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Creating Public Space in Brazil’s Largest City

An architect’s gathering space for the neighborhood along a forgotten São Paulo river

Paige Vickers

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, Vazio Architecture’s Carlos Teixeira has ideas for enlivening a river in São Paulo, Brazil.

São Paulo is not home to the stretch of the Tietê River that became briefly famous a few years back. That’s further downstream in a village 40 miles away, where a dam churns chemicals in the river’s water into foam so thick and puffy that it resembles the surface of an enormous washing machine. Photos from dry seasons, when the lack of rain concentrates the river’s pollution and clumps of foam float along the wending river, circulate on the internet every few years.

São Paulo is where those chemicals enter the river, where the factors leading to that toxic foam converge.

São Paulo, 45 miles from the river’s source, contributes sewage, street litter, and oil from its world-renowned traffic to the Tietê’s waters. In 1990, it collected the waste of 33,000 factories and 13 million inhabitants, 80 percent of it untreated. The river was biologically dead as far as 160 miles downstream.

By 2011, after efforts on the part of the city’s mayor and local NGOs, the river’s pollution had decreased: life had returned to 100 miles of the river’s water. But not fast enough for Vazio Architecture’s Carlos Teixeira, who believes the river hardly provides the appealing waterfront spaces necessary within the cityscape. Most residents seek distance from the river, not proximity to it. This is, he believes, entirely incumbent on the river’s cleanliness. If the river were only clean, he believes, a wealth of opportunities would open up for the city’s residents.

“The river is not that ugly and smelly,” says Teixeira, “but it’s not a beautiful landscape, a clean river. There are expectant areas surrounding these polluted rivers and they don’t work like public spaces because of the condition of the river.”

This summer, with global eyes on Brazil for the Olympics, Vazio proposes a light if consequential intervention in Brazil’s largest city. Teixeira and his firm, Vazio Architecture, propose a double-pronged intervention that draws attention to two opportunities for change in São Paulo. By installing a platform above a stretch of the Aricanduva, a tributary of the Tietê in the east of São Paulo, where existing infrastructure supports it, Vazio hopes not only to draw attention to the human impact on the river but to offer a community an appealing temporary public space in the meantime.

Teixeira envisions a platform constructed around existing concrete struts protecting the riverbed. Though it would not be exclusively an ad hoc public space—he hopes to inaugurate public arts programming as well—its existence would convert a blank space in the urban fabric into something inviting, a gathering place for the neighborhood.

Teixeira describes Vazio’s proposal as an exploration of planes: the river provides the base plane. Above it will sit a grate of greenery, a tentative visual barrier that will allow some but not entire visibility to the river below. The platform itself is positioned on street level, a simple steel construction with a green roof overhead.

The platform itself is meant to be a gathering space, with a bar that will sell different kinds of mineral waters, “a place where people can be,” says Teixeira. While programming will draw different audiences to the platform at different times, its essential function is simply as a user-defined space.

“The municipality tried to activate some of these forgotten voids along the river with some squares that are not working, because the landscape along the river is not very inviting to people who want to use public spaces in the city,” Teixeira explains.

Right now, Vazio is in the throes of fundraising to build the platform. If all goes to plan, Teixeira and team will build his project next summer, during the river’s dry season—when pollution is highest, yes, but also when the Aricanduva can reliably be counted on not to flood its banks.

It’s a strange and appealing proposition. Teixeira’s proposal asks whether a city’s residents, if forced to spend time in a natural landscape rendered unappealing by human intervention, might begin to reflect on how that natural resource got so bad and what can be done to fix it. The key, Teixeira argues, is in the programming.

Teixeira hopes to host a documentary festival about waterways and cities, a dance festival, in which local dance companies will adapt works to the platform’s constraints, small exhibits and presentations by art and architecture collectives, and readings. All presented work will spiral back, whether abstractly or concretely, to the river itself. “There will be various interventions that will expose the situation,” he says.

“The richness of the project is kind of a shock that is going to be produced by a public space in a place where people would never imagine it,” he says. “In a city that lacks public space and green areas, we are going to inaugurate a new possibility of public space where there are already invisible public spaces in the city, like on this forgotten river.”