Category Archives: Out of Sao Paulo

Bird, aeroplane, city

A view down the Esplanada dos Ministerios

As a monument to the brilliance of arrogance, it works, somehow. Brasília is a purpose-built capital city, like the US’s Washington or Australia’s Canberra, but with a communistic love of concrete and an embalmed retro space-age feel which means it revels in the bonkers in a way those cities never could. Walking around, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that joke when we realised ‘the future’ in Back to the Future was almost here – where’s that bloody hoverboard I was promised?

Oscar Niemeyer, the architect who planned and designed the whole city from its inception in the 1950s to today, is undoubtedly a genius. For one thing the whole city shaped like an aeroplane (although some say a bird), which, as far as I’m concerned, is reason enough to love it forever. The cathedral, from the outside immodestly individual, from the inside soars with light and calm in a way which could not fail to have impressed Christopher Wren and his sixteenth-century European ilk; the balanced beauty of Congress, with one down-turned dome-shaped construct for the House of Deputies and a mirrored up-turned bowl for the Senate, anchors the city to its governmental purpose with style and grace. But as Niemeyer was given a whole city and 50 years to play around in, one can’t help but get the impression of a kid let loose in a craft box – will they let me build the museum to look like a planet? It seems so…

And while Brasília is continuously impressive as you drive around, if you walk – not something which is either easy or encouraged in that city – up close the buildings are unfortunately reminiscent of the tower blocks thrown up in London at around the same time, to house citizens returning from war and bombed out of their former terraces. Fifties architecture is at once so brilliant and so ugly; it pushed the boundaries of the possible by re-imagining how we should live, but it did so with aluminium windows, which just do not look good five decades later.

The city has been well-maintained, however, in part because its daunting purpose and the pride with which it was inaugurated could not permit otherwise; President Juscelino Kubitschek won the election on a promise to build an inland capital, and lived up to the promise regardless of a remarkable financial burden and seemingly insurmountable technical issues. His face and words continue to adorn the city, and the bursting pride with which Brasília’s 50th anniversary was celebrated this year shows just how the achievement continues to mark the Brazilian consciousness. Whether that consciousness was more or less marked by the rampant inflation let loose by the slack monetary policy needed to build the city in the timeframe set – inflation which took a generation to tame – is debateable.

But as Brasília is part of Brazilianness, so the verve of its people has changed the city. It was built to the mantra that behaviour and lifestyle can be trained by surroundings, and that order in environment creates orderly people; but the irrepressible nature of its inhabitants means the city’s rectilinear goals have been gently but undeniably subverted. Satellite cities – stacks of ill-planned and under-provided homes and commercial centres, which can’t be translated in English to the genteel ‘suburb’ – cluster around the aeroplane’s wings as the homes of the vast majority of the city’s actual, working residents. The deep red earth from which the city was hacked out of an inland plain is omnipresent on pavements and shoes to this day. Markets cluster around major landmarks, workers lope across the ‘no-walking’ grassy spaces, and the Brazilian need to congregate and chat has created slightly uncomfortable but determined spaces to afford that. Niemeyer may have been a genius, but no group of buildings could tame such a need.

Indeed, my favourite thing about Brasília was something Niemeyer may have been influenced by, but which was well beyond his control. The landscape is almost completely flat, and so while buildings do get to 12 or 15 stories (although strictly no more), the sky is wonderfully, awesomely huge, and so so beautiful; I was there in rainy season, which meant that mountain ranges of clouds formed and shifted in evolutionary parody, playing with the sunlight to create unending glory. I can’t really imagine living in Brasília, although the natives, candangos, seem to love it – but sitting on a balcony in São Paulo, looking at my allotted three square inches of sky between the buildings, there’s a definite appeal.

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On beauty

Maybe it is largely Gisele’s fault. Or simply because Brazilian women like tiny – and I mean TINY – bikinis, and 30 or 40 years ago, the willingness to bare that much bum flesh in public was enough. Perhaps there’s a small cohort of very beautiful and stunningly-accessorised Brazilian women who have very international lives, and who have perpetuated the myth globally. But you know what, here on the streets of São Paulo, they ain’t all that.

They wear very tight clothes, I’ll give them that. Unfortunately there’s a significant proportion of womanhood from anywhere in the world that just shouldn’t be wearing lycra, so the propensity for jeggings doesn’t do the whole any favours. I had to exercise a great deal of my luckily-deep reserves of stubbornness when dress shopping the other day to be able to buy the one I thought fit me, rather than the one the size below, which I could technically do up, and which the shop assistant appeared to think looked wonderful on me. It didn’t.

The feminist side of me admires the confidence, the ‘hell yeah, I’m hot enough for hot pants’ approach to life, even if groundless. I just think buy clothes that fit, not for which you need a spare tub of margarine just to get them on. I can’t think about how they get them off.

The confidence of course has significant downsides, in both genders. If your average 60-year-old saggy greying grandparent thinks nothing of a string bikini with postage stamps posing as panels of material, or pulling the wifebeater up to rest on the top of the used-to-be-a-pot belly, the better to show off the rolls and the hair, imagine what an actual fittie is like. However hot you think the washboard stomach and perfect tan is, it can’t begin to match how wonderful they feel about being able to take themselves home every night. And yes, the boys are much worse in the narcissism stakes.

Perhaps the international stereotypers have confused the geographic with the individual, and that the country’s undoubted and vast natural beauty has been supposed to infect its people, without a particular level of truth under the myth. Maybe it is just an ‘eye of the beholder’ thing, and they look at me and the other gringas and wonder why the hell we insist on wearing clothes two sizes too big. What one culture finds gorgeous, repels another, as Pacific Islander v Fashion Week approaches to dress size, or the Kiwi obsession with fleece as against, well, normality, proves.

But then I went to a beach I couldn’t help but find beautiful on Sunday, and every Brazilian I say that to snorts with derision. The city and industrial port of Santos might not be about to win any Condé Nast awards, but you know what, the sun was out, we swam in the sea, the mountains flowed to the ocean, the sunset was beautiful, and I had a bloody fun day. Maybe I’ll change my mind as I get to know the splendour of this country better, but right now, I don’t care. I think it is beautiful, and that’s all that matters.