São Paulo: South America’s most populous city, maelstrom of futuristic cityscapes and unbearable traffic. This mighty megalopolis can easily give the impression of a place with little interest in the past and zero time for relaxation, only for fast and furious forward movement. But in fact, even this most frenetic of cities has its oases of calm and cultural heritage. Case in point, the Parque Burle Marx, an 11-hectare extension of parkland named after the brilliant Brazilian landscape designer who laid out its verdant central section in the 1950s, preserving for the city a priceless swathe of Atlantic littoral forest.
Turning off the roaring riverside highway towards the district of Morumbi – that most uptown and upscale of São Paulo’s residential neighbourhoods – is like entering a parallel universe. The road shrinks to two lanes, weaving upwards through trees that lean in from the margins of the park, dappling the tarmac with light and shade. A long driveway leads to a forecourt flanked with imperial palms, and there before you stands an imposing mansion in vaguely neoclassical style, the façade an assortment of vaulted arcades, pilasters, balustrades and balconies. You’d be forgiven for thinking that São Paulo had at last seen fit to breathe new life into a 19th-century grand hotel, sadly fallen into desuetude.
Except that Palácio Tangará is nothing of the kind. Construction of the palace, originally conceived as a gift from the colourful Brazilian business magnate Francisco “Baby” Pignatari to his future wife, began in the 1940s, but was abruptly halted when Baby’s fiancée upped and left him. In the 1990s it was rebuilt in its present form as a hotel and thereafter abandoned, until the Oetker Collection – the German hotel group behind such blue-blooded establishments as Le Bristol in Paris, the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes and Brenners Park Hotel & Spa in Baden-Baden – took up the challenge of installing its first Latin American property in what was locally regarded as a very ornate white elephant.
Not a bad decision, because in time the new Palácio Tangará looks assured to be a game-changer, not only for the surrounding neighbourhood but also for the greater tourist infrastructure of its home city. Of the (barely) half-dozen important hotels in São Paulo, the Unique, Fasano and Emiliano opened their doors in a flurry during the early 2000s – all paragons of turn-of-the-century design and unashamedly, even brashly urban in character. Not so the Tangará. Despite being essentially a new-build, it harks back in every way to the kind of classic grand hôtel of which all the great world cities have at least one (even Rio de Janeiro, in the form of the Copacabana Palace) but which São Paulo oddly lacked. Ensconced in its rus in urbe setting, the Palácio flies a discreet flag for the European virtues of quiet, repose and restrained good taste – none of them exactly São Paulo specialities.
From behind the fence around Parque Burle Marx, nothing is visible through the dense screen of subtropical forest. Once inside the hotel, however, natural light and long vistas are the dominant themes. The lobby, a wide, open-plan space for socialising, gives onto a central patio held within the U-shaped building’s two wings, with formal gardens designed by the oh-so-hot São Paulo-based landscaper Sérgio Santana, and a bright-white swimming pool adorned in its depths with a stylised black butterfly (the symbol of the hotel). Stone staircases lead to balustraded terraces; the spa area, on the ground floor, is for once not an afterthought shoehorned into a gloomy basement, but a 1,024sq m space full of air and sunlight, with its own 25m heated pool and unimpeded views of the lush outside world. From the Crystal Ballroom, a huge ceremonial space with 9m ceilings where bookings are already lining up for high-society Paulista weddings, arched windows open onto a terrace shaded by woodland. The signature restaurant by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, with its menu combining Asian dishes with Brazilian touches, and vice versa, occupies another superbly light-filled room with an outdoor terrace (the Palácio has many) abutting the park. Only the Burle Bar shies away from the light – the glamorous penumbra of this deeply chic coctelería seems set to become for the 2020s what the city’s Bar Fasano was in its heyday.
Whereas hip downtown hotels like the Fasano pride themselves on interiors that glitter with no-holds-barred modernity, once again Palácio Tangará begs to differ. In the 141 rooms, designed by architect William Simonato and interior designer Luis Bick, the keynote is sobriety with a European flavour, short on colour and long on elegant shades of grey (warm, cool, silvery, charcoal), deploying expensive fabrics, painted panelling and richly papered walls, with furniture ranging eclectically from classic antiques to slick chrome lighting. From the balcony of the top-floor suites the view is a wall of gently undulating green with, in the distance, the larger and more imposing wall of downtown São Paulo skyscrapers. Birdsong drifts from the depths of the park, along with a refreshing breeze (the temperature in Parque Burle Marx is an estimated 3ºC lower than the rest of the city).
But where the Tangará really excels is in its public spaces, to which designer Patricia Anastassiadis has applied a richly personal artistic narrative. Flooring is a key element of the look, alternating cream-coloured limestone, mottled brown marble, Brazilian sucupira wood herringbone parquet and huge carpets handmade in India to her exacting specifications. Every detail tells a story: the stone feature wall of the Burle Bar and its gold shelf supports are a comment on the colonial history of Minas Gerais, while the faded blues and greens of the upholstery take inspiration from the watercolours of 18th-century adventurer Jean-Baptiste Debret. In Anastassiadis’ hands the hotel has been made practically a museum of modern Brazilian art and design. There is much to admire here, from the found-wood pieces by Hugo França to Fernando Arias’ tapestries, Araquém Alcântara’s Amazon rainforest photographs and Laura Vinci’s stunning “lightless chandelier” for the ballroom’s grand staircase.
Just as Anastassiadis’ interiors showcase Brazilian culture and Sérgio Santana’s garden design deliberately blurs boundaries with the park, Palácio Tangará hopes to integrate itself seamlessly into the social life of its well-heeled neighbours. If all goes to plan, it will become what São Paulo has needed for decades: a retreat from the city’s manic energy, a kind of urban resort in which Paulistas and international travellers can feel equally at home. Rumour has it that Morumbi locals, in defiance of São Paulo’s iron-clad work ethic, are quietly planning their relaxing winter weekends at the hotel. It’s what happens when a white elephant becomes a unicorn.