'I like each work to be different...'

'I like each work to be different...'

'I like each work to be different...'

Brazil’s best-known contemporary architect is Isay Weinfeld, eclipsed in fame only by the late, great Oscar Niemeyer. Not that you’d know it talking to him.

He’s incredibly warm and personable — and thrilled about having recently become a grandfather (he has a daughter with his ex-wife). His laid-back attitude is reflected in his architecture — an expansive modernist vision replete with rich, tactile surfaces, beautiful grained timbers and that open-plan, indoor-outdoor living that has been dubbed ‘tropical modernism’.

It’s a label the 63-year-old architect — who lives in São Paolo’s boho neighbourhood of Vila Madalena — is keen to dismiss. “I’m never happy with that description,” he says, “because I am very proud to say I don’t have a style. I like each work to be different. It would be boring to find your style, have success and then repeat and repeat again. I hate that, professionally speaking. I want to continually turn the tables and do something that will surprise and provoke emotion.”

Modernist architect

Although he has designed hotels, restaurants, shops and banks and has in the past professed a desire to create a gas station or brothel just because he’s never done either before, it is through the many private residences in his native Brazil that Isay’s talents truly shine. Whether designing a home for an art-collecting couple (Casa Cubo), a family of Syrian origin (Casa Iporanga), or just a clan that loves to entertain (Casa Gêneses), his spaces are full of spectacle and delight — often with
discreet, anonymous facades that give no sign of the capacious volumes, open-plan living spaces and natural vistas that unfold beyond.

He’s a master of modernist drama, cinematically framing lush vegetation or beach views through vast floor-to-ceiling windows, using local woods and stones to add rustic texture and comfort in the form of furniture by Brazilian greats such as Joaquim Tenreiro and Sérgio Rodrigues.

Just as his native country falls under the global spotlight as host to the 2016 Olympics, so Isay and his 35-strong team of architects have more international
projects than ever on the go. He’s completing La Petite Afrique, an apartment
complex in Monte Carlo for Andrea and Pierre Casiraghi, sons of Princess Caroline of Monaco.

On the drawing board, too, is the conversion of Miami’s Shore Club hotel into a luxury hotel and residential complex. Add to that a hotel and resort in the Dominican Republic and a restaurant in Barcelona. “A project is always a puzzle,” he says. “Monaco is not the same as Brazil but that’s a good part of the job. It’s not just the regulations that are different in every city but the way people behave in a particular neighbourhood. I have to learn and learn all the time, and take risks, which I like.”

Talking of risk, he’s currently undertaking one of the biggest of his career — designing Manhattan’s new The Four Seasons restaurant, which the owners are relocating from its iconic setting in the Seagram Building. The demise of this legendary restaurant because the building’s owner decided not to extend its lease, has caused considerable consternation. Host to the power lunches of Manhattan, the contents of this beloved modernist masterpiece, designed in 1959 by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, are controversially being auctioned 10 days after its
closure.

Its rebirth will happen a few blocks south, at 280 Park Avenue, and Isay, who won the private competition to design the new incarnation, has a year in which to complete the restaurant. He’s philosophical about the challenge. “It’s an
honour to design a space like that. I don’t know if it’s possible to be at the same level as Mies and Philip, and also the expectations in a city like New York of such an iconic place are very strong, but I have had my practice for 43 years now and I feel secure that it’s come at the right moment in my professional life.”

One only has to consider Isay’s Fasano restaurant, the São Paolo institution he created in 2003 for Rogério Fasano, to recognise how apt his appointment is. A homage to modernism — with its double-height ceiling, swathes of travertine and glossy imbuia wood, plus Mies’s Brno seating — it’s as glamorously masculine as the sets of Mad Men.

Inherently Brazilian

Despite his immense success in Brazil, The Four Seasons is only Isay’s second New York project. It follows hot on the heels of Jardim, a luxury residential development in a buzzing area of west Chelsea close to the High Line – and just one block from a Zaha Hadid-designed condo building. Jardim, which started construction 10 months ago and is due for completion in June 2017, consists of two 11-storey buildings clad in concrete brick and glass. Lush planting and gardens play a starring role, as the name suggests, with a large interior garden, as well as private outdoor areas for many of the condos, so that city residents get to experience a taste of the breezy indoor-outdoor living at which Isay excels.

Whether he likes the tropical modern label or not, at the heart of his work is an inherently Brazilian embrace of nature and enjoyment of life — something he’s happy to admit, now that he’s reached the enviable stage of selecting which projects to accept. “I am always very picky about my work. It’s not just about signing a contract. I need to have a meeting to see if the building and client will be a good marriage. I can’t spend one day in my life without pleasure. If I have pleasure, then we achieve something pleasurable as a result.”

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