Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, we visit São Paulo, Brazil.
São Paulo's Minhocão elevated highway has done double duty for the last few decades: highway by day, linear park at night—plus Sundays and holidays. During its off time, segments of the 2.2-mile-long roadway—officially the Via Elevada Presidente Costa e Silva—have, at various times, been transformed into a pool, a park, a canvas, and more. Architect Luana Geiger installed a long, shallow pool along a stretch of it for the São Paulo Architecture Biennial in 2014; the BaixoCentro festival has layered astroturf and, again, mini-pools onto its asphalt; and artist Felipe Morozini and twenty of his friends painted white flowers onto its gray expanse in 2009.
All the while, the second-story line has been a haven for joggers, bikers, and soccer-playing kids on weekends. Picnics are hosted, dance parties had, skateboards mastered, music played. Now, as the future of the Minhocão is uncertain—will it be codified as a park or be torn down?—artists and architects have chosen not to address what it will become but instead, through vertical interventions, to emphasize what it already is.
The Minhocão, earthworm in Portuguese, was finished in 1971, during Brazil's military dictatorship. It was unpopular with the residents around it from the start. With cars revving and braking mere meters from living areas and bedrooms in the densely populated swath through which it sliced, it generated a constant rabble of traffic and cast first floors into shadow. Not long after its completion, its hours were regulated to ensure nearby residents at least a small share of daily and weekend quiet, creating, in the meantime, de facto public space.
All along the Minhocão, as in much of the densely-populated city, high buildings with window-less walls tower above the pavement. Whether due to a lack of urban planning or to the sudden disappearance of development funds, as João Nitsche at São Paulo firm Nitsche Arquiteitos explains, "Constructions are left waiting for another building to be built next to it. It's resulted in these blank walls that are very characteristic of São Paulo."
For years, the "blind walls" were used for ad space, which was outlawed in 2006. Now, they remain blank, with water stains crawling down vertical planes and the occasional graffiti tag at lower heights. Still, they command attention: from the 80,000 to 100,000 cars that traverse the highway daily during its open hours (6:30am to 9:30pm) and its 10,000 weekend visitors.
"These walls," says Nitsche, "are objects of desire for graffiti artists, ad companies, politicians."
They're also the only existing programming of what was to be a battery of cultural programs scheduled to take place on the Minhocão for the city's Virada Cultural in late June. The 24-hour culture festival was meant to include a dozen concerts and interventions, curated by Morozini, now director of the Association of Parque Minhocão. State police cancelled them, citing a lack of public safety on the elevated highway. An already-installed mural by Nitsche was one of two—the other by San Francisco-based artist Mona Caron—that were left well enough alone.
Using human-scale negative space, Nitsche—whose partners are siblings Lua and Pedro Nitsche, architects, and Joao Nitsche, an artist—generated a virtual x-ray of the apartment building, whose residents had approved the intervention in advance. Their intent, they say, was "to represent the lives inside of the building."
As linear parks open around the world—the 606, on what was once the Bloomingdale train line, opened in Chicago in June to a crowd of an estimated 50,000 visitors, and construction has begun to raise a Mexico City park from scratch—São Paulo addresses the question of how the Minhocão differs. To Morozini, the answer is clear. "It is a park already," he insists. "We have to discuss the park, not the project of the park." Merely shutting down the highway to cars and handing it over to pedestrians and parkgoers creates the transformation, he says, and that transformation then impacts the entire community.
If the benefits of elevated travel for cars are many—no interruptions from cross streets, expedited connection among neighborhoods, slicing through swaths of the city untouched—the Minhocão's sort of elevated park offers the same simple benefits for bikers, joggers, and pedestrians. The potential of what Morozini says are 140 blind walls allows for simple, impactful transformation, including greenery: the vertical garden movement Movimiento 90 Graus installed one green wall in May and hope to do twenty more in the coming year.
This weekend marked the first on which São Paulo's government closed the Minhocão to car traffic on Saturday, too, a slow weaning of city drivers off of its roadway, prioritizing the pedestrians, joggers, and picnic-makers over cars. Morozini has a few years, he says, to convince São Paulo residents that it's worth keeping its giant worm, and blind walls will play their role. "It's amazing," he says, "the potential of a real artistic manifestation, the dialogue between buildings and the lives inside."