Brazil’s homegrown Gaudi

October 11, 2012

By Paulo Whitaker

The last time I took pictures in one of Brazil’s favelas my luck was very different. That was in Rio de Janeiro in 2010, when I was covering a police invasion of the Alemão slum. A bullet perforated the windshield and hit me in the shoulder as I sat transmitting pictures in the backseat of a taxi. Fortunately, I recovered quickly.

By contrast, this time I shot a feature story about a gardener cum architect in São Paulo’s second-largest slum, Paraisopolis. Although Estevão Silva da Conceição’s creation draws an immediate comparison to one by Spanish Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, he had never heard of Gaudi nor seen any photos of his work before building his own home here.

Estevão built his house that mirrors parts of Gaudi’s famous Park Guell in Barcelona, without dreaming that someone else so far away had his same style, a century earlier.

The Casa de Pedra – House of Stone – is built of stone but with the walls decorated with every kind of imaginable discarded object from plates, cups, statues, bicycles, and pieces of ceramic, to old telephones. I found ashtrays from hotels in Brazil and around the world, mugs of regional festivals, and antique toys.

What I found especially curious were some security cameras in the entrance to the house. I asked him if it was a dangerous place and if he had been robbed. He answered, “We have all kind of people living in the slums, but these cameras here are all fake, just decorative.”

Inside, a warren of stairways and tiny corridors lead to a roof garden at the top of the house. I climbed the last ladder with difficulty, about eight feet up, and found it so tight that I had to pass my gear first and then squeeze myself through. But the reward came in the form of a beautiful overview of the slum of Paraisopolis, which is home to more than 80,000.

Photographing inside the stone house was a different adventure. I could not take much equipment because everything was tight, and I felt insecure at times when climbing inside. I had the feeling that anytime I might break through the framework.

In Paraisopolis all homes are constructed by its residents, but the stone house built by Estevão, the “Brazilian Gaudi,” really stands out for its unique design and for the use of recycled materials that give it a different color amidst the slum.

During the three days I spent photographing there, Estevao and his family showed me how much art is present in his life. His subliminal connection to the Catalan Gaudí is real and true.

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