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The biggest city in the Americas, the diverse Brazilian metropolis unfolds in an eclectic collage of cultures and urban forms. Across much of São Paulo, clusters of towers abut single-family homes and modest structures, spurred by a mercurial pattern of development that’s seen the city’s business district migrate from the city’s historic centre to neighbourhoods like Pinheiros, Faria Lima, Paulista Avenue and beyond. It makes for a sort of urban palimpsest that continues to evolve with the city. But as erratic construction transforms much of the city, many of the mid-century tower blocks in the older, denser urban core have been left abandoned. One such building is the handsome Edificio Virginia.

Situated on a prominent corner site in the city’s erstwhile downtown, the apartment tower was designed by the prominent Brazilian architect José Augusto Bellucci and completed in 1951. Meeting the angular intersection with a flatiron shape, the 10-storey building features a tall, slightly recessed ground floor with a marquee double-height retail space. Originally commissioned by Brazil’s extravagantly wealthy Matarazzo family, Edificio Virginia was a modern — even subtly luxurious — addition to the urban core, although one that eventually suffered the same fate of abandonment as many of its neighbours.

After decades of sitting empty, however, the building was purchased by local developers Somauma, who specialize in the retrofit and renovation of empty or underutilized properties. The plan is to restore Edificio Virginia as a residential condominium, while retaining the cafe, bar and art shop that already operates on the ground level. In the meantime, however, three apartment floors were converted into a temporary showcase for public art and local design.

Debuted as part of the 12th annual Design Week São Paulo, the installations and exhibitions brought together the work of over 100 local artists and designers. Three of the upper floors of the building were transformed into an immersive procession of spaces that celebrate the age. The seventh floor offers a showcase for designers and artisans to display their sustainable and locally produced fashion — including a wide selection of clothing and accessories — while the eight and ninth stories are transformed through a series of site-specific art installations.

The spaces unfold as a surprising journey, with individual rooms and apartments transformed into otherworldly — yet contextually rooted — new environments. Many of the installations engage a dialogue with the building’s derelict state, conjuring a sense of whimsy and wonder that also reveals the beauty of both mid-century design and decay itself, while eschewing the myopic gaze of ruin porn. According to Cláudio Magalhães, the exhibition — organized under the theme of O Tempo das Graças (Grace Period) — invites “a sense of affection for these spaces.” Moreover, many of the installations focus on political themes, ranging from homelessness and gentrification to queer liberation.

Created by local design studios Ponto Rima and Marina Fiuka, one installation – dubbed Fissura — reimagines the cracks and fissures in a bathroom’s tub and walls as the wellsprings of vivid red plastic, evoking a sensuous volcano. (In another bathroom, a bouquet of dried flowers rises like smoke from a mountaintop.) It’s a sensibility that’s palpable across much of the two-storey exhibition, with plants growing from degraded concrete and loose floorboards while cracked windows open new kaleidoscopic vantage points. In the middle of it all, a temporary coffee shop serves up locally roasted brews in a setting like no other.

While the city’s historic downtown remains burdened by crime, disinvestment and abandonment, many of its formerly vacant buildings have found a second life. In the nearby Vila Buarqua neighbourhood, for example, another elegant yet decrepit midcentury building has been reinvented with an art gallery, coffee shop, restaurant and bookstore, after decades of sitting empty.

Conversely, many abandoned buildings have been successfully revived by groups of squatters, creating affordable residential spaces — and hubs for local artists and marginalized populations — within a stratified city. Yet, as Raquel Rolnik, Renato Abramowicz Santos and Aluizio Marino argue in Architectural Review, such communities are often at odds with the interests of capital and real estate investment. At Edificio Virginia, at least, there’s reason enough to hope for a happier marriage.

In São Paulo, a Vacant Apartment Tower Becomes an Artist Haven

Ahead of a restoration, the long-empty Edificio Virginia is enlivened with three storeys of art and fashion.

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