Brazil is a giant and diverse country. But in São Paulo I find a legendary place where I get a glimpse of the variety and beauty of its people – a scale model of Brazilian society.
São Paulo, a city called ‘concrete jungle’ by the Brazilian people. I am walking down a deserted Avenida Paulista, the jungle’s main artery, in wonderment. Meandering through the empty Bairro da Liberdade, I stop to think while tying my shoelaces. Why does “Sampa” feel like a small village dressed as a metropolis? Then it hits me! I have managed to come to the city at the time of a yearly migratory movement – Carnival. Every Paulista has left the city, which explains the desolate streets, almost eerie, with nothing but huge buildings to guard them. “Fantastic,” I think to myself, -“will I even get to see the real city?”
I actually don’t think I’ve ever felt this small. On my journeys, I had the opportunity to visit some big metropolises. But not even Manhattan gave me this sense of sheer insignificance. And not just insignificance, also some kind of abandonment. It is like having Mingus Big Band playing only for you and having no one to share the experience with. That solitary feel of the solo clapper.
Oh well… But I’m here for a reason. I want to visit the Copan building.
Copan is an urban landmark of São Paulo. A project by Brazilian living legend, architect Oscar Niemeyer. The residential complex, with its light, curvy form, is a breath of fresh air in the middle of the city’s geometric straight-lined concrete. Looking at it from a distance, you can’t help but think it’s the work of a visionary. But, truth be told, I’m not here to admire the building’s design. I’m here because of the distinctive human aspect of the Copan building. Its 37 floors are home to 2000 people living in 1160 apartments. And people even say that the official stats are wrong and more than 5000 people actually live there.
I sit down at “Bar da Dona Onça”,” watching the people passing by. I see families enjoying the soft summer breeze. Older men discussing football and having a couple of beers. Young executives working extra time on weekends and returning home with loosened ties. A middle-aged lady in high heels, a golden wig and a short dress leaves the building. Our eyes meet and it becomes clear to me that she hasn’t always been a lady.I realize that in only ten minutes of people-watching, I have encountered the huge range of human diversity that Copan hosts.
After a bit, I get restless and go talk to a family. Alzira and Fernando live together in a two bedroom apartment with their daughter and son-in-law. “We moved here from Goias State 35… no, 36 years ago,“ Fernando tells me. “When we were looking for an apartment, the Copan seemed like a good option. It’s a really nice place to live… very central.…Here, let me get you a beer.” When he returns with an ice cold one in his hand, I ask him about his neighbors. “I can’t complain. People are really respectful, honestly. Of course we have people here from all over the country, rich, poor, families of eight living in a studio apartment, and couples living on the top floors in 200 square meter apartments. But I never had any problems. A healthy coexistence all around.” Fernando smiles openly when he says that. Smiles like only Brazilians can, I remember thinking. I enjoy the ice cold beer with him. His family is really warm and everyone is curious about my country. They ask a lot about the food, the coastline and if I know the little town their ancestors are from. They share smiles and invite me to come back whenever I want. I feel a little bit like I’m part of the family. Immediately. I have to say goodbye, a little unwillingly. But duty calls. Gotta move on.
I come back a few days later. I want to go to the roof and take pictures, but the doorman says it’s closed on holidays. Right next to him is a lady of a certain age, wearing a colorful dress. I remember thinking that maybe she read a lot, she had that wise air that only teachers have. When I ask her about the building and how it was to live there, she says: “It’s good, it’s fine but… If you want you can come and take a look at my apartment, maybe it’s useful for you.” Obviously, I agree. ”To live in Copan is truly a pleasure. It’s an honour. It’s a work of Niemeyer, after all. Of course with your day to day routine you tend to forget it, but I can’t hide how nice it is. Besides that it has every comfort I could wish for.” I’m sitting in Dona Celia’s neatly decorated living room, with bookshelves all over and some vibrant, colorful paintings on the walls. I’m hearing how she raised a family in the building and how now she lives here by herself. I also hear how she loved visiting Portugal, especially Coimbra, the university town. “Why? Because it’s a city where you can breathe knowledge. And I’m a teacher, so…” I was right. She actually reminded me of my first grade teacher, that’s why. I ask her what it is like to live in such a diverse building. “Haha! This building is a real watercolor picture of Brazil, a true ‘Aguarela do Brasil’. You find every single type of people, every race, creed and, of course, level of wealth! But everyone lives together, no problems at all. People from Bloco B for instance, they live in poorer conditions, really tiny studios. But I have never heard of anyone having problems with the penthouse lawyers. Why should they?” She laughs. I think how privileged I am to discover a little bit of her world. On my way out she says: “Good luck with your world trip! Open your heart!!” I thank her immensely. Brimming with joy, these words accompany me down from the 10th floor and out of the door, overflowing into the street.
I’m walking on clouds when I notice this young couple sitting on the curb. Hand in hand, they’re just enjoying life and each other’s presence. I approach them and ask them a few questions. Otto and Luisa. The vivid light in their eyes, the light of people whose whole life is still ahead of them. They’ve been living together for a year in a studio at Copan. “It was an opportunity. We love the centre, we love the city life. Of course, to live in Copan has a special taste.” They live in the B Block. “We live in a small but cosy apartment. Perfectly enough for both of us. Yes, maybe for eight people it wouldn’t be…” Yes, maybe it wouldn’t. I wish them all the luck in the world. Coming back home, my head is boiling with thoughts. I feel like I was at the Tower of Babel, except everyone spoke the same language. The impression I had was that no matter how different they were from each other, every single person I spoke to enjoyed living in a symbol. It was a matter of pride. This building felt like an immense island and I only regret not having had more time to hear its anecdotes. With 5000 pulsating lives under one roof, I’m sure there are a lot. At the same time, after spending almost a month in Brazil, the building seemed like a scale model of the country. It included Brazil’s diversity, its contrast and intensity, a mosaic of several tones. It also revealed the country’s blatant inequality, and the people’s ability to reinvent themselves into a happy people, living in harmonic coexistence, despite all their difficulties and diferences.