June 17 2011
I emerge from the overnight flight at 6am feeling like a refugee. The driver, Tony, is there to meet me. He’s originally from Basel, which is bit of a mind-bender considering that’s where I was earlier in the week. He predicts a 90-minute drive to my hotel in Jardins, the smart area of São Paulo that’s just west of the largest feature of this immense sprawling city – the tower-lined Avenida Paulista.
I spend the morning in the hotel until Tony takes me to meet my host, Waldick Jatobá, for lunch at the OCA, a shallow white dome with a ring of porthole windows. This is one of Oscar Niemeyer’s cultural exhibition spaces in the Parque Ibirapuera, the largest of which is the Art Biennial Matarazzo Pavilion. I’m here to contribute a talk about collectable design for the first Design São Paulo week that is taking place in the OCA. Waldick’s a very affable guy, an ex-banker and design aficionado who has put together this first sizeable venture.
On the upper floor the influence of the Campana brothers on the Brazilian design psyche is very much in evidence, with an installation of their prototypes made from tangled wire, rope and fluffy toys. Next to it is a beautiful red tunnel with very witty pieces by the couturier Maurizio Galante. There’s a gorgeous armchair covered in cactus print, soft and spiky at the same time.
At the end of one of Niemeyer’s signature ramps, on the lower level, more than 20 galleries occupy plywood “houses” making up a favela world of handmade but elegant design. It’s an exciting moment. There’s an army of organisers and press people.
This first design event has been paired up with São Paulo Fashion Week, which is being held in the Matarazzo Pavilion next door. My talk, Architecture and the Object, is at 15.00 in the OCA auditorium, and will be simultaneously translated. I begin with my work as a radical architect, how this first got built in Japan, and how design emerged as a bona fide language. I tell them how I’m inspired by the messiness of cities, that layering and disjunction speak volumes. I go on about narrative in design and how, whether working in wood, glass or plastic, I try to marry techniques and meaning.
Halfway through I’m told that the headphones aren’t working; the translator will join me in front of the audience. The crunch point is my own way of balancing artistry with industry. This lamp for Slamp is produced in thousands and costs €300, while this mirror, which is entirely made by hand, comes in an edition of 12 and costs €10,000. Of course the translation slows things down but good questions at the end make it clear that the effort has not been in vain.
Outside there’s lots more chit-chat and soundbite interviews including one in a TV studio across the way in the Fashion Week camp next door. Eventually I cut loose and go with a gang of three from the British Council including Vicky Richardson, head of design from London. We make off for a drink at the Hotel Unique, a designer luxe-zone in the shape of a boat. The bar on the top floor is reputed to have great views. They’re not wrong. Emerging onto the terrace, crowded with languid Paulistas drinking caipirinhas, we edge towards the glass barrier enclosing this hovering aircraft carrier of a building. There on the horizon, against a backdrop of ink-black sky, is a tsunami of cascading light – the Avenida Paulista. This view alone is worth coming here; it sends shivers of pleasure down my spine.