Germans played a significant role in the construction of São Paulo in the mid-nineteenth century, through both public and private works that boosted the urban development of the then province (as states were denominated during the Brazilian empire). Engineers Karl Abraham Bresser, Carl Friedrich Rath, and Hermann Bastide were among the professionals who contributed to modernizing the infrastructure of São Paulo, favoring the popularization of brick masonry and the proliferation of brickyards.
A graduate of the Polytechnic School in Berlin, Germany, Hermann Bastide (1816–1881) arrived at the port of Santos in 1848 to work in the Real Fábrica de Ferro São João do Ipanema, an ironworks plant in Sorocaba, São Paulo. In October of 1851 he took over as manager of public works in section five of the province; this section was the most important because it included the capital and its suburbs. At the time, São Paulo State had been divided into six sections in order to organize the public works sector and improve the administration of its roads.
Bastide became responsible for the maintenance and construction of bridges, the paving of streets, the installation of fountains, and the plumbing for city water, according to architect Adriane Acosta Baldin, from the School of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP). She studied the contributions German engineers made to the construction of the province by reviewing the collection of photographer Militão Augusto de Azevedo (1837–1905), who created a vast iconographic library that shows the changes to the urban landscape during the nineteenth century.
Bastide had extensive knowledge on the technological innovations being developed in Europe. “Countries like England, France, and Germany were advancing in the field of engineering and in the production of new materials for civil construction,” the researcher notes. “The German engineers brought these technologies to Brazil.” Bastide was also responsible for the construction of a mental hospital on the steep slopes of Tabatinguera street, in the Várzea do Carmo district, stressing that the walls of the building should be made of stone, brick, and lime, and not using the Brazilian rammed earth technique (mud crushed into wooden molds). “Bricks were used sporadically in various of the city’s projects, but never for the construction of entire buildings,” Baldin explains.
In her view, it is possible that Bastide’s attitude was related to the flood of the Anhangabaú river that destroyed 15 rammed-earth homes in January 1850, along with the bridge at the intersection of São João street. “In documents of the time, one can see the German engineers’ concern about breaking with this tradition after that flood,” the architect says. Baldin authored the book Tijolo sobre tijolo: Os alemães que construíram São Paulo (Brick by brick: The Germans who built São Paulo), the result of her doctoral dissertation.
With the popularization of using bricks came the brickyards. This trend also stimulated the hiring of skilled workers to execute the projects, by means of agreements between the province and Vergueiro & Company, an immigration agency created by Senator Nicolau Vergueiro (1778–1859). It’s estimated the politician and businessman arranged to bring some 204 German workers to act as masons, street-paving specialists, and contractors skilled in infrastructure works to São Paulo during the nineteenth century. “These agents publicized conspicuously in Germany with the aim of impressing local workers as to the wonders offered by the Brazilian government,” explains historian Silvia Cristina Siriani, from the Unified Metropolitan Schools (FMU), who analyzed German immigration policy during the nineteenth century in Brazil.
Another engineer who came to Brazil was Carl Rath, responsible for numerous works of urban infrastructure in the 1850s and 60s in São Paulo. Records in Germany suggest that he received extensive training in mechanics, medicine, and engineering. Born in Stuttgart in 1802, Rath arrived in Brazil in August 1845, undertaking expeditions throughout the province in order to study geographical and geological aspects of the region.
Rath studied a wide variety of subjects, accumulating knowledge about the natural and geological aspects of São Paulo. This benefitted the urban development of the province, guiding the public works sector regarding the water supply, road construction, and in selecting the best places to implement public services.
In 1858, Rath chose the high ground of the Consolação area as a location for the construction of a graveyard surrounded by brick walls. Up to that time bodies were buried within churches or in adjoining churchyards. Based on a study of the region, he found that it was more suitable for burials since the winds seldom blew toward the city. This would prevent the spread of miasmas, or noxious fumes from decaying organic matter, which were associated with the spread of diseases at the time.
Rath also worked in the construction and maintenance of water-supply projects, intervening to ensure that steep slopes and potable water tanks and pipes would be protected. On another front, Rath coordinated works for road construction and street repairs in the capital. He widened Rua Formosa and made repairs on Rua Glória, both downtown, and on the Maioridade road that connected the coastal region of Baixada Santista to the capital city. The road had experienced intense traffic for the time: approximately 5,000 mules per month. It was originally built in 1841 by 200 German workers supervised by German engineer Karl Bresser (1804–1856).
Bresser came to São Paulo in 1838 to oversee the construction of the road to Santos and another road linking São Paulo to Jundiaí. In 1852, Bresser was made responsible for coordinating a commission to analyze and propose a water exploitation project from one of two possible water sources. The engineers evaluated the Pacaembu and Cantareira watersheds, choosing the latter because its headwaters had a permanent river regime and a large volume of water. The project to channel the waters of the Cantareira mountain range took 20 years to be initiated. The policies regarding the city water supply, however, have remained to this day, with the Cantareira complex being responsible for supplying a large part of the water consumed in São Paulo.
In addition to professionals with technological training to meet the demands of the Brazilian infrastructure, the country received scientists and others curious to understand and record the flora and fauna of the New World. This interest is reflected by the scientific expeditions undertaken in the nineteenth century, a large part of them made up of Germans. Such is the case of Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, who visited Brazil several times, and of zoologist Johann Baptist von Spix, as well as botanist Carl Friedrich von Martius, who arrived in 1817. The naturalist Fritz Muller went to Santa Catarina in 1830, and pharmacist Theodoro Peckolt, in 1847.
The German immigration diminished after 1860 when their government stopped encouraging workers to go to Brazil, as there was a local demand for specialized labor to accomplish their own infrastructure works.