Rising to the challenge of intervening a Niemeyer building in São Paulo

São Paulo – Think of this scenario: as a design firm, you’re asked to intervene a rooftop space with low ceilings and turn it into a restaurant.

The added problem? It’s a 1950s Oscar Niemeyer building in São Paulo, and the Landmarks Protection Commission in Brazil forbids any structural changes – never mind that Niemeyer himself never intended for the vertically tight space to have any commercial use, so the layout was initially unforgiving.

But Prototyp& was more than up to the challenge: the team managed to play with the limitations and create the generous, light-filled environment that now hosts the aptly named Vista Restaurant.


The first roadblock was, ironically, the façade itself: the designers were bound by the original construction; that meant they weren’t able to add any structural solutions for functional matters. For example, the client requested a small cover around the building, to protect customers from the rain, but it was rejected, as it would alter the visuals of the façade.

So instead they decided to render to Niemeyer the things that are Niemeyer’s, and focused on looking inwards: most of the functional solutions were actually applied indoors. The outside came in through a series of 10 large glass window panes, with the Obelisco bar serving as a barrier between both environments.

There’s another element that bridges the open-closed permeability: the cobogó. The humble perforated cinder block, born in the warm northeastern city of Recife, was poetically used by Lúcio Costa and Niemeyer himself in their projects – most proudly, in the Brazilian Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Originally an icon of local modernism, it was deemed far too humble in the 80s and 90s, but is now enjoying a comeback. The Prototyp& team conceived a cobogó wall with a circular design that not only honoured the space’s creator, but also brought forward their own idea of spatial permeability. ‘It was important for us to choose a cobogó model that was both simple and yet represented some sort of geometric purity,’ explained studio founder Felipe Protti.

And as for that pesky ceiling height? They decided to remove the lining and expose the beams, gaining more than a few welcome centimetres. They built upon the effect by painting the newly visible concrete elements in an off-white shade, so as to create an illusion of illumination. ‘But we still don’t know why the ceilings were so low,’ mused Prototyp&’s Camila Paulon. ‘We’ve actually seen some other projects where Niemeyer kept the ceiling much lower than one would have expected. Some say he did that to make the building’s horizontality much more evident… but we still don’t know if that’s the case here.’

Mystery aside and problem solved, there is still an ongoing challenge for the Vista and its environs: the restaurant is located on the top floor of the relatively new location of the University of São Paulo’s Contemporary Art Museum. Although it directly faces the beloved and popular Ibirapuera Park complex, with its structures also conceived by Niemeyer, the MAC-USP is still not that well known by locals – most still think it houses the building’s former occupant some five years ago, the State Transit Department. But this new hospitality option, helmed by award-winning local chef Marcelo Corrêa Bastos, might just change that: perhaps, as it offers one of the most privileged views of the famed skyline of Brazil’s infinite city inside a certainly pleasing environment, paulistanos might just come for the panorama and the modernist decor but stay for the Tarsilas and the Picassos.


Location Av. Pedro Alvares Cabral 1301, São Paulo

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