Urban architecture

Biography of a building

The changing fortunes of an apartment block, and its city

Feb 27th 2016 | SÃO PAULO |


World’s tallest tilde

MASSIVE yet graceful, Edifício Copan partakes of the monstrousness of the city that surrounds it but is shaped by the sensuality of its architect, Oscar Niemeyer. Its curved form is meant to suggest the tilde above the “a” of São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city. With 5,000 residents in 32 floors of flats stacked atop 72 shops and restaurants, the building has its own postcode. Two framed certificates in the office of Affonso de Oliveira, Copan’s “prefeito” (mayor), attest that in the mid-1990s the apartment block held a Guinness record as Latin America’s biggest residential building. It remains the city’s largest, most recognisable dwelling.

In its 50-year history (its birthday is in May, if you count from the day city hall issued the first residency permit), Edifício Copan’s changing fortunes have at different times mimicked and diverged from those of São Paulo itself. These days, the building is doing better than its city. São Paulo’s 11m people, who produce a tenth of Brazil’s GDP, are suffering as the country enters its second year of recession, although not as badly as much of the rest of the country. Copan, along with the town’s centre, is thriving.

Niemeyer’s modernist masterpiece, conceived during a wave of industrialising optimism in the early 1950s, never fulfilled the ambitions of its builders. Its name is short for Companhia Pan-Americana de Hotéis e Turísmo (Pan-American Hotel and Tourism Company). But the developer ran out of money in the mid-1950s and sold the entire plot to a bank, which now occupies the site reserved for the hotel. A planned terrace garden, dividing the residential tower from the shops below, never materialised. The blueprints were erased and redrawn so many times they became translucent, recalls Carlos Lemos, who supervised the construction.

The first residents arrived in 1962. By the time they held their first condo meeting, in 1971, São Paulo’s elegant centre was in decline. Middle-class paulistanos, now rich enough to buy cars manufactured on the city’s outskirts, forsook the centre’s narrow streets. Businesses followed them to the broad avenues radiating south and east from the inner city. The city’s population swelled—from 6.6m to 9.6m between 1973 and 1991—crowding into favelas (shantytowns) on its periphery. The proportion living in such precarious neighbourhoods expanded from 1% to 9% over that period.

Industry quit the city altogether in search of cheaper land, cleaner air and a refuge from crime. Between 1980 and 1985, as Brazil’s hyperinflationary “lost decade” was getting started, São Paulo lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs. Services grew, but not enough to compensate fully. By 1999 the unemployment rate had climbed to 18% and the murder rate had reached 69 per 100,000 people, among the world’s highest. Copan’s surroundings assumed a dystopian air of urban decay. Empty offices and flats became squats. Crack dealers and addicts terrorised the neighbourhood. Prostitutes offered quick consolation.

When Mr de Oliveira assumed his mayoral duties in 1993, after training as a chemical engineer and spending three decades as a bureaucrat, he found a building in physical and financial disrepair. One in four flats stood empty and more than a dozen served as brothels. Mr de Oliveira, or Senhor Affonso, as he is universally known, promptly evicted the prostitutes, fixed the building’s finances and started fining rule-breakers. “Things have got a thousand percent better,” says Antônio Alberto, who brews espresso at the Café Floresta, a Copan fixture since 1972. Daniel Trench, a graphic designer who moved in four years ago, compares Mr de Oliveira to Rudolph Giuliani, New York’s crime-busting mayor in the 1990s.

Copan and its neighbourhood are now chic. When Mika Lins, an actress, bought a three-bedroom flat in 2001, her friends said she was insane. Today the 28th-floor apartment, with a spectacular view of São Paulo’s concrete sprawl, is worth perhaps 1.1m reais ($280,000), ten times what she paid for it. Property prices have risen by a third as much in São Paulo at large. Now just 14 of Copan’s flats are vacant, and they “won’t be for long”, promises Mr de Oliveira. Even the studio and one-bedroom apartments in “Block B”, long considered the dodgiest of the six, are now thought to be bijou. Ms Lins is renting one for her mother.

The revived condominium has helped spruce up São Paulo’s centre, and benefited in turn from the area’s new spirit of edgy respectability. Bar da Dona Onça became the building’s first hip restaurant in 2008. Pivô, a contemporary-art gallery, moved in four years ago. Cyclists have replaced streetwalkers in nearby streets. Mr Alberto gripes that he serves just 500 cups of espresso a day, a quarter of what he sold 15 years ago, but that is because Café Floresta is no longer the only source of good espresso in the neighbourhood.

His fellow paulistanos, worried about recession and angry about corruption in Brasília—the purpose-built national capital that is Niemeyer’s most famous work—are likely to oust São Paulo’s mayor, Fernando Haddad, when local elections are held in October. He belongs to Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party, which has been tarnished by a massive bribery scandal centred on Petrobras, a state-controlled oil giant. Mr Haddad’s constituents are not keen either on the cycle lanes that have helped revive the city centre, part of his ambitious plans to coax residentsout of their cars.

Copan’s prefeito is more secure, but he still has plenty of work to do. Niemeyer’s curvaceous façade is crumbling, and is draped in blue netting to protect pedestrians from falling tiles. Restoration will cost 23m reais and will take at least three years. The building’s 1,600-seat cinema has been boarded up since its last occupant, a Pentecostal church, was forced to leave in 2008 because of fears that its structure was unsound. The building of Copan has “never really ended”, muses Mr Lemos. It is in permanent flux, like São Paulo itself.