SÃO PAULO—Within the span of half a second, I’d stumbled bleary-eyed, caught myself against the fragile steel frame floor-to-ceiling windows of my apartment 38 stories above the street, freaked out that said windows were unlikely to hold my weight, retreated rapidly, and marveled that my body could react to such a roller coaster in such a short time frame.
It was 6:15 in the morning and I was careening around a top-floor apartment of the Edifício Copan—the undulating icon by architectural legend Oscar Niemeyer in São Paulo—as a fiery (likely pollution-tinged) firmament swirled above the seemingly endless skyline. To my left was the Art Deco Edifício do Banespa, one of a number of Empire State Building reinterpretations around the world. Obscured was its neighbor and my favorite, the Edifício Martinelli, a towering Beaux-Arts apartment building clad for the first two dozen stories in the milk-chocolate stone of a Brooklyn Brownstone and topped by a Victorian crown of pink and white. In front of me was the easily recognizable clock tower of the Mid-century Modern Hotel Jaraguá. Beyond stretched one of my favorite things about this city—a maze of 15 to 30-story buildings that stretches as far as one can see.
I had gone to bed just four hours before, after a night out in a city I love, but I was determined to get at least one good photo before I collapsed back into bed to let the light wash over me. After all, this sunrise was why I’d jumped when an architect friend wrote to tell me that you could now rent a top-floor apartment (3201) in Copan on Airbnb. Given that one of the most common tourist activities in this vertical city is to go to the top of the buildings in the center (usually Copan or the nearby Edifício Italia; the Edifício Martinelli, which had the best rooftop terrace with two palace penthouses invisible to the pedestrian eye, has been closed since a suicide in 2017), the ability to experience that without the crowds and at all hours seemed ideal. Not to mention the chance to stay in one of Niemeyer’s apartment buildings.
The S-shaped Copan, one of the largest residential complexes (5,000 residents) in the Americas, was conceived by the office of Oscar Niemeyer in the 1950s and completed in 1962. On one side, the tower is clad in rows of tiled brise-soleil to provide protection from the intense sun. On the other, floor-to-ceiling steel frame windows look over the city. Today it has more than 70 retail spaces on the ground level, including two of the center’s more popular bars, Bar da Dona Onça and Fel. Whereas in the 1980s its demise was symbolic of the center’s capitulation to crime and vagrants, its renaissance in the past two decades has mirrored a similar one for the surrounding area.
The apartment is owned by the Austrian architect Julian Löffler who has worked for Foster & Partners and Herzog & de Meuron and now has his own practice. In an e-mail to The Daily Beast, he elaborated on what inspired him to buy the apartment and what he did to bring it to its present state.
"I was living in London at the time, I had a limited amount of money, which I wanted to invest in a property. However, the money was nowhere near enough to buy anything at all in London, let alone anything that would be architecturally pleasing," he wrote. So he decided to visit a fellow architect who was living in Sao Paulo to look for properties.
The Copan was his main target, and at the time it had three available apartments.
He went to the top floor, and, "the key turned in the lock, the door opened and we entered Apartment 3201. There was a single armchair facing the window–empty. The apartment was tiny, but the view was overwhelming. The feeling in this cosy private enclosure hovering over the vast metropolis was powerful."
Löffler compares it to Le Corbusier's Cabonon in the South of France, with "the sound of the waves being replaced with the oscillating acoustic blanket of the city."
After the incredibly complex process of buying the apartment as a foreigner, Löffler faced the task of rescuing it.
"There were several layers of carpet on the floor, the walls were yellow, termites had consumed parts of the built-in joinery, the steel window had rusted away and let rain and wind take their toll on the interior," he wrote. But the parquet floor underneath the carpet was intact, as was much of the bathroom.
He worked with his architect friend from Sao Paulo, Rubens Azevedo, and the major design change came with the decision to rip out the kitchen and expand the bathroom.
"The idea was to reorient the original built in wardrobe to allow light into the bathroom," he explained. "A new bookshelf would form a screen between the shower and the bedroom."
Having taken a shower bathed in the light pouring over the skyline, I'm glad he did. But it was no easy task. The glass wall did not fit in the elevator or stairwell. It had to be hoisted up along the building facade all the way to the 32nd floor. So, too, did the two mirror doors attached to the windows, which not only expanded the room's sense of space, but also serve a function in that they can be shut and block out the light.
In all, the renovation took two years to complete from the time he bought it in 2011.
For those unfamiliar with Niemeyer, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 104, he was one of a handful of the most significant Modernist architects (a group that includes Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright) who all took advantage of advances in materials and techniques to break away from traditional Western European architecture in the 20th century. But Niemeyer stood out for the sensuality of his buildings. His hallways snaked and his roofs curled. They were so suggestive of something less than proper that his church in Belo Horizonte was refused consecration by the local bishop. The curving, futuristic yet earthy home he built for himself in Rio de Janeiro (Casa de Canoas) stands in stark contrast to similar personal works by his global contemporaries. Niemeyer also became famous for his politics. A member of the Communist Party, he designed its headquarters in Paris and his political views prevented him from doing much work in the U.S..
His greatest career success would also be his greatest failure in terms of legacy. When Brazil decided to drop Rio de Janeiro and forge the new capital of Brasilia in the Brazilian grasslands, Niemeyer’s mentor Lúcio Costa created its master plan with his star pupil. The man who would design most of the buildings for the new city would be Niemeyer. It gave birth to some of Niemeyer’s most iconic works—the National Congress, Catedral Metropolitana, Itamaraty, Palácio do Planalto, Palácio da Alvorada (the president’s residence)—but it is generally considered a prime example of the major flaws in modernist urban planning. (Long story short, in their rush to break from the past, they forgot about pedestrians.) Niemeyer was aware, and a bit sensitive, to his legacy as it related to Brasilia, declaring in an interview, “I didn’t design the layout of Brasilia. I just did its architecture… I don’t take too much notice of the criticisms that people make. The project is done. Like everything else it has good points and bad points. People who criticise are either doing so out of envy or because they have nothing better to do.”
It is also apparent for those who, like me, have made a trek out to this city that defies logic, how much Niemeyer fell prey to the same affliction of many a “starchitect”—his buildings are hard to maintain.
At Copan, a netting was hung in 2014 to protect passers-by from the deterioration of the brise-soleil. The building’s manager, who has been the subject of multiple glowing profiles in major English newspapers, plans to restore the building (hopefully to the quality of the recent renovation of the Edifício Niemeyer in Belo Horizonte, which was in terrible condition when I visited in 2016) though it is unclear when that will be completed.
Despite all that, and while the surrounding area is precarious at night, up on the top floor relaxing in bed is a different experience. As Fernanda, one of the co-hosts of Apartment 3201 told me when she let me in, “Let the city lights illuminate you.” With the mirrors installed on the sides of the windows flooding the apartment with artificial light, that was an easy feat.
And so when morning came, and my body rebelled against me being awake so soon after reaching slumber, I let the natural light overwhelm me. As somebody for whom relaxing and just taking it all in is difficult (I think the reason I love hiking is that when I reach the top I’m so exhausted I’m forced to sit and soak it in), it was a relief that my mind was barely capable of basic motor functions and so after taking a couple pics I hoped would suffice, I could just lay there, completely unable to play with my phone or distract myself, absorbing it all in my temporary oasis, surrounded by 20 million people.