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São Paulo, Brazil

For photographer Reinaldo Cóser and his family of four, the best way to deal with the sometimes-draining throb of massive São Paulo was to simply rise above.

The Cóser family lives in Jardim Europa, an unlikely neighborhood of winding, tree-lined streets and single-family homes in the heart of São Paulo.

On São Paulo, Reinaldo and Piti Cóser are of a single mind. They love it. They would live nowhere else. But that powerful attraction is not based on looks. Vast swathes of the city are regrettably ugly, Reinaldo tells me. “Very ugly,” Piti agrees.

But for this couple of aesthetes, who run a successful commercial photography studio, looks aren’t the worst of it. That honor goes to São Paulo’s combination of semi-urban sprawl and torturous traffic. The simplest tasks—going to work, buying groceries, dining with friends—can involve soul-killing commutes through “every kind of pollution you can imagine,” as Piti puts it: air, noise, visual, and others she shivers to remember.

Yet from the Cósers’ living room, all these problems seem little more than an urban planner’s bad dream. Past an invisible curtain of glass, two teal-bellied birds tussle over rights to a branch, and behind us, in the wake of a daily afternoon downpour, we can practically feel the vines creeping up the walls of the back garden. It’s hard to believe we’re just a couple hundred yards from Avenida  Brigadeiro Faria Lima, the traffic-choked artery that serves as 21st-century São Paulo’s Main Street.

By keeping the front and back gardens at the same elevation as the living area, Kogan created one giant living space. A large overhang means that even on a rainy day, the Cósers can live practically without walls. The dining area is defined by a classic Oval dining table by Eero Saarinen for Knoll. Brazilian master designer Sergio Rodrigues did the matching pair of armchairs in the living room.

For all its problems, the Cósers can’t imagine forsaking São Paulo. They derogate the metropolitan area of some 20 million people, then in the same breath rhapsodize about its restaurants, shops, and burgeoning arts scene. Nowhere else in Brazil, says Reinaldo, could offer a photographer such boundless professional and creative opportunities. How, then, have the Cósers made peace with their underplanned megalopolis? By smuggling a portion of the countryside calm into the city’s chaotic heart.

“This house has actually changed the rhythm of our lives,” Reinaldo says. “We eat at home more. We go to bed earlier. We wake up earlier. We sleep more.”

The Cósers’ daughters have adapted to the new rhythms too, though each in her own way. Seven-year-old Helena prizes the freedom to “run and scream” in the garden without incurring the wrath of parents or neighbors. By contrast, ten-year-old Sophia, an avid reader, can now carve out hours-long stretches with her books—a luxury that eluded her amid the hubbub of the smallish two-bedroom apartment her family used to share. “Plus, our house is so pretty,” Sophia adds. “Sometimes I like to just look at it for a long time.”

As happy as the Cósers find themselves, such a house was never part of their plans. They wouldn’t even let themselves dream of this much. They just knew, upon the birth of their second daughter, that they needed a bigger home that could provide a domestic escape from São Paulo. “We wanted a place where we could just shut the door and travel,” Reinaldo says. In addition to a bit more space, the couple shared another desire: a garden. They explained their apartment-cum-garden idea to their friend Marcio Kogan, one of Brazil’s top contemporary architects and prinicipal at Studio MK27. “Don’t you mean a house?” he asked, with his usual combination of percipience and bracing simplicity.

Reinaldo checks out progress in the small garden that sits behind the main living area.

In 2002 the Cósers found a 6,500-square-foot lot in Jardim Europa, a privileged neighborhood of tree-lined streets and single-family homes—many of manorial proportions. The price was far below market, but the property still came at a high cost. It was saddled with tax liens and probate disputes, the kiss of death in a country with an achingly slow judicial system. In the end, it took four years to own the land free and clear. Yet their determination had netted the Cósers several hundred more square feet than their budget allowed—just about the size of what would come to be that coveted garden.

In 2006, when they were finally ready to build, the Cósers turned again to Kogan. Known for his work for São Paulo’s superrich, Kogan relished the challenge of a more modest budget. To keep costs low, the architect eschewed marble and ebony in favor of raw concrete, unfinished gesso, and cumaru (a cheap local wood also known as Brazilian teak). All three inexpensive, low-maintenance materials bring a rich tactility to the home’s surface. They also mean big savings on upkeep in a city with heavy pollution, blistering sun, and fierce tropical downpours.

But the genius of the Cósers’ home lies not in low per-unit costs. Rather, it’s the way Kogan has infused the space with a generosity that transcends any tape measure. Before becoming an architect, Kogan was a filmmaker. On the set, he learned how to create highly emotional effects in ways audiences don’t even notice. It’s an approach he’s smuggled into his architecture. “Marcio has managed to give us more house than we ever imagined,” Piti says.

Take the Cósers’ living room. On the one hand, it acts as a divider between the front garden and the back. But the three elements also form a single, vast-seeming space. Two walls of floor-to-ceiling glass help, but there are also the subtler cues for which Kogan is renowned. Gardens, deck, and living-room floor are all at the same elevation, for example, which unconsciously reinforces one’s sense of the space as a single entity.

Four custom-built sliding doors divide indoor and outdoor spaces.

Inside the house, Kogan added small gaps, indentations, and other daubs of negative space almost everywhere two planes or different materials meet. Concrete walls seem to hover ethereally, as if a slight push could yield even vaster spaces beyond.

Finally, the house consists of two long, low-slung horizontal blocks set at right angles. This rectilinear form is one Kogan has returned to throughout his career. It endows his spaces with a sense of overabundance, as though the resident is, as he puts it, “looking at the world through a wide-screen lens.”

While the Cósers craved refuge from São Paulo, they refused to build a solipsistic fortress like so many of their neighbors. The central location urges them to walk more to their favorite restaurants, a shady playground, and even the girls’ school.

For reasons of both security and privacy, a ten-foot wall encloses their property. But they never feel marooned inside. If you follow what Kogan calls the home’s “narrative” to its conclusion, you wind your way through garden and living room, then upstairs, past the bedrooms and onto a rooftop deck. From here, the city you thought you’d left far behind is once again arrayed before you—suddenly beautiful, and almost close enough to touch.
 

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