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The school that made the city

Books dimensions importance of the Polytechnic in the S

What happened with São Paulo at the turn of the 20th century was certainly a unique phenomenon in the history of Brazil. Never had a city grown, industrialized itself and modernized itself in such a short time. To get an idea, between 1895 and 1900, its population almost doubled. It went up from 130 thousand inhabitants (71 thousand foreigners) to exactly 239,820.  In this period, the trams branched out to integrate the districts with the center, and the great reservoirs of water were built, and gas lighting installed – novelties that accompanied the establishment of major industries. In the rapid process of urbanization, Brás and Lapa became workers’ districts, and the Bexiga region was occupied by Italian immigrants.

There then arose the two most important urbanistic achievements of the end of the century: the opening up of the Paulista avenue (1891) and the construction of the Tea Viaduct (1892). The first made tree-lined, high and airy areas appear, with the mansions of the major coffee growers. The other, through the payment of a toll, linked the ‘old center’ to the ‘new city’, formed by Barão de Itapetininga street, 7 de Abril and environs. In 1901, the new station of the São Paulo Railway began to function, better known as Luz Station. Trains, electricity, telephones and automobiles established needs in a city that was becoming a giant. What was needed, then, were urban improvements, such as paving, squares, viaducts, parks and the first skyscrapers, which divided room with offices and sophisticated stores.

With so much effervescence, it is difficult to imagine what the capital of São Paulo would look like, had the course for engineers-architects not arisen at the Polytechnic Engineering School in 1894. Created to become an excellence, with vacancies coveted by the sons of the richest families of the city, the Poli established a model for rationalist architecture, focused on the excellence of the construction and on the concern with quality. It would be no exaggeration to claim that school and city were born practically together.

The Poli became a pioneer in the teaching of materials resistance, and has always been alert to the modern movements of world architecture. From its ranks, names have stood out that today baptize well known streets, squares and avenues: Francisco de Paula Ramos de Azevedo (he lectured from 1894 to 1928), Victor Dubugras (1894 to 1927), Alexandre Albuquerque (1917 to 1940), João Batista Vilanova Artigas (1940 to 1954), Luiz Ignácio de Anhaia Mello (1918 to 1954) and Francisco Prestes Maia (1924 to 1938), amongst others.

All this rich and important history and the biographies of over a hundred of its illustrious masters and graduates are told in a book that is fundamental, not only for students, researchers and professors of architecture, engineering and urbanism. Os arquitetos da Poli – ensino e profissão em São Paulo [The architects from the Poli – teaching and profession in São Paulo], by Sylvia Ficher, which has just come out in a luxurious and abundantly illustrated edition from Edusp, is a rich and fascinating tableau of the social, cultural and economic life of the capital of São Paulo, following the Poli’s history.

The author rescues the formation of the teaching of another architecture, combined with engineering, in the traditional sense, from the times of electronics and mechanics, far distant from the transformations. Architecture, then, was the building of houses and building; civil engineering, sanitation and paving.

An architect graduated from USP’s School of Architecture and Urbanism, with a master’s degree from Columbia University (New York) and a doctorate from the History Department of USP’s Faculty of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH), Sylvia is currently a professor at the University of Brasilia. “I wasn’t interested in studying works like high-rise and public buildings, but to know what teaching was like in the first decades of the 20th century, and what the masters and the professionals they taught used to think. I redeemed some important forgotten names.” Like the former mayor Prestes Maia, who governed the city twice, in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Known as an urbanist, he studied architecture, and Sylvia believes that this was fundamental for carrying out his plan to remodel the city. She discovered that there was not a single academic study on the former mayor.

With fastidiousness, the author ferreted into 50 years of education, at the same time that she investigated the career, the peculiarities and the relevance of 129 professionals who took an active part in the construction of São Paulo. The book helps one to understand how architecture, engineering and urbanism contributed towards making of the capital of São Paulo a metropolis and the most important industrial center of the country.

Sylvia tells that, with the growth of São Paulo as an agricultural export center, the ‘construction business’ arose. Railroads and highways were built, urban lighting and paving, works of sanitation and the construction of networks of water and sewage, public buildings, besides the constant demand for private buildings. An implacable process “of the strength that erects and destroys beautiful things”, in Caetano Veloso’s description. In the quest for the modern and for sumptuousness, works were demolished and re-erected many times in the first half of the century.

The Poli was fundamental in a period in which the economic growth of the state was especially reflected in the capital. Its physical expansion gained importance, to accompany the modernization of the administrative spheres and of the urban equipment imposed by industrialization. A spectacular level of complexity. To accompany the new times and to form professionals on a level with them, the school sought to consolidate itself with frequent and important changes to its teaching regulations.

The second higher education school in São Paulo, the institution was born of the financial contribution of the São Paulo elite, as an example of its autonomy before the federal government. So much so that, the author says, there was a proposition in itself to preserve and to expand the political and economic hegemony of the state, the formation of an organic intellectuality and the renewal of its cadres for public and private business. It became a product and an agent of development. Through its classrooms passed the notables that constructed such important works as the Municipal Theater, the São Paulo Cathedral, the Lyceum of Arts and Crafts (now the Art Gallery), the Santos Docks Company and the Palace of Justice, amongst many others.

For the author, the Poli began in the same way as it has remained until today: an elite institution, mainly for the excellence and quality of its teaching. In this regard, the figure of its founder, Paula Souza, stood out, with his ability to get public resources to consolidate the institution. It soon fitted into a European tendency for teaching, with a strong Germanic influence. Its sophisticated tradition, at the same time, was supported a philosophical base that in a certain sense was positivist.

Sylvia also redeemed the history of the course for engineers-architects of the Mackenzie Engineering School, offered from 1917 to 1946, and the course for architects at the São Paulo Fine Arts School, created around 1928 and existing up until 1934.