On High Modernism and Urban Redesign in São Paulo

Removing billboards from the cityscape was/is not the only urban renewal project planned for São Paulo. The city has recently added the removal of an elevated highway made of reinforced concrete that runs through the heart of the city to its plans to transform the biggest city in South America. The highway, officially called the Artur Costa e Silva Elevated Highway but known locally as the “Minhocão” or “Big Worm,” went up in the late 1960s. At the beginning of that decade, the population of the city was only 3.7 million people; today, there are over 20 million residents in the Greater São Paulo metropolitan area. Thus, it’s hard to find fault with urban planners who see “the Worm as part of a makeover of the city’s outdated infrastructure,” and I’d have to agree both with the assessment of the Worm as no longer useful and an eyesore, and with the assessment of São Paulo’s infrastructure as often outdated.

The Artur Costa e Silva Elevated Highway, or "Minhocão," winding through São Paulo.

But the also points to some of the broader challenges of modernity in Brazil in the 20th century and today. The Worm was a key part of São Paulo mayor Paulo Maluf’s modernization efforts of the late-1960s, and as with many projects with this type of high modernist vision, the city constructed it at the expense of hundreds of small cafes and stores that were wiped out for the building of the highway. In doing so, it removed some of the “local flavor” of the city in the name of faceless, monolithic modernity as it was defined in the 1960s; this generally meant massive projects of concrete or, if one was lucky, the high modernist architectural style that characterized cities like Brasília and Chandigarh. The consequences of this are still visible in Rio de Janeiro today, where nineteenth-century buildings like the old Senate building went down for new, modern office buildings in the 1950s and 1960s. While many criticize and mourn the loss of these buildings today, it’s not hard to understand at least in part the motivations of Brazilian officials. There were ideological concerns that Brazil appear modern and finally assume its place as “the country of tomorrow,” certainly; however, urban migration was also rapidly transforming the country, which went from having 70% of its population living in the countryside in the 1930s to 70% in the cities by 1980. With rapid growth, cities like Rio and São Paulo had to change the urban landscape somehow in order to address the burgeoning numbers; the high modernist ideology and aesthetic that was dominant among Brazilian elites concerned with showing off their ability to develop to the rest of the world just meant those projects would look like the Worm.

The Minhocão passing through the city (and remarkably close to residential buildings).

However, it took the context of a military regime to make this type of project possible. In 1964, Brazil’s military overthrew president João Goulart in a coup, establishing a twenty-one year dictatorship that saw five presidents (and, temporarily, one junta) govern Brazil with varying degrees of repression. In 1969, the regime was just entering its most repressive phase. While Paulo Maluf, the mayor of São Paulo who oversaw the project, was not a military member himself, he agreed with the military regime and had its stamp of approval; indeed, in 1985, as Brazil returned to democracy, he was the presidential candidate for the pro-military party. It is for these reasons thathe worm is “very symbolic of the time that it was made, without discussion and everything,” as Paulo Pastorelo, the director of a new film on the Worm, puts it in the article. Indeed, while most understandably associate Brasília as the pinnacle of Brazilian developmentalism and preoccupations with modernity, it was far from the only example, and many of the military regime’s projects, be it the 8-mile long Rio-Niterói bridge (also named after Costa e Silva, who governed from 1967 to 1969, when a stroke forced him from office and ultimately led to his death), the Trans-Amazonian highway, or the Worm itself, were just as ambitions and single-minded in their visions (and their aesthetics), if not as grand as Brasília. In many ways, then, if Brasília is inextricably linked to Juscelino Kubitschek, the president who envisioned the city and whose policies made it a reality, high modernism’s aesthetic and focus on modernity and utility lasted well into the military dictatorship.

The Esplanade in Brasília, the main (but not only) symbol of Brazilian high modernism.

As for the plans to remove it in the name of urban “renewal,” well, there’s no telling if it will actually be “better.” Certainly, many (including myself) find the Worm an eyesore, but as most urban historians would probably tell you, the problem with contemporary understandings of urban design is that they are just that – contemporary, and bound to change, transform, and shift over time. One can hope that São Paulo is able to remove the Worm while still addressing its considerable transportation issues, but there’s no guarantee in an easy solution; if you want to know the long-term shortcomings of an underground transit route to make things “easier” and “better,”  just ask Bostonians about the Big Dig. Still, the Worm is a relic of its time, and one that many will be happy to see go, should the politics/aesthetics not change before the city proceeds with its plans (a big “if” in its own right).


About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
This entry was posted in "Modernity", Brasília, Brazil, Brazil's Military Dictatorship, São Paulo, Uncategorized, Urban Landscapes. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to On High Modernism and Urban Redesign in São Paulo

  1. David McKenzie says:

    Great post, thanks for this. An example of a well-done public history blog post.

  2. Pingback: On This Date in Latin America – April 21, 1960: The Inauguration of Brasília « Americas South and North

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