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Technology in the mansion of the Penteado family

The century old family mansion is being restored and will house the high-tech library of FAU-USP

Borges – and certainly Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose – had previously warned that a library, more than just a simple book depository, can be the doorway to new worlds. By starting the renovation of one of the rooms of the former residence of the Álvares Penteado family, on Maranhão street, Nº 88, in São Paulo, in order to house the library of the post graduate course of the Architecture and Urbanism School of the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP), professor José Katinsky, from the same unit, and his colleagues, saw the eventual document depository transform itself into a research corner.

“Since the mansion, which will complete its centennial year this year, was taken over by Condephaat (Council for the Defense of the Historic, Cultural, Archeological and Touristic Heritage) and Conprest, we took special care over its restoration and we ended up bringing together a group of specialists who, in their specific areas, discovered a large amount of study material when dealing with the restoration work”, says Katinsky. There were architects, engineers, historians, chemists, specialists in wood and paints, etc., who found in the house precious information about forms of construction in the past and how time can manipulate these forms.

“For example, researchers at the Polytechnic School (Poli) of USP, found themselves facing mortar and a century old finishing and they were able to evaluate how the one hundred years had reacted upon these structures”, says the professor. And the situation of the conservation of the mansion could provide work for all. “We weren’t aware of the precarious nature in which we found it, with termites and everything else.” The work was carried out through FAPESP’s program of Research Support and Research Infrastructure Modernization. Money was fundamental for the research in the recovery of the mansion to its art nouveau style, whose construction began in 1898 under a project lead by the Swedish architect Carlos Ekman.

“It was the first Brazilian architectural work carried out in line with this European style. More than just a residence, the building is a symbol of power and of love of culture by one of the country’s most powerful families at the beginning of the last century”, the researcher explains. Linked to the coffee industry (producers and later distributors of coffee beans) the Penteado family (also the founders of São Paulo’s School of Commerce) were committed to the development of capitalism in the sate of São Paulo. Consequently, in 1945, some time after the death of the patriarch, the family donated the mansion to USP with the condition that it would be used for teaching and research in architecture.

“The Penteado family had extraordinary perception at that time and for the country in which culture was not just simply society’s smile, but a dynamic element of it, and especially its architecture”, praises Katinsky. And thus it was done. The building, of 1,500 m² today houses the post graduate courses of FAU-USP and, starting in October, with the inauguration of the new library, the Alvares Penteado mansion will bring together a compendium of the theses defended at the institution, as well as the archives of the Assessoria em Planejamento (Asplan S.A.- Assessor in Planning) and of the Sociedade de Análise Gráficas e Mecanográficas Aplicadas aos Complexos Sociais (Sagmacs Society of Graphic Analysis and of Mechanographics Applied to Social Complexes), a type of documentation center on urban planning.

The Asplan archive is of special importance since the organization was responsible for the basic urban planning of São Paulo, having been bought with FAPESP assistance. The new library will complement the resources available in the other unit, located at University City (completed with resources from FAPESP). Now the users – researchers – can have access to reference material within the luxurious art nouveau of the Penteado mansion in a library of some 223 m2 divided into seven sections, which, to the extra delight of the researchers, houses, on the walls, decorative paintings of the delicate European style, having currently been restored for the inauguration of the post graduation library.

“Now the idea is to continue the work and to recover all of the remainder of the building, leaving it ready so that shortly there can be monitored visits through the whole of this building”, promises Katinsky. A library can be more than just a simple library. “We would like to share this acquired experience with other researchers and to bring up a discussion group in academic circles regarding the need for the implementation of studies on inter-disciplinary restoration”, says the researcher.

“In the end, during the restoration, we had to look for the most adequate solutions that would not impinge upon the internal decoration of the mansion, the art nouveau paintings and the walls themselves”, adds the professor. “And thus we learned a lot about how these delicate operations are carried out”, he completes. It was even necessary to find testimony from various people, since the gaps in the projects and drawings from that time had to be filled in with personal remembrances of how the house at Nº 88 Maranhão street looked at the height of its fame.

In Katinsky’s opinion, all of this care and attention also pays homage to the intellectual pioneeerism of the family that built the mansion and donated it to the university. “They realized the power of architecture in the artistic and industrial development of Brazil. These were rare cases, since, around here there was hardly any understanding, at that time, that industry could flourish like a creative process”, he observes.

The researcher believes that the work will render, as well as the library, a book about the efforts involved in the restoration of the Alvares Penteado mansion. “It’ll be a manner of showing that restoration, contrary to what many people think, is not something for a specialist, but the combined effort of a group of professionals from the most varied areas of scientific knowledge”, he assures. “If we want to break with the dreadful Brazilian tradition of a lack of memory and to reconstruct, with precision, our cultural material, this discussion needs to be placed within the university environment”, he states. A place for storing books? What some people call a library, Borges calls the universe.