Of the many scars left by the military dictatorship that oppressed Brazil from 1964 – 1985, the largest is more than two miles long: The Minhocão, or Big Worm, an elevated highway that squeezes between the residential high rises of central São Paulo. Completed in 1971, the Big Worm had been built in such uncomfortable proximity to the adjacent buildings that, according to one Paulista interviewed for Disseminate and Hold, the 2016 film about the highway’s history, “It seemed from my bedroom that it was close enough to touch.”
The art documentary, which artist/filmmaker Rosa Barba with the Prince Pierre of Monaco Foundation presented during the São Paulo Bienal last fall, is a fine primer on The Minhocão’s divisive history: The film’s archival images document the initial gash the highway laid into the urban skin of a once-middle-class neighborhood; the subsequent erection of its pillars; and the cacophonous reality of 90,000 passing cars that its current neighbors endure daily. Unsurprisingly, the Big Worm devoured the area’s real estate value. Today its neighbors, some who report a perpetual soot in their homes as a result of endless exhaust fumes, are exempt from having to pay council tax.
“The implementation of the Minhocão in the center of São Paulo meant the downfall of the whole area,” says Guil Blanche, the young founder of local architectural landscaping firm Movimento.90º. Not only is it “one of the noisiest and most polluted areas of the city,” he adds, but the structure itself also “represents this era of repression.”
In June, São Paulo city council changed the Minhocão’s official name from that of dictator Artur da Costa e Silva to deposed president João Goulart, slightly easing the authoritarian specter while allowing the highway itself to remain. For decades, local government and residents have debated about whether the Big Worm should be demolished entirely. In the meantime, Blanche has developed his own remedy to the problem of poor urban planning: Add more plants.
Since founding his firm in 2013, Blanche has been on an ongoing mission to improve the concrete city’s quality of life through unconventional, plant-based urban interventions. His largest yet is the Green Corridor, a series of gardens that, dodging the spatial constraints of a crowded metropolis, have been planted vertically on the windowless facades of the Minhocão’s adjacent buildings. Inspired by French botanist Patrick Blanc’s murs végétals in Paris, Blanche, since 2015, has been implementing a planting system made of biodegradable materials that could easily be installed, and subsequently removed, from walls, and watered through a recycled-water irrigation system that he controls via smartphone app.
With Blanche, gallerist and plant enthusiast Matthew Wood commissions high-profile artists to create long-term, large-scale, living murals, and acts as botanical consultant, curating the exact species that go into each collage. So far, vertical gardens by the likes of Daniel Steegmann Mangrané, Renata de Bonis, and Paulo Monteiro occupy seven windowless facades flanking the sinuous highway, with works by art stars like Jonathas de Andrade and Erika Verzutti to come.
"São Paulo is a cement city,” says Wood. "There’s a lack of access to green space." According to data collected in 2015 by the city's Secretariat of Greenery and the Environment, two-thirds of São Paulo's 32 districts don’t offer anything close to the nine square meters of green space per person recommended by the World Health Organization.
The need for it becomes most evident on Sundays, when the Minhocão assumes its alter ego as pop-up urban oasis. Since 1976—when the government began closing the street to vehicular traffic on Sundays and holidays as a small concession to its people—locals, lacking sufficient alternatives, have flocked to the normally traffic-congested lanes and on-ramps to transform them into a sort of concrete park, a locus for drum circles, performance art, training wheels, and one Internet-famous skateboarding bulldog.
During one recent Sunday stroll down the Minhocão, Wood cracks open a beer purchased from a woman with a cooler parked on the central median, and Blanche points out the perfectly framed views of Oscar Niemeyer’s Copan building in the distance. Joggers pause to snap iPhone photos of a vertical garden by the artist Pedro Wirz, a gargoyle’s monumental face caught mid-sneer. Aside from brightening an economically depressed area through lush public art, these vertical gardens offer very real benefits, including absorbing both noise and tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and providing insulation from the highway’s heat island effect—two perks that aligned with former mayor Fernando Haddad’s sustainability initiatives while he was in office. Blanche had advocated for vertical gardens as a new form of environmental compensation, which construction companies in São Paulo were already required to make for any mature trees they cut down. Haddad made this a reality in March 2015.
“The first thing I did as I opened my firm, M.90º, in 2013, was to write a manifesto,” says Blanche—one that clearly outlined the potential impact of a vertical garden and served as a call for similar initiatives. “Along the way, a lot of people came forward with new ideas and projects, both with and without me.” Below the Big Worm, the Marquise, another public project, is slated for completion this year. Working with Blanche, the French-Brazilian architecture firm Triptyque is casting light in the space underneath the highway by cutting skylights between the balustrades of the median, outfitting it with more carbon dioxide–reducing plants and kiosks for shops and food stalls.
In the search for more public space for São Paulo, “We don’t just go further in occupying new territories,” says Triptyque architect Carolina Bueno. “The city center has been left over for so many years, and as architects, we believe you can transform something that you already have into something new if you need to.” In this crowded city of 12 million and counting, a little more room to breathe wouldn’t hurt.