February 23rd, 2003


House & Home Section > Style Desk

Open to the Stars, Indoors and Out

text by Raul Barreneche

SAO PAULO, Brazil – Fernando Altério is known as Mr. Showbiz. He produces concerts by musical stalwarts like Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso, a singer and a songwriter who has a musical cameo in Pedro Almodóvar’s movie ”Talk to Her.”
After the encores, Mr. Altério, 50, likes to take the backstage entourage home with him. The post-concert parties at his home here in Jardim Europa, an elegant neighborhood with houses tucked behind walls, rarely start before midnight. Mr. Altério’s two-story living room plays center stage to a loungey, laid-back scene with a mix of musicians, friends and models, who linger over Scotch and Champagne as late as 5 a.m. A white archway acts as a giant proscenium framing a recessed dining area. Above the arch is a balcony, where guests can scan the crowd. When Mr. Altério slides open a wall of 21-foot-tall glass doors mounted on wheels, the vast living room becomes a giant open-air porch. Strains of Brazilian jazz follow the guests as they spill out into a courtyard garden that has a lap pool with a wall of smooth pebbles as a backdrop.
The showman behind Mr. Altério’s $1.3 million party house is Isay Weinfeld, a São Paulo architect whose boldly scaled spaces have attracted a high-powered following and comparisons to Oscar Niemeyer, who created an unmistakably Brazilian brand of modern architecture at Brasília and elsewhere more than 40 years ago. Mr. Weinfeld’s popularity derives from his use of Brazilian materials and textures, which yield an inviting tropical modernism that serves as an antidote to the chilly monastic minimalism of recent years.
The homes, stores and galleries Mr. Weinfeld designs for influential figures in Brazilian entertainment and fashion are soaring, wide-open spaces in keeping with the country’s famous taste for the bold and beautiful. ”Architecture must surprise, thrill, cause heart attacks,” Mr. Weinfeld said. ”I like to make architecture the same way that João Gilberto sings, that Paul Smith designs clothes, that Caetano Veloso thinks, that my daughter smiles.”
His clients include Carolina Ferraz, the Brazilian actress, and Hector Babenco, director of ”Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
”Isay is like a doctor, very discreet,” Mr. Babenco said. ”He never mentions anything about his other clients. He doesn’t play the games of the rich and famous. Despite being very sophisticated, he is a very austere person.”
With his slouchy stance, button-down oxford shirts and neatly trimmed beard, Mr. Weinfeld looks more like a friendly music teacher than an architect. The two-bedroom apartment he shares with his daughter Paula, 21, an actress who is studying for a bachelor’s degree in film, demonstrates his taste for simplicity. The apartment, in a nondescript 1950′s tower, has Shaker-like 18th-century Brazilian wood tables and dressers, midcentury chairs and collections of vintage blue glass. ”I love finding very simple pieces from every period,” Mr. Weinfeld said.
On the walls are monochromatic canvases by his favorite artist, the Swiss-born Mira Schendel. ”He buys mainly pieces that are white on white, but sometimes off white,” said Luisa Strina, a prominent Brazilian art dealer. Mr. Weinfeld has been buying art for himself and for his clients from Ms. Strina since they met in 1974. He did a $70,000 renovation of her gallery on the fashionable Rua Oscar Freire here, and it reopened last March with an imposing exterior of black stucco to offset its neutral interiors.
His design for Forum, the flagship boutique of the fashion designer Tufi Duek, completed in 2000 on São Paulo’s high-end shopping strip, is a typical mix of understatement and tropical spectacle. After walking through an all-white space — white-on-white floors, walls and ceilings — where the clothes are tucked discreetly to the sides, shoppers turn a corner to find a two-story atrium with a red staircase covered in tiny glass tiles, a showstopping Brazilian rendition of the stairs Marilyn Monroe slunk down in ”Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
The stairs lead up to a rustic counter with chunky wood stools, where shoppers are served wine or demitasse cups of Brazilian espresso; rising behind it is a wall of handmade wattle and daub, the same materials used to build rustic homes in northern Brazil.
”There are a lot of similarities between my work and the store,” Mr. Duek said. ”I wanted something modern, but with Brazilian characteristics. Isay knew how to interpret it.”
If Forum has an unmistakable cinematic quality, it’s no wonder. ”Ingmar Bergman, Jacques Tati, Luis Buñuel and Andy Warhol have been much more of an influence on my architecture than Le Corbusier,” Mr. Weinfeld said.
The influence is noticeable throughout his portfolio. At a house owned by the Sverner family in Jardim Europa a few blocks from Mr. Altério’s home, Mr. Weinfeld clad a second-floor hallway with Brazilian arenite stone and washed it in light from a narrow skylight. The effect, he said, was inspired by a hallway in the Bergman film ”The Silence.”
Downstairs, he put a wall of sliding glass doors framed in caramel-colored pine that form a breezy link between the living spaces and a walled-in garden.
Mr. Weinfeld is hardly the first architect to look to the movies for inspiration, but few architects have actually made a film. Mr. Weinfeld and his friend Márcio Kogan, an architect who also practices in São Paulo, have written and directed 14 short films and one full-length feature, a comedy called ”Fogo e Paixão” (”Fire and Passion”). The film was released in 1988, and it won the São Paulo Art Critics Association prize for best new director, which Mr. Weinfeld and Mr. Kogan shared. Mr. Babenco described their style as ”a mix between Jacques Tati and John Waters, kitsch but economical.”
With his mix of striking high modernist spaces and native Brazilian accents, Mr. Weinfeld is the successor to Oscar Niemeyer. Still feisty and practicing in Rio de Janeiro at 95, Mr. Niemeyer adapted the cold, rigid International style of Le Corbusier to the temperament of his homeland — warm, sensual, often boisterous — with sweeping curves and soaring spaces.
Mr. Weinfeld’s designs are not as curvaceous as Mr. Niemeyer’s, but they are just as riveting. A 90-minute drive to the south of São Paulo, in the beach town of Tijucopava, Mr. Weinfeld built a home for a São Paulo family, the Bitters, who have a successful textile business. The towering living room has 15 1/2-foot-tall glass doors that pivot open on vertical hinges, leading to a cobalt pool and a sweeping view of the tropical coastline.
As a designer, Mr. Weinfeld conducts himself like a meticulous movie director: relentless in his quest for the perfect this or the ultimate that. The search for furnishings for his newest project, a 69-room boutique hotel in São Paulo, has taken him on shopping trips all over the world.
The hotel, which Mr. Weinfeld is designing with Mr. Kogan, is the brainchild of Rogério Fasano, the head of Brazil’s most famous gastronomic family and an owner of the celebrated Fasano restaurant in São Paulo. Mr. Weinfeld met Mr. Fasano at the restaurant eight years ago, and they became friends.
To furnish the hotel, which will be named the Fasano and will open in April, they combed flea markets in London and Paris, furniture shops in New York City and antiques stores in Hudson, N.Y., where last November they found old frames in which they plan to mount guest-room mirrors. In Murano, Italy, they bought small handmade glass picture frames to display postcards of Brazil and Italy. The frames will add a touch of color to the modern but clubby rooms, which will be furnished in brown tones, with well-worn Florence Knoll leather sofas and Mr. Weinfeld’s custom furniture in dark Brazilian imbuia wood.
In London, Mr. Fasano came across a building that was being built with what he considered the perfect brown brick for the hotel’s exterior. He and Mr. Weinfeld tracked the bricks all the way to a manufacturer in North Carolina.
”Isay and I think in the same way,” Mr. Fasano said. ”I was looking for someone who could think about every detail.”
Mr. Weinfeld’s quest for detail now has him hunting for a grand piano to occupy center stage in Mr. Altério’s living room. But he doesn’t want just any shiny black baby grand — he wants one in natural wood to complement the textures and materials of Mr. Altério’s home.
Mr. Weinfeld still hasn’t found the perfect piano. But when he does, Mr. Altério said, ”then we’ll be playing live music at my parties.”