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ARCH+ 225

Selected English Article Available ONLINE: The Highrise Typology In São Paulo, Case Study

Von Rosa, Marcos L.

Published in: ARCH+ "Legislating Architecture," English Version, ISBN 978-3-931435-34-9, Release: May 2016

The freestanding highrise, set back a certain distance from the street as stipulated by law, has been the building typology most commonly adopted by São Paulo real estate developers since the 1960s; the number of these highrises has even seen a sharp increase over the past two decades. The typology, which perfectly embodies the current market-driven model of architectural production, has exerted a heavy impact on the morphology of the city, translating into an extremely fragmented urban landscape ( fig. 1). Data from the municipality of São Paulo from 1992 to 2009 shows a significant increase in the annual number of new highrise developments. Over this nearly two-decade span, a total of 447,548 new residential units in highrises have been constructed, generating approximately Fig. 3 $29 billion US dollars.1

The construction of highrise buildings in São Paulo derives logically from the way urban infrastructure has been provisioned over time. The city’s infrastructure has been built according to a model of urban expansion that sees the car as the centerpiece, thus making parking garages as important a feature in the domestic real estate market as the actual units being built ( fig. 2). The city of São Paulo currently has over 7 million cars, with nearly 800 added to the total every day. As such, the city is undergoing a critical moment in private transportation, with 200 kilometers of the infrastructural space taken up by traffic jams on a daily basis. It’s clear that the city urgently needs alternatives—alternatives that aren’t just about relieving congestion, but also strive to generate new, alternative urban models alongside it.

As urban planner João Sette Whitaker Ferreira describes, the highrise model of urbanization has intensified over the city’s recent years of rapid growth, resulting in gated communities that deny public space and the city itself: “The prevailing architecture . . . of extreme verticalization led by the real estate market [has] transfigured blameless, traditional neighborhoods, producing isolated buildings on the lots . . . that deny the street and the city.”2

The prevalence of this architecture of isolation has also been generated by the preeminence of security as an issue of concern in São Paulo. Towers are run like private enterprises. They offer their residents amenities like playgrounds, gardens, BBQ areas, swimming pools, and so forth ( fig. 3), in most cases separated from the street by walls, railings, and fences ( fig. 4). Additionally, residents of these buildings park their cars directly below in underground garages, thus avoiding any contact with the street or with other residents. The result is an urban space marked by discontinuity and fragmentation, contrasting sharply with the richness of São Paolo’s ethnic background which is based on diversity, exchange, and interaction. The predominant building typology—premised on the assumption that walls and higher gates function to increase security—has changed the way people live in the city.3

A clear example for this change is the way São Paolo is widely viewed by residents as a city that lacks green space and recreational areas. Yet when seen from an aerial perspective, a great proportion of São Paolo’s land is taken up by pools, gardens, woods, playgrounds, and so on ( fig. 5). In fact, the average green space per inhabitant in São Paulo is 12.5 square meters—but the majority of these areas are private facilities, and aren’t accessible from the street. That is to say, São Paolo doesn’t lack green space and recreational areas; they simply aren’t available to the public at large. This begs the question: is there any hope of breaking with the current model of gated condominiums and initiating a process of removing the physical barriers that divide and isolate São Paolo’s urban space?

Two approaches present themselves as the best ways to deal with the current situation: one is to work with the existing building stock; the other is to promote critical reflection with the aim of radically reforming the city’s building code. Efforts are being made in the latter direction: São Paulo’s new master plan, which took effect in 2014, calls back to mobility studies and regulations from the 1960s and 1970s, with prescriptions that stipulate, for instance, that areas near train and bus stations should have greater density. The plan emphasizes “living facades”(fachadas vivas) on the ground floor, meaning that shops and businesses should face sidewalks directly, thereby producing a public space better suited to pedestrian traffic.

But beyond the positive changes in the political sphere, it’s also worth exploring the first path—that is, coming up with experimental alternatives for the city’s closed-off ground floor spaces. What proactive steps can be taken to change the city instead of accepting the status quo? What a posteriori interventions have the potential to redesign and restructure urban space? It is clear that removing barriers like walls and fences, or at least moving them further back from the street, would generate wider sidewalks, opening up previously confined spaces and enabling other uses such as commerce, leisure and public recreation. One way for the city to incentivize this development would be to elaborate a series of negotiation mechanisms for redesignating land use. For building management, introducing new uses on the ground floor would help generate economic revenue (in the form of rent), create more integrated designs with the street, and improve the spatial quality of the building and the streetscape. In turn, the city would expect the building to make private gardens, playgrounds, and seating areas accessible from the street. Although, for residents, opening up the ground floor would entail giving up a formerly exclusive space for collective use, the city could create legislation that would compensate residents who make such a change with property tax incentives. With increased activity, more use, and improved illumination, it is likely the city’s perception of safety in the public space would improve.4


1 Land occupied by vertical highrises in São Paolo, subprefectures and municipal districts, 1992–2009. Source: Embraesp. Available at http://infocidade. _em_m_nos_lancamentos_1992_314.html. Sales prices of residential units in São Paulo, subprefectures and municipal districts, 1992–2009. Source: Embraesp. Available at http://infocidade.prefeitura. lancamentos_res_2000_306.html.

2 João Sette Whitaker Ferreira, “Perspectivas e desafios para o jovem arquiteto no Brasil,” Vitruvius arquitextos 133.07, May 7, 2011. Available at arquitextos/12.133/3950.

3 In a 2007 article, urban planner Raquel Rolnik challenged this premise, writing, “Recent robberies of barred condominiums show that the security apparatus does not necessarily increase the protection: the higher the walls, the more interesting buildings become for burglars. A recent survey conducted by the military police of Paraná showed that 60 percent of the houses robbed in Curitiba are those with walls, while only 15 percent are open to the street.” See Raquel Rolnik, “Quanto mais altos os muros e grades, mais proteção, certo? Errado!” (“You think the higher your walls, the more you’re protected? Wrong!”), Folha de São Paulo, Caderno Cotidiano, October 7, 2007.

4 These reflections are based on a design exercise entitled Transbordering, developed in 2010, and later published in 2011 and 2015.  

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