“Sao Paulo is like a mine. When you dig, there will be a lot of dirt but you’ll also find jewels,” breathes the city’s dark prince of nightlife Facundo Guerra through a cloud of cigarette smoke as he surveys the scene at his latest playground, an abandoned Japanese cinema-turned-white-hot venue in the city’s decayed Downtown. Search for the word gritty in the dictionary and it could simply read: São Paulo. As the idea of a metropolis it lives large in the collective imagination. It is the Latin American New York, a sprawling, violent and socially disparate concrete jungle. But just as the city might define urban chaos, it is also a place of incredible beauty, though often hidden. It is the financial and cultural capital of an ascendant, optimistic Brazil, boasting 19 million inhabitants and a Technicolor rainbow of blended ethnicities. As the South American superpower continues to rise from the jungle and flex its (tanned) muscles, its powerhouse city has become a place of staggering verve and vibrancy. Its talented and influential design community is newly emboldened, artists are flocking to be Downtown, wealth continues to spread at pace and it is now home to the hottest nightlife on the planet. Like Paris in the 1920s, New York in the ’70s and Berlin last decade, there is a palpable sense that São Paulo is entering its [it] belle époque.
Airport transfers are not typically exhilarating experiences. Most often it’s a time to gather thoughts, itineraries and emails, but only the very world- weary could be nonchalant upon entering São Paulo from its airport (which appears to be somewhere close to Paraguay). From the air it looks like an absurd Lego city, from the car it is a daunting spectacle. Dozens of helicopters whirr above, transporting the very wealthy and the fabulously wealthy to appointments and, more importantly, away from the traffic-choked streets and its denizens. The city seems to continue without centre or end. Crumbled concrete towers race each other to the sky, mimicking the aggressive jungle vegetation that covers much of the country and persists even in the city centre. Giant figs manage to invade buildings and crack pavements, even the trunks of trees that line the streets are alive with thousands of tiny ferns competing for life, a perfect metaphor for the city in this moment.
While your pulse may never slow in São Paulo, trepidation does quickly evaporate once on the street. Paulistas are famed for creating wonderfully private sanctuaries. Brazil is a country where architecture and design is taken very seriously indeed and it is telling that one of its most revered figures is the 104-year- old architect, Oscar Niemeyer. As Brazilian Modernism’s greatest luminary, he reshaped his country’s identity in the popular imagination globally and his work continues to inspire a uniquely Brazilian aesthetic in the design community of São Paulo. The city’s Parque Ibirapuera is home to some of Niemeyer’s best work outside of his masterpiece, the capital Brasilia, and his Mod pavilions continue to house influential design and art fairs. The leftist architect also designed Edificio Copan, an iconic apartment block with a serpentine façade that brings all social classes together with apartments for the rich and tiny studios for the poor, a rare and now lauded approach in the famously class-divided city. While there is never likely to be another who dominates so totally design and discussion in Brazil, there are several architects and designers who continue in his mould. Isay Weinfeld is one very notable architect who calls São Paulo both his home and muse. His elegantly severe designs in white and concrete that echo the brilliant green outside, most typify the zeitgeist. Many of his most accessible works are in the upscale neighbourhood of Jardins, including the stunning incandescent white rectangle that houses the Havaianas flagship store and the clever Livraria da Vila, a bookstore with walls of shelves that rotate and open to the street.
Jardins is a prime vantage point to observe the incredible surge of wealth that has occurred in Brazil. Its glittering main street Rua Oscar Freire is now every bit as impressive as Milan’s Via Montenapoleone, Paris’s Rue Saint-Honoré, Tokyo’s Ginza or New York’s Fifth Avenue. Luxury brands have scrambled to the city in the past several years, each building a temple to its goods and bigger than the next; a stroll around the neighbourhood is not only a lesson in luxury but the comings and goings of the global economy.
Anchoring the Jardins is the Fasano, an incredibly handsome hotel created by the family of the same name, who have long been seen as the final word in hospitality. Although it is less than 10 years old, it already feels like a grand dame, not that anything about it is dated but in a city that continues to morph with such exaggerated pace there is something comforting in its restrained rather than overt opulence.
Though geographically close, and separated only by the city’s premier boulevard Paulista Avenue, the cloistered world of Jardins is starkly dierent to that of the former heart of the city, Downtown. The area has felt the shifting fortunes of the South American superpower acutely over the years and it is only now that it has begun to reemerge. Here, lines form outside one of Guerra’s clubs at midnight on a Wednesday. An eclectic grouping of creatures – freaks, geeks, gay, straight, dark and fair are all equally represented – it is the same every night of the week. Most notable on the scene is Guerra’s Cine Joia, a converted cinema in the city’s Japanese quarter, Liberdade, which now regularly hosts the world’s top DJs and live acts. The cavernous space still feels like a vintage cinema except the screen is replaced with an altar to the DJ and in lieu of seats is a heaving morass of young, hard-living, fast-loving Paulistas strutting and preening. A permissive and optimistic attitude pervades the night air and possibilities seem endless.
São Paulo may be contrary to Brand Brazil – the sun-kissed sultriness of Rio de Janeiro it is not – but it would be a mistake to think it lacks sensuality or confidence.␣São Paolo is on a heady upswing and, though its scale will continue to bamboozle and intimidate, it has only just begun to burnish its many jewels. As Brazil continues to rise, so its economic and cultural hub becomes increasingly important, vibrant and impossible to resist. The time to visit is now.
It’s no secret that Brazilians have sex appeal in spades, but when their caramel bodies are draped in the Modernist beach-bum stylings of this wildly popular brand, the effect is deadly. Rua Oscar Freire, 645, Jardim Paulista, São Paulo, (+55) 11 3083 7977; osklen.com.
Brazilians love thongs, both for the feet and elsewhere. The flagship store of the ubiquitous Havaianas (the H is silent) is great fun and allows you to create a bespoke pair from a rainbow of colourways. Rua Oscar Freire, 1116, Jardim Paulista, São Paulo, (+55) 11 3079 3415; havaianas.com.br.
Livraria da Vila
This Isay Weinfeld-designed bookstore is not only a temple to the bound page but is an exemplary specimen of São Paulo post-Brutalist design. Rua Fradique Coutinho, 915, São Paulo, (+55) 11 3814 5811; www.livrariadavila.com.br.
Mercado Municipal De São Paulo (Markets)
My first stop in any city is the local market because to me it is best way to take the pulse of a place. This Beaux Arts jewel among the grit of downtown doesn’t disappoint. It’s frenetic, colourful, a tad perilous and smells strangely of passionfruit. Perfect really. Rua da Cantareira, 306, Sé, São Paulo, (+55) 11 3313 3365; mercadomunicipal.com.br.
Is there another architect whose body of work is as emblematic of his country’s story than that of 104-year-old Oscar Niemeyer? Parque Ibirapuera houses some of the legendary master of Brazilian Modernism’s more significant works outside of Brasília, the surreal master-planned capital of his design. Parquedoibirapuera.com.
An actual jungle amid the concrete jungle. Rua Peixoto Gomide, 949, Jardim Paulista, São Paulo.
Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo
A gallery of note with a rotating international roster of exhibitions, it is worth a visit not only for its high profile guest but also for the extraordinary collection of colonial-era botanical drawings of Amazonian plants. Praça da Luz, 2, São Paulo, (+55) 11 3324 1000, pinacoteca.org.br.
Dalva e Dito
Alex Atala is Brazil’s most famous chef. His signature restaurant is DOM but his considerably more casual Brazilian homestyle restaurant Dalva e Dito is my pick. Rua Padre João Manuel, 1115, Cerqueira César, São Paulo, (+55) 11 3068 4444; dalvaedito.com.br.
The food is good and the crowd is largely local but the first reason to eat here is to dine under a prehistoric- looking fig that invades the dining room. Go on Saturdays for feijoada, a heavy, delicious stew of pork and beans, considered Brazil’s national dish. Rua Haddock Lobo, 1738, Jardim Paulista, São Paulo, (+55) 11 3087 1399, rubaiyat.com.br.
Cute staff, a natty little menu and close proximity to Paulista Avenue make Spot exactly that; the spot. Alameda Ministro Rocha Azevedo, 72, Bela Vista, São Paulo, (+55) 11 3284 6131; restaurantespot.com.br.
The jewel in the crown of São Paulo’s dark prince, club owner Facundo Guerra, is this live music venue in a formerly abandoned Japanese cinema in the city’s shady Liberdade district. On any given night it is populated by the city’s freaky, fashionable and hard living, and has the feeling of a legendary venue in the making. Praça Carlos Gomes, 82, Liberdade, São Paulo, (+55) 11 3231 3705; cinejoia.tv.
Once a tacky former gentlemen’s club, Lions is the pioneer in the downtown nightlife renaissance. Taxidermy may be a touch passé as a decorating flourish, except here where antlers are replaced with bizarre jungle creatures. Avenida Brigadeiro Luís Antônio, 277, São Paulo, (+55) 11 3104 7157; lionsnightclub.com.br.
This abattoir-turned-macabre bar has an anti-fashion attitude that (unsurprisingly) attracts São Paulo’s most fashion-forward kids. Rua Augusta, 934, Consolação, São Paulo, (+55) 11 2936-0934; zcarniceria.com.br.
When the city banned the saucy neon signs in the red light district, the owners of Volt bought the discarded lights and lit the bar from within. Rua Haddock Lobo, 40, São Paulo, (+55) 11 2936 4041.
Hotel Fasano São Paulo
In a town where luxury often equals gaudy, the Fasano family’s flagship hotel is unabashedly sophisticated. With elegant details and quality finishes, the experience of staying here is, in a word, exquisite. Rua Vittorio Fasano, 88, Jardins, São Paulo, (+55) 11 3896 4000; fasano.com.br.
© Vogue Living, September/October 2012, Photography Credit: Pablo Zamora