Understanding São Paulo A city is a reflection of society. I wondered how São Paulo could be one. Researching the past I found answers to some questions that stroke me.
Saudade When the Portuguese arrived in Brazil in 1500 they didn’t want to colonise the country, as did the Spaniards in the rest of South and Central America. Like the Dutch the Portuguese wanted only to quickly gather products for exportation. This explains why almost all the main Brazilian cities are established on the coast and not in the interior of the country. The Portuguese missed their home country and wanted to go back after doing their job. It was in the colonial period when the word ‘saudade’ wasoriginated. It only exists in the Portuguese language meaning a kind of ‘miss’ but with a much stronger and more painful meaning.
São Paulo, founded in 1554, was one of the first places not to be settled on the coast. Its higher altitude attracted Jesuits and the village served as a passageway for exportation as well as a departure point for expeditions to the interior of the country. They had to make pacts with Indians to be able to survive. In contrast with other Brazilian cities the Indian languages dominated here till the 17th century.
The presence of the rivers facilitated the rapid transportation of products to the coast. But somehow the Portuguese always turned their backs to them. This relationship to the river is still very clear in the city. In 1940 the rivers were converted into canals and highways were made on both sides, transforming them into open drainage canals. The bad smell of this black water is incredible; it smells like rotten eggs. The two main rivers, Tiête and Pinheiros, trespass the whole city. It is astonishing how everybody ignores their existence.
Brave New World The ones who left for this new world and founded cities did not get guidelines from the Portuguese crown. They were mostly adventurers and volunteers with little education who reproduced what they knew: the medieval city. Roads followed the contour of the territory and there was no further urban planning. This differentiates Brazilian city centres from others on this continent with their orthogonal grid, imposed by the Spanish. The Portuguese throne did not practice a centralized control over the colony for a long time.
Till 1800, when São Paulo was an insignificant small village, life was mostly rural. This changed when the production of coffee in the neighbourhood of this region began to grow. Railways and small industries popped from the ground, rich traders established themselves in the city and the commerce of slaves became indispensable. There remain a few old houses (‘casarãos’) that belonged to rich coffee families, mostly transformed into cultural centres or cortiços (abandoned houses occupied by too many people living under very bad circumstances).
A characteristic of the last decades is the bad preservation of old buildings and even their demolition. Of all the buildings of 18th-century São Paulo, there are only two left. Churches were destroyed and were remade again mixing the original plan with other styles, transforming them into eclectic works. This bad preservation is also the case for many modernists’ buildings. Nowadays the revalorisation of the past is a special topic on the government list.
The economy of São Paulo in the 19th century consisted of coffee exportation. By then the city didn’t invest in industry and many products were imported. When the crash of 1930 sank the coffee prices, São Paulo entered in crisis. The reaction was industrialization and a rapid growth of the internal market. This was the beginning of population growth and large scale urbanization. Waves of immigration and migration took place.
In the second half of the 20th century Modernism was the movement, which gave new ideas for city planning. It reacted to the functional city and proposed a more political and cultural way of implanting new ideas. Their socialist thoughts seemed to win territory. The first big social projects were realised, but they lacked continuation. You can almost say that the masterworks realised in the 50´s, have never been trespassed.
Shanty Polis The dictatorship started in 1964 and lasted till 1985. That brought little good, also for architectural and cultural development. Big modernists had to leave the country and today the country’s architects and urban planners say they are still marked by it. These were the years when much of the infrastructure was created. But not always in the correct way.
A famous story is that of a former mayor named Maluf (‘70’s) who decided to make an expressway over an important avenue so he could get quickly from his home to his work. Named the ‘Minhocão’, the expressway is now being closed for traffic at night and on Sundays, in order to create an open space for citizens and offer the neighbouring inhabitants a peaceful and silent day. I live in front of it and it is really loud!! The houses around it were once quality places to live in but lost their value because of this scar passing through them. The road lying beneath the Minhocão was a nice avenue with lots of trees. Now it is dark and dangerous and overrun by tramps and prostitutes. Many proposals for the demolition of the Minhocão have been made.
From the 60’s on the dense city started to verticalise. The demographic explosion of the 70’s was the beginning of the big growth of the periphery and favelas. Huge gaps between rich and poor became reality. Favelas are the product of social-economic changes.
Migrants from the interior and rest of Brazil came to São Paulo searching for work. The favela began as a temporary living place for migrants looking for a better life. The percentage of the population living at a favela was at that time 1,7% of 2 million Paulistan inhabitants. But this number kept growing and eliminating the favelas became impossible. Entering the 90’s the percentage grew to 20% meaning 8.5 million inhabitants.
Metapolis In the 70’s there were attempts to stop the city from growing. Neighbourhoods (Jardins and others) were designed following the less-dense English green-city models of isolated houses and green areas. The diminution of density meant growth on the outskirts and the abandoning of older neighbourhoods. Nowadays the periphery houses 1.8 million more people than the inner city. People trade more convenient locations with a complete transport network for remote areas facing endless congestions and lack of accessibility. Today, to my opinion, the reverse has to be done, the city needs to be densified and abandoned parts need new impulses.
São Paulo is a metropolis that is turning into a metapolis: an agglomeration of dispersed cities and peripheries; a polycentric city with a centre in each neighbourhood. At first the city looked like a product of a spontaneous growth to me. This is a simplistic thought; legislation was always there and urbanists and architects were always involved. The case is that general urban plans need more than 2 to 3 decades to become ‘reality’. Even then, the scarce control and lack of government power and the big financial power of the rich private centers, make it impossible.
The problems of São Paulo are everyone’s daily discussion. Studying the city makes me accept things more. Still I see that the will to realize big interventions and to really improve things is not always there.
Aura Luz Melis