It was during my walk along the Minhocão – São Paulo’s grotesquely endearing monument to the car – that I first spotted it: an islet of tiled perfection in a city full of fractured and forgotten pavements.
Unlike the pragmatically Ilha Grande (big island) and Ilhabela (beautiful island) which sit along the coast between Rio and São Paulo, mine is no island of exotica but instead one of Ballardian concrete.
Why, though, my fascination with a slab of paving in an unremarkable neighbourhood like Santa Cecília? Aren’t those ‘real’ islands on the Atlantic coast infinitely more interesting? Perhaps, but thousands of words have already been written in their honour; they’ve been Trip Advised to death.
What interests me are the ignored curiosities on our streets, and taking the time to stop, notice and appreciate them. As psychogeographer and novelist Iain Sincliar observes: ‘Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city…allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself’.
I’ve written previously of my disdain for the way in which São Paulo’s prefeitura (council) ensures the maintenance of the city’s roads whilst delegating that of its pavements to residents, landlords and businesses.
Unsurprisingly, this ‘do the fuck what you want’ approach to communalism means that the city’s walkways are mixed bag consisting of the good, the bad and the outright disgraceful. In many instances it means many parts of the city are left completely unnavigable, especially for those with disabilities, difficulties with mobility or young children in buggies.
However, São Paulo’s asphalted free-for-all does have some upsides, with the most obvious being that it offers Paulistanos the opportunity to express themselves creatively.
Where this occurs you mostly see the use of the Portuguese tradition of mosaic tiling, with the most common composition being white cobbling, although those with a bit more adventure sometimes add a splash of Jackson Pollock.
Symbolism is also a prevalent feature and often incorporates or reaffirms local or regional identities. For example, the waves that crash onto Copacabana beach are reproduced in tile form along its promenade. Recreated on souvenir towels and other tourist kitsch, for Brazilians it is an image that is synonymous with Rio*.
In São Paulo a more direct approach is taken, with the geometric patterns favoured by Paulistanos mimicking the geographical shape of the state, something that is regurgitated in many other forms around the city.
Conformity is not absolute though; unique creations abound.
In São Paulo the cumulative effect of its plot-by-plot approach to paving is that like the tattooed sleeves of Paulistanos (it’s probably harder to find someone between the age of 18-30 who isn’t inked than is), two streets are rarely ever the same. And this, combined with the street art and anarchic pichação that fill the voids left by the city’s ban on outdoor advertising, means that a stroll along São Paulo’s streets can feel like walking along a living canvas.
Occassionally, they can even be psychedelic, as I discovered one afternoon as I strolled down from Avenida Paulista towards Parque Ibirapuera. On one street the owners of consecutive properties had clearly attempted to collaborate in maintaining a consistent walkway. Unfortunately, having chosen the São Paulo emblem to decorate it, the work must have been completed in stages because the pattern had no synchronicity. The result was that as the sun beat down upon it and reflected into my eyes the experience became somewhat like walking along a Magic Eye autostereogram.
Like the puzzles though, if you retreat a little the hidden image starts to emerge – as it did whilst I stood upon the Minhocão.
Cast adrift by just a few centimetres, the curious archipelago below was neither pavement nor road but an intermediary whose curved form mimicked the mainland. Finished with perfectly formed mini-me São Paulos, the puzzle revealed – to my eyes at least – two images.
Firstly, a São Paulo fractal in which the geographical curve of the state is not only reproduced by its tiled mosaic but by the form of the island itself. Secondly, from a distance the black and white art tiles seemed to coalesce, forming a chequered flag to wave through the thousands of cars passing into the city centre. In São Paulo, where Senna is an idol and the car is king, perhaps the latter is more fitting.
Some days after my stroll along the Minhocão, it became apparent that at ground level I actually had passed the spot of my new discovery many times before. Unfortunately, I had done so on a bus and with window seats at a premium during rush hour it had unknowingly passed me by – although let’s face it, the semi-lucid states we induce ourselves into during our daily commutes hardly provide the optimum environments in which to peruse the finer details of our towns and cities. Commuting is for surviving not observing.
Better to walk.
*The tradition of mosaic tiling isn’t solely a São Paulo phenomenon and from my experience it is common throughout Brazil.