Autmn/Winter 2004-2005


Design (Builder)

text by Laura Houseley
photos by Alexander Gnaedinger

Brazil has something of a track record when it comes to producing top-class architects. Oscar Niemeyer, of course, is the name even your most culturally illiterate friend would recognise. Then there’s  Joao Batsita Villanova Artigas, Lina Bo Bardi, Affonso Reidy, a whole catalogue of master builders. And as Brazil’s most desired celebrity architect, Isay Weinfeld can certainly count himself among them. Though when presented with this, or indeed any other kind of flattery, the demure architect simply shrugs his shoulders and smiles. Weinfeld is a man as famed for his modesty as he is  for his vocation. Although he’s been known to turn his hand to community-minded projects – he currently oversees the urban design of his neighbourhood in Sao Paulo – he is an architect famed for residential commissions. In fact, you could go so far as to say he’s just about the best in the business. There go those shoulders and he smiles again.

Weinfeld is the son of Polish Jewish immigrants; he studied architecture at Mackenzie University in his native Sao Paulo. Over the past few years, he’s produced a serious catalogue of work which belies his small team of colleagues (just 13 at present) and hands-on approach. How does he keep up with all his assignments? ‘Sometimes I forget,’ he says, as we sit down to lunch. He then reels of a list of restaurants, shops, houses and banks, located everywhere from his own street to St John’s in the Caribbean, which are currently under construction. The roster is so huge that the dessert has arrived before he’s finished: ‘But with each one I am envolved with every detail.’ Weinfeld’s beautiful buildings litter the wealthy Sao Paulian suburbs. As his reputation has blossomed, Weinfeld’s has been the business card most passed around the dinner tables of the Brazilian glitterati. He’s created houses for the likes of Kiss Of The Spiderwoman director Hector Babenco, Brazilian TV actress Carolina Ferraz and designed Forum, the flagship store for fashion designer Tufi Duek. He’s also designed show spaces for Sao Paulo fashion week for the last two years. His best-known work, internationally, is his treatments for the Fasano family, the renowned Brazilian restauranteurs. The Hotel Fasano and the Baretto Bar were featured in design and lifestyle magazines the world over. That Weinfeld hasn’t yet been snapped up as architect of choice by chic Sheiks or Hollywood A-listers is surprising – and bound to change.

The diversity within Weinfeld’s clientele is, he says, the secret to his success. That he can create bespoke houses perfectly suited to each patron demonstrates how instinctively he adapts his style to different personalities. It keeps the work rolling in. One of his recent designs – a house for a modish art dealer couple – is austere and clinical, the interior being more akin to a fashionable Hoxton gallery than a living space. But only minutes away, in the same leafy Sao Paulo district, a family home for his brother is all warm woods and low-slung volumes with communal areas and cosy nooks. But that’s not to say that an Isay Weinfeld house is simply the latest must-have accessory. There’s far more substance to his work than that.

Although unformulaic, his buildings do share some characteristics which mark them out as a Weinfeld product. Firstly a love of Brazilian raw materials: timbers and stone are often used as features and in textural contrasts to smooth white walls. Weinfeld also plays with scale; he’ll make the most juxtaposing vast, open spaces with tight, intimate rooms. Natural light, shadow and reflection, too, become constituents in a Weinfeld house and attention to detail is characteristic – he’ll design every door knob, work surface and even furniture given half a chance. His most recently completed Sao Paulo home (pictured here), for banker Ary Torres and his wife Sania, bears all these fingerprints, though it’s also treatment to that dextrous ‘channeling’ of his clients.

It was with trepidation that Sania commissioned him two yeas ago. The pair were Weinfeld groupies; fans of the architect’s work but nervous about the prospect of approaching the man whose name was synonymous with Brazilian celebrity. They needn’t have worried, Weinfeld clicked with Sania immediately: ‘It’s been one of my best client relationship so far.’ Sania repays the compliment: ‘There’s so much of my character in this house. Its amazing how Isay just switched into my mindset.’ The house, as many are the fanatically security-conscious in Sao Paulian ‘burbs, is surrounded by

a high, barbed, concrete wall. Its harsh Carandiru-style street entrance belies the glamorous habitat beyond. Weinfeld has turned the security wall into much more than a deterrent. It is, in effect, the parameter of the house – the building within it has been designed as an open structure. A simple white cube sits on top of a larger glass box. The window-cum-walls of the lower glass assembly fold back so that the boundary between living space and garden is erased. It’s enough to inspire you to take a sledgehammer to your own exterior walls. And the quality-of-life metre registers off the scale when you realise that you could, should you wish, dive from the sofa into the water. Columns support the upper edifice, beneath which is a decked area and a pool. The relationship between these graphic elements makes for a pure, cubist aesthetic that Mondrian would be proud of. Like all of Weinfeld’s buildings, the house is elegant without being overstated. Substance and sensitivity rule over showy architecture.

Weinfeld is back at the drawing board with plenty of new undertakings. A cliff-top house sunken into the landscape on Brazil’s Bahia coast, another in Dubai and a second Club Chocolate outlet in Rio (the first, in Sao Paulo is the city’s premier design boutique) are all occupying his time. With all these credentials to boast of (or not, in his case) it won’t be long before the Weinfeld aesthetic is infiltrating Europe. Until then we can all fantasise about our own Paulistian pad.