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On a recent trip to Sao Paulo Brazil, a city of chronic traffic jams, I was introduced to old and new solutions that engage people in outdoor and indoor activity.

Initially, I was shuffled by my host in his private car between meetings, a forum on senior housing (at which I was engaged to speak on cohousing), and my hotel.  I quickly grew impatient with the traffic and even developed a low-grade headache from breathing the poisonous air.  I didn’t understand why I was not seeing pedestrian malls, bike lanes and other urban solutions that I have grown to love in my travels.

When we finished with our business and abandoned the car, I saw a very different Sao Paulo: one equipped with a clean, efficient metro, teaming with humanity with wonderful pedestrian streets and solutions – one that I look forward to visiting again.

First stop, Parque Ibirapuera, designed in 1954 for the 400th anniversary of the city with landscape by agronomist Otávio Agusto de Teixeira Mendes and buildings by Architect Oscar Niemeyer, who also designed the capital city of Brasilia.  With lakes, trees, recreation facilities, the modern art museum and a concert hall, it is a fun and refreshing place to get away from the congestion and enjoy nature and culture.  Augosto and Niemeyer created a juxtaposition between the sleek forms of modern buildings and the richness and texture of tropical trees and flowers.  Each view of this dynamic composition can be contemplated with reverence.

Particularly unique and remarkable in both its boldness and success is the low curved ceiling of the Ibirapuero Park Veranda (Marquise do Parque Ibirapuero) with a length of 620 meters connecting a museum, an exposition hall and an Auditorium.  It is not a space in which to sit, but in which to move with roller blades, strollers and friends on foot.   We were amazed to see that although the area defined by the pavilion is bursting with noisy activity day and night, it still manages to give the visitor a sense of calm and connection to the green landscape that borders its long sinuous edges.

After this park tour, we were introduced to the gritty pedestrian streets in the older commercial center.  The street itself and the street level commercial spaces are full of shops, and yet the 6-10 stories of former office space above are often abandoned and in decay.   Our host brought us to a very recently renovated 13-story building that may be the start of the revitalization that this area really needs.

The project, SESC 24 de Maio (designed by Paulo Mendes da Rocha and MMBB), was funded by SESC (Servico Social do Comercio), a private entity whose objective is to “provide for the welfare and quality of life to workers and families, by promoting actions in the field of education, health, culture, leisure and assistance”.  Public/private partnerships(P3s) and Privately funded responses to social problems seem to be the Brazilian way (as the government is both weak and corrupt).  The quality and social reach of this project really impressed me.

Inaugurated in August of this year, it is a building that is already rich with activity.  The 13 floors are connected by ramping walkways (and elevators) with each floor dedicated to a different function. The ground floor, open to the street, has seating arranged for casual work and conversation.  A lower level has a café and auditorium.  The upper levels have spaces for educational workshops, theater, library, and recreation, culminating in a roof top swimming pool.  The level below the pool was very exciting: a café and recreation area surrounded not by walls, but reflecting pools that were open to the sky.  The pools were a dramatic way to keep guests away from the railings – the only barrier to the multi-story drop.

There were many locations where seating could be readily reconfigured into staging as it was made of modular platforms that could be stacked in various arrangements.  We observed an interesting mix of activity on one level where families sat on stacked platforms watching children’s theater.  Just beyond the bleachers, young adults were working on laptops at work stations.  Occasionally they would look up from their work and laugh with the audience at the antics on stage.

Everything about the building was very informal.   The flexibility of the spaces, the design for movement on ramps between levels, the transparency of (and lack of) both exterior and interior walls work together to create a truly innovative building for SESC’s socially progressive mission and program.