Golden sand, jiggling samba queens in slinky rhinestone nothings, the slushing ice and lime in a caipirinha, and a bossa nova singer’s minor-key coo: so goes the standard travelogue of Brazil. Except for the caipirinha and one peripheral Gisele sighting, none of this corresponds to the Brazil I know best. I’ve done the tropical beach getaway, and it’s been transcendent, but for me, the chaotic metropolis of São Paulo is a far more engaging place, full of creativity, traffic, sprawl, and electric contradiction.
Built over a former swamp, with no waves to surf or wild river to ford, São Paulo is 800 square miles shared by more than 16 million people of vast ethnic diversity: Italians, Germans, Portuguese, Africans, and the largest Japanese community outside of Japan. (To put the numbers in perspective, that’s twice as many people as in New York City.) I first visited the city four years ago, for its fashion week—a massive pop-cultural event rivaled only by the World Cup in Brazilian TV ratings—and my debut afternoon there set the tone for every return trip to follow. Emerging from a crowded, graffiti-lined highway into the center of town, I came face-to-hoof with the Monumento às Bandeiras, Victor Brecheret’s magnificently imposing sculpture depicting Portuguese conquistadores on horseback leading Indians and Africans on a journey to the interior. Begun in 1921 and inaugurated in 1953, the granite hulk juts out of a busy intersection on the edge of São Paulo’s vast central park, Ibirapuera, a teeming meeting point between nature, history, and gridlock, and a reminder of how the city has evolved from a literal jungle into an urban one. Once I’d checked into—and quickly become bored by—my overdesigned hotel, I had a few hours to myself and decided to go for a walk. (I didn’t yet know that no one does this in São Paulo.) Traversing a wide, sooty street lined with brashly colored two-story houses serving, bizarrely, as medical, dental, and plastic-surgery clinics, I turned into Jardim América, one of the poshest garden neighborhoods I’d ever seen. Around me were slick International Style houses and ivy-covered colonials shaded by every kind of tree you can imagine. The lots were huge, the streets winding, and the contrast between the expensive silence—my footsteps were softened by a lilac carpet of fallen dilobo blossoms, moistened by rain—and the choking diesel fumes and discount lingerie boutiques 15 blocks away was immense. This was when I realized that the tropicalism for which Brazil became famous does exist in São Paulo, but in isolated pockets, filtered through an architect’s imagination—more an idea than a raw reality.
Though much of São Paulo’s pulsing energy is due to its congestion—made less oppressive by Brazilians’ quickness to smile—the city’s historic lack of planning has helped. São Paulo’s endless streets conform to no orderlygrid, so blocks upon blocks of high-rises—many of them washed in pastels or sprayed with confetti mosaics—stand shoulder-to-shoulder like chatty guests hobnobbing at a cocktail party, their clusters shot through here and there by arching freeway overpasses. The few Baroque buildings that have survived are engulfed by 1950’s and 60’s towers, many of these shopworn enough to lend the cityscape an air of decadence. Where there is greenery—as in Ibirapuera, in Parque Buenos Aires, in the graceful, 19th-century neighborhood of Higienópolis, in the unmissable gardens of the Fundação Maria Luisa e Oscar Americano, or in upper-class areas like Jardins and Morumbi—it’s lush. There are said to be 50 species of birds at Oscar Americano alone, but there are also giant tracts of the city where telephone poles have taken the place of trees.