With over 250 projects under his belt, Brazilian architect Isay Weinfeld continues to prove he is an architect with unprecedented range.
Written by: Tiffany Lambert
Soon after Brazilian architect Isay Weinfeld completed his 2003 design for Restaurante Fasano—the boldly scaled flagship location for one of Brazil’s most elite gastronomic chains—he was approached by McDonald’s to design a branch for the fast food giant in Brazil’s capital city. “I was very happy when called to design it because I had just finished the Fasano, which many still consider to be the most exclusive and elegant restaurant in the country,” he says. “McDonald’s, on the other hand, is the most popular.” Though Weinfeld’s “pop inspired” concept for the mega-chain was never built, the project says a lot about his approach to life and design—his pluralism as well as his prolificacy. Since starting his São Paulo-based firm in 1973, he has completed over 250 projects, a quantity the 61 year old proudly attributes to his desire for “working in extremes and never on the same project twice.”
Born in 1952, Weinfeld was exposed to visual culture from an early age. He grew up in São Paulo, where his father worked in the textile industry and his mother worked at a gift shop her parents owned, laying a formative foundation for Weinfeld’s creative inclinations. But it was architecture that he ultimately pursued. “I thought as an architect I would be able to pursue a more established career and still express myself artistically,” he says. In 1975, he graduated from Mackenzie Presbyterian University’s School of Architecture, two years after having already established his multidisciplinary practice. “My uncle commissioned me to do the interior design for his apartment,” Weinfeld says of his first project. “I did everything wrong there, as I designed the apartment I wanted my uncle to have, not the apartment he wanted. That was probably the most important lesson I learned in my career.” It was on-the-job experiences like this that have lead Weinfeld to build a practice based on, as he says, “listening, listening, listening. I spend long hours talking to my clients until I get to understand what is it they need, they want, they dream of.”
Weinfeld places as much emphasis on the exterior of a building as he does the interior, and is as interested in the grand gesture of a skyscraper as he is in the detail of a serving tray. This well-rounded adaptability defines his work—a mélange of everything from banks to bars, conceptual installations and art galleries, furniture and even feature films. A longtime partnership with Rogério Fasano, the scion behind the eponymous global string of luxury hotels and restaurants, along with other commercial projects such as shops for Havaianas (2009) and Forum (2000, 2004), illustrate Weinfeld’s ability to tailor his design to reflect the voice of a brand. Even the dozens of private residences he’s designed over the years have been carefully selected after long deliberation with the client. (Weinfeld turns down as many projects as he accepts. It’s about “mutual respect,” he says.) These minimal yet sumptuous residential spaces—the majority of which are located in Brazil—are both intimate and airy with blunt geometric lines softened by elemental materials such as stone, wood, and glass. Casa Piracicaba (2009), for example, is composed of three cantilevered volumes that become floating rectangles built into a sloping landscape, making the gardens adjacent to this 21,500-square-foot home accessible from any floor.
Stacked shapes also define Casa Grécia (2009). Nestled behind high walls on a corner lot in a quiet São Paulo neighborhood, five immense glass-enclosed patios resemble theater stages, reflecting Weinfeld’s love for performance and art. “I would not describe my work as theatrical, but I am certainly influenced by the theater just as I am by many other arts,” says Weinfeld, who has also directed 14 short films of his own and the feature-length film Fogo e Paixão, or Fire and Passion, which won the São Paulo Art Critics Association prize for best new director when it was released in 1988.
Weinfeld’s ability to look beyond architecture to find inspiration in music, food, literature, antiques, theater, and art is what lends his work a sense of playfulness and wit. “I think humor is the strongest streak in my personality, even though most people don’t take me for funny.” His 1995 satirical piece Necklace, Earrings, and the Roadway Ring, a twisted pretzel-shaped model of intertwining freeways on view at the Museo de Arte de São Paulo, riffs off the city’s notoriously chaotic traffic—a social criticism cloaked in a humorous jab.
Still, Weinfeld’s greatest accolades rest soundly in architecture. He has garnered over 100 awards within the last four decades, and his reputation continues to stretch its reach. A recent exhibition of his work at New York City’s Espasso Gallery (his first in the United States), entitled A to Z, featured two objects made especially for the show: a cradle and a coffin. “This idea expresses my wish to design from the beginning of life to the end,” he said in an interview about the show, which was accompanied by a monograph featuring a number of his commercial designs. Thirteen new film shorts related to various projects were projected alongside a series of furniture and objects designed by Weinfeld, including a memorable, portable bar cart. “It’s called Totó, which is a very popular name for dogs in Brazil,” he says. “In some ways, the bar is like the dog you pull on a leash around the house, or the alcohol that follows you.” Last year Weinfeld embarked on new collaboration with US-based manufacturer Geiger International—his first North American client—for whom he designed Domino Storage: an elegant line of casegoods comprised of 12 scalable configurations and in various heights and widths.
Though wildly varied, Weinfeld’s body of work, if taken together, would resemble the improvised cadence of a jazz ensemble—loose yet technically refined. “I will always find something I like or identify with, whatever the art style or movement,” he says. “I see architecture as a whole thing, as if I was an art director.” Suspending many assumptions, Weinfeld is able to transcend categorization; he’s a pluralist who resists labeling.