“GO TO RIO” is what most people will tell you when you visit Brazil. I suspect São Paulo’s intense traffic has something to do with this. When I landed at Guarulhos International Airport on my recent trip to Brazil, I was reminded of the never-ending car congestion. “You got through immigration so quickly, so now we’re stuck in traffic,” joked my driver, as though my early arrival had prompted the jam. He opened the door to a shiny blue Jaguar with “Rosewood” printed on it, and I climbed into what looked like a small leather palace. “Isn’t there always traffic?” I asked, confused. He laughed, then handed me a cold towel and the Wi-Fi password as consolation.
The last time I was in São Paulo it took me 2.5 hours to get to the airport. (Though, I was well equipped to deal with the stress following an afternoon of Amazonian fish and ants encrusted in manioc flour at Alex Atala’s famed D.O.M restaurant.) As the most populous city in the southern hemisphere, it’s true that São Paulo hasn’t always been Brazil’s in-demand destination — the city of 12 million is better known to business travelers, urbanists, or hard-core foodies. On my last trip I remember standing on a rooftop, gobsmacked by the sight of buildings that went on forever, like something out of a sci-fi film. How could a city be so big?
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The opening of the Rosewood, however, may entice more visitors to São Paulo. The hotel is part of an ambitious project of urban regeneration called Cidade Matarazzo, in which a collection of buildings belonging to an abandoned hospital (shuttered in 1993) has been overhauled into a shiny new district. The result is a mixture of commerce, green space, hotels, restaurants, and visionary architecture (as in the new Mata Atlantica Tower by Pritzker Prize–winner Jean Nouvel and office hub by Rudy Ricciotti). The project is spearheaded by Alexandre Allard, a French entrepreneur who made his fortune with the consumer database Consodata. Part of the greater plan for Cidade Matarazzo, which will run on clean energy from solar farms, is to encourage biodiversity (they’ve planted some 10,000 trees), create space for technology startups and NGOs, and generate a sustainable food supply chain for the restaurants (they aim to have 39) via permaculture and 100% organic produce — all from a network of small suppliers whom Allard has invested in. Drawing and captivating visitors with luxury offerings as well as cultural and green initiatives, Allard hopes to spur the kind of transformation that will have a trickle-down effect.
My driver wound us along the Tietê River, past towering buildings and through graffitied underpasses strewn with tents. Ninety minutes later, we drove up a steep hill, then turned off the street and onto a winding brick driveway. We passed through a tunnel of exposed cement arches rimmed with verdant plants and trees. Finally, the first glimpse of the hotel. At the entrance was an outside lobby with low-slung leather chairs arranged around wooden pillars like geometric tree trunks, stacked high with books. Inside, staff shuffled around in brogues, Panama hats, and white linen suits. At the top of a grand staircase, inside Le Jardin restaurant, I spied a group of Paulistanos dressed in stilettos, silk shirts, and neat blazers, drinking Champagne at lunch. Through the restaurant’s glass doors was a courtyard fringed with towering trees and succulent plants, which if left untrimmed would probably swallow the hotel up. It was an oasis within the city’s charging energy. Were we still in São Paulo or somewhere in the Amazon? The car ride was surely long enough.
This is, of course, what the team behind Rosewood and Alex Allard set out to do — to make guests feel as though they’ve arrived at a refuge, despite the surrounding buzz of activity. Allard, who has hopelessly fallen in love with São Paulo, wants visitors to fall in love with the city too.
The story goes that Allard was walking along the street when he passed the crumbling walls of an old hospital, where over half a million Paulistanos were born. Curious, he peered over, snapped some pictures, and sent them to his close friend, French designer Philippe Starck. He then immediately called Starck in Paris. “Look at this beauty,” Allard said. In truth, it was just a collection of dilapidated, overgrown mustard-colored buildings with broken green roofs. But Allard saw an opportunity to transform this forgotten space in a city he’d felt powerfully drawn to because it had so much soul. In 2011 he purchased the property and immediately set about launching his vision, with Starck by his side. “We had a strategy to create this platform and explode [it with] creativity. But at the same time, to preserve the romanticism, the history, the poetry [of the buildings],” said Starck when I sat down with him one afternoon in his plush hotel suite with high ceilings and rounded couches. “Ninety percent of the population of São Paulo was born here,” he added, gesturing around the space. “It [was] the maternity [ward] of the city. The people we work with were born in this room — it’s not nothing, it’s powerful.”
Allard may have brought the powerful vision for a thriving, well-appointed community hub with green initiatives, but Rosewood brought the hospitality. Starck was tasked with the artistic direction and interior architecture. “I must have been 12 when we started this project!” he joked. More than 4,000 Brazilian artisans have created pieces from raw Brazilian materials for the hotel. In addition, over 57 artists were commissioned, including masters such as Vik Muniz, to produce the stained-glass windows in the on-property chapel, and a collection of pieces in the foyer.
“Alex had this idea to make a platform to reveal all the powerful talent in South America,” explained Starck. “For the first time, I was secondary. I was just making the project; I crystallized the dream,” he laughed. Though Starck won’t take much credit, there is no denying that he was the visionary behind the dynamic energy of the interiors — it has his name stamped all over it. The rooms have sharp white linens, gleaming wood-paneled walls, a mirrored bar with crystal glasses, and French doors that open onto the street. The bathrooms are as luxurious as you’d expect Starck-designed bathrooms to be, with marble vanities, giant showers with rounded stools, French doors, and in some, indulgent marble baths. In each room there are unique pieces of art from local artists, like paintings and guitars — it’s a common thread that runs throughout the hotel. From the intricate tropical lobby carpet inspired by the insects of Brazil to the gold-dipped leaves that dangle from the ceiling in the hallways on the 5th floor — the Rosewood is, in part, a gallery.
For Rosewood, partnering with Allard and opening a new hospitality project in Cidade Matarazzo seemed like an easy decision. “Alex was selling his passion and vision,” Radha Arora, president of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, tells me as we are seated on the terrace at Taraz, a traditional Brazilian restaurant from acclaimed chef Felipe Bronze. “When you look back, it was really serendipitous because he [Alex] truly translated what Rosewood’s ‘a sense of place’ should mean. He’s taken it to a whole new level,” Arora adds. The hotel is intended to be a celebration of its location — not just a destination for guests to rest their heads after a day of exploring, or a place to eat picanha and pão de queijo at one of the three restaurants, or even to enjoy a caipirinha in the speakeasy-style bar. That is, it is also an opportunity to immerse themselves in Brazilian art and design.
Over the course of my visit, my curiosity about the charismatic Alexandre Allard grew. “[At] the center of everything is a nuclear plant, an atomic bomb, which is called Alexandre Allard,” Starck had told me with a smile. “He flies without a parachute.” When I finally meet Allard, it is on the terrace outside Taraz, looking out over a brick courtyard with olive trees. I am chatting with Arora when Allard suddenly bursts through the doors and joins us at the table, dressed head to toe in black (his uniform, I’m told). He eases into the seat next to me, lights a cigarette, turns to me and smiles. “My luxury is [that] I believe in my ideas,” he says gently. “I made sufficient money when I was young, so I could have my freedom. Instead of trying to make more I said, I’m going to use that freedom to keep that freedom. Not financially, but with my ideas.”
Allard, who was behind the restoration of Le Royal Monceau hotel in Paris and helped revitalize the French couture house Balmain, wholly believes São Paulo has the ability to become a global green capital. Considering the success of his past projects and the amount of money he’s investing to make it happen, it’s not an entirely absurd thought. “It was probably a stupid idea, but it became a fixed idea. I felt I had to do something enormous here [in São Paulo], against all odds, to convince these people that they are sitting on a green mine,” says Allard, almost shaking his head as if to say, Surely the world knows this? “It’s a country that is ready to go to the next generation. It will take many generations for old worlds like Europe and the U.S. to clean themselves from the system we have built,” he adds. “Unlike old countries that cannot have the power to rethink or reinvent who they are, Brazil is the only country that can see and say, ‘This world can be different.’”
São Paulo, a city with a tough history and a wide economic disparity, might not be the first place many would think of as the next green innovation hub. Rethinking anything here (or anywhere, for that matter) is a tall order, yet Allard sees the city as a window of opportunity — set in a country with immense biodiversity, and of course, the Amazon, which stabilizes the world’s climate with its 390 billion trees. Allard has also identified something slightly less tangible that he believes will be the country’s underlying saving grace. “This is the country of the soul,” he says resolutely, with such sincerity it feels impossible to disagree. Soon, I’d understand what he was referring to.
On the night of the hotel’s opening party, on the same terrace where I had met Allard and Arora, I saw a crowd of locals and foreigners engrossed in the music from a live samba band, swirling their hips and tapping their feet. Allard, who was bopping in the front row, appeared hypnotized by the sounds. The energy in this small, high-end bubble of the city — where caipirinhas and pão de queijo with wagyu patties were flowing — was electrifying. Paulistanos looked proud to see their city on a pedestal, while foreigners delighted in this slice of culture, absorbing a city they’d rarely seen in this light. The spirit of celebration was contagious. Could this be an inkling of things to come? Cidade Matarazzo is still in its infancy, and it’s too soon to tell the impact it will have. But if Allard can continue to convince travelers and decision makers of his burning vision, and this influence can have a genuine trickle-down effect, then perhaps São Paulo will become Brazil’s most in-demand city after all.
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Mary Holland Writer
Mary Holland is a South African writer based in New York. She has written for the Financial Times, HTSI, Wall Street Journal Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, Architectural Digest, and W Magazine. She is is also the New York correspondent for Monocle Magazine.
Ruy Teixeira Photographer
Ruy Teixeira is a São Paulo–based photographer. His work has been featured in publications such as Case da Abitare, D la Repubblica, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor (Italian, French, English, German, and Chinese editions), Marie Claire Maison, T Magazine, Wallpaper, Grazia Casa, Interni, and German Vogue.