Lunch at the Bar da Dona Onça on the ground floor of the iconic Copan building in Sao Paulo Centro. Being Saturday, lunch is feijoada, a black bean stew with various cuts of pork – rib, sausage, crackling, ear – and traditional accompaniments like farofa (toasted manioc flour to sprinkle on top), rice and pickles, as well as more unusual accompaniments like banana, mild chili and orange segments, which work well with the heavy fatty cuts of pork. The decor is a stab at period edgy (not original) which works quite well.

Interior of Bar da Dona Onca

But the star of the show is the Copan building, which you see as you approach through traffic, a wave in a sea of rectangles. It’s a huge edifice, 30 storeys at least, with room for 5,000 residents in apartments of various shapes and sizes. Undergoing refurbishment, it’s a recognised architectural landmark by a world-class architect – Oscar Niemeyer – though I have some sympathy with the Paulistano view that “like everything he did, it’s good for taking pictures, but lousy to live in.” (Regina Rheda)

The Copan Building by Oscar Niemeyer from street level

The district around it is full of architectural interest, from the circular tower of the ex-Hilton Hotel …

A hotel, once

… to detailing like this op-art tiling on the alley-way entrance of a neighbouring building.

Down the alley to the neighbours

But the Niemeyer is the Oscar-winning star turn. Gradually abandoned as a central business district and prime residential address in the 1960s, in favour of Avenida Paulista for business and the Jardims for home, it still has the presence to impress, like the Niemeyer-designed Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói in Rio de Janeiro.

Beautiful setting, startling space-age building, Niteroi

That building looks striking, but it doesn’t work well as a museum – awkward entrance, especially when raining, an exterior gallery with blinding reflected light over the water, and artificially-lit gloom in the circular interior – and you ask yourself what the sinuous shape of the Copan means for the internals of its apartments. This is bravura architecture, playing to the strong visual sense of the Brasilian culture, and able to be railroaded through without the hindrance of the cautious UK planning system. Here, function follows form. It says something for the aesthetic sense of Brasil’s elite – not to mention their social awareness – that these are iconic buildings. It’s undeniably and impressively beautiful, and a welcome change from the rectangular.

A hulking beauty

It makes a thought-provoking comparison with what was built 25 years later in Rotterdam: striking and futurisitic, but on a smaller scale, and reportedly more user-friendly. What can Brasil do in the same vein? The next few decades will be interesting …

Architect Piet Blom’s tree houses, 1982