, but one must ascend via stairs to both the front and the rear of the vehicle. the flow is highly controlled, with an attendee + cash box + magnetic turnstile reader. in like manner, some metro station platforms have metal bars which control the movement of platform traffic, and again, the turnstiles are everywhere. even the trash bins are given consideration in relation to ground; they become elevated metal-mesh containers with legs, quickly filled and subsequently emptied by men who pull enormous 2-wheel carts behind them.
elsewhere, the precious and profane seem to co-exist in surreal fashion. one of the city’s most elite and orderly cemeteries, with its noble carved headstones, serves as a foreground to the proximate glass and concrete towers which rise behind . the two are separated by a row of trees and a wide swath of grass. such juxtapositions of scales and symbolisms are becoming less shocking, as is the surprising lack of sensual taboos. cars park in the showrooms of lamp-stores whose ceilings are shrouded with crystalline chandeliers. stairways lead to high-speed roads which are flanked by uninviting sidewalks of yellow-tunnel light and noxious fumes. abandoned 20 storey towers hulk in the heart of the Centro even as hopes for urban renewal keep historic monuments well cared-for. at night, the Centro doesn’t twinkle from above but rather seems to suck the light away from the stoplights, headlights and taillights which glow on the streets, whisking people away to more palatable residential districts. the night sidewalks, underpasses, and nooks and crannies created by level shifts, walls, and overhangs are given over to the city’s young and often shoeless homeless population.
despite these melancholy descriptions, the city is not morose. during the day the Centro is rife with rhythm and hawkers selling everything from meat-on-a-stick to dangly earrings (especially popular). a cafe on Saturday was packed with youth singing along to a live band. every stranger i have encountered so far has been absolutely kind, helpful, and unendingly patient (as per public transit behavior – no rush, no shove, no worry if this train’s full). fresh fruit and great coffee are consumed in great, affordable quantities. signs of attempted renewal are apparent; the new Metro line 4 will connect Luz, the center of the Centro’s down and out, with distant nodes beyond Pinheiros, where office towers and busy boulevards abound. (the flier campaign for this line depicts a perky hipster couple being joined by the line). despite the large number of abandoned buildings, construction is visible, as are attempts to use building and retail projects to vitalize certain areas (ex. Itaquera). contrary to my expectation, the sky is not saturated with helicopters (although they are audible during evening rush hour), and walled enclaves, where they do occur downtown, still retain a visual porosity in the form of the fence, rather than the thick concrete wall. the sidewalks are inhabited, and after being in Johannesburg, this feels like cause for celebration...not that using Jo’burg as a measuring stick is necessarily healthy. but Sao Paolo, at least in its downtown areas, has a more ubiquitous vitality than stories of crime and segregation would lead one to anticipate.
random oddity: the prevalence of dates in street names such April 7th, March 25th, July 9th, May 23rd – all undoubtedly dates of significance. most cities cite famous people, monuments, and landmarks, creating connection between the naming of a place and a physical thing. on Sao Paolo streets, ideas of place and time become conflated. for example, on April 7th there is a great galeria . . . these galerias are a remarkable aspect of the city. usually occupying the first 3 to 5 floors of block-width buildings, they are essentially open-ended malls situated around a central atrium. most are serviced by central escalators, and boast circumferential balconies on the upper floors, and occasionally level 1 is below grade. part retail, part food court, part public space, part corridor, they are infrastructure at its most versatile and express a generous idea about an ‘edificio’s’ relationship to the street and to the public.
the open-closed building is elsewhere evident; Lina Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompei leaves its gymnasium façades punctured by enormous holes and entrances, USP’s architecture building is organized around a courtyard accessed through an open entry between the building’s pilotis, not to mention its library patio, created from a void in the plane of the glazing and pushed to the floorplate’s utmost edge. unforgettably though, in spite of its airy, flexible layout, the architecture school is simultaneously becoming cave/grotto: lime, which is leaking from the concrete ceiling, has created baby stalactites which hang down like icicles from the waffled ceiling. in one spot, i found a small bump on the floor. it was the beginning of a stalagmite.