Two Swimming Pools
for Sao Paulo

Columbia University, September 2019

Sao Paulo city center has the incredible property of amplifying sensations: the volume of everyday conversations, the smell of lunch, the singing of street vendors, the weight of the sun on top of the head. Everything is amplified in the midst of heat and aridity. We jump from Republic’s subway station with a swimsuit beneath out summer clothes, and slippers on foot. It's a Wednesday, almost at lunchtime. We walk across the square navigating between rugs lined with fake DVD and small colored objects emitting unintelligible noises.

The Public Pool building merges with the square on its ground level; there is no clear visual distinction between what is the building and what it the square. At the same time, it is possible to notice the sound of the street diminishing when going under the covered ambiance: one big concrete marquise. The temperature goes down, and we can breathe with relief: the air underneath the pool is fresh. Our eyes, protected from the sun, adjust to the lowest incidence of light, and we can see some students, gathered in groups, taking advantage of the shade, the breeze, and free internet access. The large covered square houses parties, gatherings, dance rehearsal groups and hotdog carts waiting for the hungry bellies to descend from the pool.

If someone said that Sao Paulo has no beach, they would be wrong. We have two: two Ipanema beaches that face each other in the historical center of our city, each one located on one of the two opposite sides of the swimming pool. This is a construction that impresses, it has the scale of a highway, a viaduct, although its load is composed only of people and water.

The access to the water is made by the two bordering column-walls that solute the structuring of the building and concentrate the complementary activities such as dressing rooms, medical facilities, cafeteria, and also support the circulation of the building made by generous ramps. We go up the ramps that squeeze us between two large concrete walls, the smell of the chlorine and the hum of the pool water pumps are unmistakable. I sit on the edge of the pool, feel the breeze that comes from São Bento Avenue into the Republic Square. A child jumps running in the pool next to me. I feel the water hitting my skin. I create the courage to put my foot in the water. I can feel my foot in the water. I can feel the water.

I can feel the water even though this pool has never been constructed. It is a utopic proposition made by Paulo Mendes da Rocha in the 2000s. In his words, no one has commissioned the project, and so he has complete freedom as if he were to write a poem or an outraged tale. It is a project in the literary sense, a discourse. The utopian propositions are like poems because they create images that did not exist before and, therefore, change the reality in a way. After seeing this project one will never be able to look at the Republic Square in the same way: the square now has wet floor and smell of chlorine.

On November 30, 2017, the auditorium of the Architecture and Urbanism School at the University of Sao Paulo was filled with attentive and anxious eyes. In the words of the event's host Angelo Bucci, Kenneth Frampton's visit marked the insertion of a new chapter in the classic book Modern Architecture: A Critical History 1. Frampton aimed to break with the Eurocentrism of his book's previous editions by bringing light to in-depth research on the Latin American, African, Asian and Middle Eastern modern architectural productions. Frampton began his speech by saying he was overwhelmed by the number of students willing to hear his words and, of course, by the masterpiece of Villanova Artigas that was housing us all.

Artigas' building is a keystone of the so-called Sao Paulo School, safeguarding its ideology both physically and theoretically: A space with a fluid circulation and generous areas for meetings, encounters, debate. A space designed to host the free flow of ideas, to encourage political thoughts, and to foster new concepts, new arguments. Above all, a building designed without doors, Artigas' boldest gesture to question and transcend the production of Sao Paulo's context where inequality, fear, and overprotection governs architecture.

It is not by chance that many faculty members of the school were forced to leave the country during the severe years of military dictatorship. According to the school's main line of thought, all kinds of space intervention were political acts because there is no such thing as a non-political space. All architecture is supported by an ideological discourse and by a political will.

Although Frampton seemed enchanted and always careful when regarding Brazilian architecture in the lecture, he couldn't contain his enthusiasm with another essential figure of the Sao Paulo School's context: Paulo Mendes da Rocha. Frampton recognizes the strong political character of Mendes da Rocha's production and its close relation to the heroic tradition of the communist ideology. In Frampton’s words, Mendes da Rocha is aware that the modern project of the 1930's avant-garde is not attainable but that it is still crucial to design a work which has an effect on its immediate environment, an architecture that acts as a catalytic intervention, a kind of a public work.

Mendes da Rocha's architecture, including private homes, can thus be interpreted, in a way, like public buildings, for they are idealized and performed to serve humanity in a broader manner. Frampton describes Mendes da Rocha's Butantã House, for example, as a kind of micro public space whose environments conform one another to openness, freedom, and transparency. It is a public building disguised as a house. Its materiality and scale allow the future incorporation of the construction into the public life of the city. Its legacy is revolutionary.

At the same time, Mendes da Rocha thought on ecology is a bit unfitted to contemporary problematics. To construct his swimming pool at Republic Square, one would have to take down a considered amount of trees. For the architect, nature should work in favor of “mankind,” and all construction must be interpreted as a modification of nature by "man" through the technique that has the final aim to improve the conditions of human life. There is a different take on this subject today, as we know that substituting the shadow of a group of trees to the one from a concrete marquise could be a harmful gesture in the long term.

Anyhow, to Mendes da Rocha, the public character precedes both the program and the architectural client. The excellence of his work comes from the idealization of revolutionary and utopian concepts and the expertise to stretch reality to make them concrete. It is the case of the Public Pool at the Republic Square, a radical proposal that was never built, but which ended up taking shape almost 20 years later a few meters from the original site, on top of a commercial building that would become the SESC May 24th.

The Social Service of Commerce (SESC) is an essential private Brazilian institution, maintained by entrepreneurs in the trade in goods, services, and tourism, acting throughout the country, focused primarily on social well-being for its employees and also open to the broader community. They place themselves in a semi-public sphere which, in many ways, suppresses a lack of public initiatives in a place where culture is seen as secondary in the urban structure of a city. To illustrate, on the beginning of September 2018, the Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum got fired due to problems with its electrical installations. The museum was celebrating its 200th anniversary while holding a campaign to raise funds for its refurbishment, once the public investment on the museum had dropped drastically in 2018.

In this context where the public initiative has several difficulties of accomplishment, where the leisure clubs are associated only to wealthy families, the possibility of creating a cultural center for the workers of the tertiary sector is itself a revolutionary act. In this sense, the existence of SESC as an institution is extremely important in the constitution of leisure and culture in Brazilian cities. SESC is also an important client and incentive of Brazilian architecture, having conducted a series of competitions that gave opportunities for offices at the beginning of the career. SESCs are rare spaces of good architecture in Brazilian cities. Therefore, the invitation to Paulo Mendes da Rocha to design a SESC in the heart of Sao Paulo could not be more appropriate. The new unit was to be built on May 24th street, on the site of an existing commercial building that once housed the headquarters of a department store but had been vacant for some years.

The site's primary quality was undoubtedly its location: a few meters from the Republic Square, the Municipal Theater, and Mario de Andrade Public Library. As for the architectural aspects, the existing building was not at all impressive: the spans of its structure were small, its floor to floor height was low, and its circulation was too tight to the population of the to-be cultural center.

When Mendes da Rocha, together with MMBB, the firm that co-designed the project, visited the site for the first time, they were asked to decide whether or not the existing building should be demolished [2]. While inspecting the site, Mendes da Rocha noticed a vacant site on the limit of the existing building's border, which became central to the program's design: the annexed terrain would host a technical support tower with toilets, staircases and all kinds of complementary facilities, while the main building would be preserved and spared from its former character by removing all types of technical interferences. It could, thus, be free to host the various activities of the cultural center.

Through this concept, the old site suddenly becomes a set of latent public spaces that overlap in height, instead of regular building pavements. All these possible public spaces are connected by ramps that behave like a street, an unfolding urban space. Mendes da Rocha wanted the building circulation to reflect the experience of a walk through Augusta Street, a vibrant hillside that sprouts with an infinite amount of activities: from hair salons to teenage clubs, clothing stores, and cult cinemas. Likewise, SESC's program is distributed throughout its floors: exhibition rooms, gym, restaurant, library, and even a dentistry clinic: activities of a cultural center, designed as a walk through the city.

Mendes da Rocha interprets the refurbishment of a building as if he was working on a plain terrain. He does not distinct what is street, circulation, slabs, and surrounding buildings: everything is part of the same matter, everything is geography that can be modified through technical efforts to obtain greater public usufruct. They are all layers of potential public space that extends the opportunities of urban experience in an already dense and consolidated city center. The renovation of an existing building is a choice, the choice not to demolish, to take advantage of what already exists in the world, to look with fresh eyes to something that at first seems uninteresting.

In this way, Mendes da Rocha sees the central ventilation atrium of the existing building as a potential ground for the lease of a new building: one building within another. The structural principle of the new, inner building can be translated as four large pillars, in each corner of the atrium, that allows the excavation of the subsoil for the placement of an auditorium and the creation of double-height ceiling spaces for various activities such as exhibitions, a food court, and resting areas. On top of this inner structure, free from any contact with the old building and opened to the noise and climate of the city, lies the second swimming pool of our story.

This structural expression is a reflection of the ubiquitous Brazilian reinforced concrete tradition, one that always aligns a strong expressiveness of the structural solution with a simple and poetic discourse. The same clarity of structural principle can be seen in Mendes da Rocha's project for the Museum of Sculpture (Mube) also in Sao Paulo. Here, the architect translates the essence of sculpture through architecture: a marquise of two supports which, in his words, is a raised stone. There is a noticeable relationship between the idea of a raised stone and one of a raised water cube that lays over an existing building, connected to the ground in only four spots.

The spaces that emerge from the intersection between the existing building, the new building and the ramps that interconnect all floors are astonishing. Mendes da Rocha does not bother to dictate functions for all these resulting spaces. Often, when walking around the building, one can perceive the existence of environments that function as dry squares, where an immensity of different activities could take place although it is only constituted of an exposed slab and a view to the city. These unnamed spaces work like the micro public spaces that Frampton mentions in his class in the architecture school. Although differently from Mendes da Rocha’s private designs, here they can truly be experienced by the general public.

The opening and closing moments of the building's facade to its surroundings are also extremely precise and delicate as if the architect wanted to put its users in contact with parts of the city that were never seen from a certain point of view. As if the building opened to the city like a telescope that looks at the points of interest from a new perspective, with scientific accuracy and investigative gaze. In particular, there is an intermediate floor that has no glass facade, being entirely open to the city. From there it is possible to observe the comings and goings of pedestrians from a threshold distance where one can still hear the conversations and at the same time position the scene in a wider perspective of urban context.

Upon reaching the penultimate pavement, one short of the swimming pool on the roof, we are surrounded by a magnificent water mirror that doubles the city skyline and brings it close to our feet. The water mirror refracts the sunlight across the space that seems to vibrate with the movement of the water. From there, we can feel the humid air and the smell of chlorine coming from the pool above, we hear the children laughing and the hum of the water pumps. At one end, we find the ramp that leads to the upper deck. When rising, we feel diminished between the two huge concrete rags, the light is low and the sound increases with each step.

The ramp is over and we are suddenly at the top of the city. The water extends all the spaciousness of the roof. One can spend hours observing the different forms of life that coexist in this space. There are those who refresh themselves after a difficult day, others practice swimming, some children battle with water spells. Many people look at the view, trying to find a particular building, a landmark, trying to draw the geography of this city that is always so difficult to assimilate. The geography of a city without limits that is given to us through a radical act by Paulo Mendes da Rocha. As the architect posits: "this is not a building designed for the architect to shine, but to create space for the enjoyment of life." [3]

[1] The lecture can be seen in: Accessed on December 19th, 2018.
[2] A full report on that visit can be seen in Marta Moreira's lecture at Escola da Cidade: Accessed on December 18th, 2018.
[3] Itau Cultural. Ocupação Paulo Mendes da Rocha. (São Paulo: Itaú Cultural, 2018), 42.