A closer look: the Copan in São Paulo

Coffee is the first thing that springs to mind when I think of the Copan building. Espresso and fresh cheese rolls from the bar in one of the entrances were what you smelt as you entered the gigantic, undulating building by Oscar Niemeyer in the centre of São Paulo.

Ten years ago a cousin of mine lived there, a Dutch architect. She had made friends with the housekeeper, and through him she acquired an apartment in the complex. It was a two-room flat, two bays side by side consisting of a living room, a bedroom, a tiny kitchen, and of course a shower squeezed in between those famous solar shades. It was one of the 1160 dwellings in the residential towers, divided into the departments A to F, from kitchenettes to magnificent four-room dwellings. Copan is 140 metres tall and is so big it’s got its own postal code. The building boasts 20 lifts, 72 shops, 5000 residents and a cinema that was once a church, the Renascer em Cristo. That’s where I had my first fascinating experience with the evangelical cult in Brazil. People who solicited God to overcome all sorts of financial and amorous ups and downs in their lives. It was my first experience of the beauty salon where, following the example of the firmly integrated cousin, I had my legs and armpits depilated. A true initiation into Brazil, a microcosm in the middle of the teeming old centre of the city.

From that apartment on the 31st floor (the second highest) you could watch the helicopters flying below as they header for the landing pads on the roofs of the city. The din of the traffic below was permanently audible all day long and seemed to increase with height. A musician later told me this was indeed the case, as the sound waves encounter fewer obstacles at altitude and so they can circulate freely – or words to that effect. I do know it was noisy.
But when returning from the centre, with its tramps around Praça da República, its street vendors, and its lawyers, I always found Copan a breath of fresh air.
That was in the late 1990s. A short time later my cousin moved to Jardins, a green neighbourhood with mostly low-rise development in the south of the city, close to the large Ibirapuera Park. The new apartment was a lot bigger and quieter, but both she and I felt a little homesick after leaving Copan.

Copan was designed by Oscar Niemeyer (1908) in 1954 to mark the 400 anniversary of the city. That was the time when São Paulo started to blossom from an insignificant provincial city (in 1870 São Paulo had a population of just 37,000) into a true metropolis. Industrial development was well underway by the 1930s, and it gained further momentum with the rise of the automobile industry in the 1950s. As the population of São Paulo passed the million mark, the city wanted an icon to get rid of its provincial character once and for all. Because the city authorities wanted to emphasise tourism in the centenary celebrations, the Companhia Pan Americana de Hotéis commissioned Niemeyer to design a 600-room hotel and a 30-floor residential tower. That hotel was never built because the construction company went bankrupt, but the Bradesco Bank took over construction of Copan, which was only completed in 1969. By then Niemeyer had ceased all involvement in the project.

Although the building didn’t turn out quite as the master had envisaged, it still became an icon for the city. São Paulo doesn’t have all that many picture-postcard monuments – tourism never really took off – but the sinuous structure, nicknamed the Wave, stands elegantly with its feminine curves stretching between the other rectilinear high-rise structures. It’s a picture. The solar shades that emphasise the curves even more make for a cheerful play of lines. Inside, the 1950s interior has been preserved, initially through neglect, but since 1993 thanks to greater care by the residents’ association. Previously, some 70 percent of the apartments were rented, while now 70 percent of them are owner-occupied, explains Affonso Celso Prazeres de Oliveira, who has been chairman for 15 years.

São Paulo, for that matter, finally seems to be paying more attention to its historical jewels. It’s always been a fickle city that has shifted over the years. The centre where Copan is located, for example, hasn’t been the real centre for some decades. That’s shifted many kilometres away to Berrini and Alphaville, where big companies are located, and to the indoor shopping centres. The old centre has only retained some of its former style thanks to the court buildings and the lawyers’ offices, and thanks to structures like Copan and the old station buildings where the immigrants once arrived. These are undergoing restoration since the 1990s by the municipality in the hope of attracting the rich middle class. But, for the moment, they remain islands in the midst of the stinking ‘crackland’ (Crackolândia) with its tramps, street children, and hard-working poor. They are free, at least, to enter the church in Copan, though that turns out to be closed for the past year by order of the municipality. But the coffee is still percolating and plenty of nails are still being varnished.