The more inquisitive Readers may ask whether I have ever even come close to a utopian project or lived in a building that was an attempt to bring utopia to life. I will answer straight away: I did live – and not like an “ordinary utopian citizen” – in a more or less strange apartment or house, but on the roof of a large building. Not unlike Karlsson On The Roof from Astrid Lindgren’s book, except that my pseudo-house was on top of not a banal Stockholm tenement house but a multifunctional building in the heart of São Paulo. I spent my nights in a hastily adapted former kindergarten room and my days in the shadow of an installation I designed in the middle of a large terrace, which used to be that kindergarten’s playground. A rooftop playground, naturally. In São Paulo, many buildings have rooftops with schools, kindergartens, recreation areas and other functions that we would ordinarily expect to see at street, ground floor, or garden level.

How did I get there? Well, quite simply, on a December evening in 2014 I had dinner in Warsaw with Benjamin Seroussi, an enthusiastic French-Tunisian-Polish Jew, much younger than me and the freshly appointed director of an intriguing institution in Bom Retiro, an emigrant district of São Paulo. Casa do Povo, or People’s House, takes its name from public buildings erected in Portugal since the 1930s, intended for housewives, farmers, and rural workers.1 They combined many functions: adults were taught to read and write, craft courses were conducted, afternoon entertainment was provided in the form of social games, and in the meeting rooms the people were made “politically aware” with appropriate talks and speeches by political commissars. Over time, People’s Houses transformed into village and small-town community centres, and when they finally appeared in Brazil they were no longer associated with any political agenda. Up to a point. In 1953, Jews representing a wide range of leftist sympathies, mainly emigrants from Poland, Russia and the area of today’s Baltic states, opened their own People’s House in São Paulo. A veritable urban utopia, and a leftist one at that.  

In the People’s House, the dream heart of the community, a long-negotiated vision was implemented in which representatives of various groups and factions took part.2 Interestingly, this factory-sized building was also constructed thanks to the generous sponsorship of local millionaires, and not only to donations from the progressive Jewish community. The group of leading benefactors was joined by Prince Roman Sanguszko, a legendary and influential developer who had a history of being one of the richest landowners in pre-war Poland. Fleeing from the Red Army, he left his estate in Volhynia and did not stop until he reached São Paulo.3 He soon realized how to put himself on the map of influence and sympathy of the dynamically expanding metropolis. He supported the communist Casa do Povo; he was also the founder of the landowners’ Club 44, a Polish retirement home and a church for Polish Catholics, and he co-founded several synagogues in the Bom Retiro district. No wonder many people still remember him fondly!

The idea of building the Brazilian Jewish Cultural Institute – as the building was originally called – which would serve as a multifunctional centre of social activity, emerged in 1946. It was supposed to be the antithesis of the initial concept of a traditional monument commemorating the victims of the Holocaust and, at the same time, the victory over the Third Reich. On the day the construction committee was established, hundreds of people stood under a large banner with the inscription: “Remember! Remember the six million murdered Jews!” As Benjamin explained to me during that dinner in Warsaw, the idea was the founders’ response to an appeal by the Jewish section of the anti-fascist front in 1937: to create Jewish cultural outposts wherever possible in order to protect secular values against the then-growing fascism, but also against the Jewish version of provincial religiosity that in today’s Poland we call “churchy” (“kościółkowa”).

In a nutshell, the Pauline founders wanted to create a living commemoration. Instead of a lifeless block, they dreamed of a place bursting with activity: a place for sowing thoughts, of birth, growth, life and natural dying, and over time, of the emergence and flowering of new forms. A bit like being in the jungle. In this way, colloquially speaking, the Jewish community from Central and Eastern Europe would show the middle finger to fascists and Nazis – and there were still plenty of them in the world, including in Brazil. The visit of the director of this institution to Warsaw was the next stage in its life cycle; in biological terminology we would call it dissemination and new growth. I liked the vision, so when Benjamin suggested that I take part in the revitalization of the building’s forgotten roof, I agreed without hesitation, although it would be far-fetched to call me a Jew, let alone a communist. At the time, I had no idea how much relevance the message of Casa do Povo would re-gain in the context of the dark forces rising to the fore in Hungary, in my home country, and in the United States. They did not spare Brazil, either.

The members of the construction committee were guided by the principle “To remember is to act”. In 1946, thanks to the generosity of the first donors, they bought a plot of land in the Bom Retiro district, back then a centre of the Eastern European diaspora, both Jewish and those practicing other religions. Most of these people came from the intelligentsia; they had received good, if not excellent, education, and the need to adapt to Brazilian conditions required them to transform into entrepreneurs. Bom Retiro was then – and still is – a vibrant, multicultural melting pot. The district’s inhabitants worked mainly in the textile sector, in the current area of fabric wholesalers, countless shops, small manufacturing plants, sewing workshops and pattern shops. Families who disembarked from transatlantic ships started their first businesses thanks to the Singer-brand sewing machines they had brought with them from their home countries. They slowly grew, stood on their own two feet, and took root in the new reality. It was easy for educated (white!) people to become members of the urban elite within a span of one generation. This is where subsequent generations of scientists, theatre people, writers, architects, and journalists come from.

The building was designed by architects Ernest Mange and Jorge Wilheim. A five-story structure was built with an underground theatre and a “sky” kindergarten, and a playground was set up on the roof. The entire facility has over 4,200 square meters of usable space. Young artists were invited to design interiors and murals in the theatre. The above-ground levels, over four meters high, were covered with prefabricated elements of reinforced concrete, which enabled a large twenty-meter span without the need to use additional columns. The rectangular shape of the building was conceived as a generously illuminated box, ready to be constantly filled with new content, with the interiors as flexible as possible. From the side of Rua Três Rios (the street of Three Rivers), the building looks like a large, glazed sewing room decorated with an elliptical arch above the entrance. The arch was an obvious sign at that time: it referred to the design of Le Corbusier’s Palace of the Soviets. Under the arch, a series of glass doors led to a wide staircase that led to a large meeting room on the ground floor, which was raised just like a piano nobile in a palace. On either side of the stairs, there were entrances to the underground theatre, but the latter had little in common with the alternative stages that were proliferating in adapted basements, apartments, and former workshops. TAIB (Teatro de Arte Israelita Brasileiro), as this place was called, had an auditorium for five hundred seats and hosted many experimental groups that went down in the history of Brazilian culture, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. It was then – despite the repressions of the military dictatorship ruling at the time, including censorship and arrests of members of the TAIB theatre company – that the theatre gained a reputation far beyond being a club of aging Jewish townspeople with leftist roots.

Casa do Povo achieved something that seemed impossible: it avoided the double inbred status of a centre for Jewish communists. That is where its strength came from. Although it was an island of a kind – somewhat alienated, especially during the Cold War and the dictatorship – it was also a relatively safe haven for subsequent Brazilian avant-gardes. It attracted cultural experimenters, progressive educators, and marginalized or persecuted communities and minorities. It is no different today, since the fading building was taken over by a group of thirty-year-olds in 2012. During the five weeks of my stay, there were meetings of indigenous activists representing tribes forcibly evicted from their lands by plantation owners. Congolese singers fighting against the dictatorship in their country gave concerts under the roof that I designed; on the ground floor, professional journalists and lecturers from the University of São Paulo conducted courses for comunicadores comunitarios, i.e., amateur journalists representing, in particular, national minorities, of which there are plenty in São Paulo.4 Benjamin told me about the “new deal” at Casa do Povo:

With a few other people we just came to a large room on the ground floor. The one where the Yiddish choir and chess club have been meeting for over sixty years. We told these retirees that we wished to take over Casa do Povo. To make it a living place again. You know, it was terribly empty and sad there. They told us to come back the next day because they had to think about it. When we returned, old men and old women were waiting for us. They got up, hugged us with tears in their eyes and said that they had been waiting for this moment and that they wanted us to pursue leftist issues in particular, because Jewish issues were doing well.

I saw this scene in my mind’s eye. The abovementioned all-male chess club and female-dominated choir still function to this day. The host, Hugueta Sendacz, has been singing and conducting here since 1953.

The ambition of Benjamin and his colleagues is to restore the level of intensity of life and intellectual ferment that had accompanied this place until the 1980s. Back then, the building was bursting with activity. During daytime, the “Nossa Voz” daily paper was produced and printed here; there was a primary school and a kindergarten; vocational and language courses were conducted; the rooms at the back were rented as studios by designers and artists, and professional and amateur theatres held rehearsals and performed plays. There used to be a library and a bar, and discussions flourished in the spacious rooms during the meetings of all kinds of leftist groups and dissident organizations. There were countless readings, lectures, receptions, and large social events.

For thirty good years, Casa do Povo and the entire Jewish community have gone through many ups and downs. A place born of Holocaust trauma and the desire to actively resist the pro-fascist sympathies of right-wing politicians in South America almost ceased to exist when, after the death of Stalin, his actions against Jews began to come to light. The information coming from the USSR triggered a crisis of values among many followers of the Soviet model of communism. A decade of neoliberal rule, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the decline of the global left, i.e., the 1980s, dealt an almost-final blow to the centre. The slogan “Get rich!” affected many of the younger patrons from the second generation and the richest co-founders who, since the 1950s, had managed to become major industrialists, merchants, and real estate developers. They would visit the centre out of sentiment only. Competition appeared: another centre of Jewish activity was created that was closer to Zionism and the spirit of yuppie. Over the next almost three decades, the building gradually became depopulated and the remaining attendees, loyal to leftist ideals, inevitably aged. They did not have the energy to carry out repairs or renovations. Then, the third generation grew up. They contested the money and political conformism of their parents and looked favourably on the ideals of their grandfathers and grandmothers.

After years of slowly dying, the symbolic jungle began to be reborn, with my own modest participation. Together with Benjamin, we raised funds to renovate the terrace,5 two adjacent rooms painted with patterns of suns and ladybugs, and the bathrooms – the most essential facilities for any human activity. In addition, we hung a temporary installation, designed by me, over the terrace area. Sheets of waterproof polyester cut using a digital cutter resemble a giant set of bed linen drying on washing lines; when combined into a three-dimensional composition, they provided shade and protected against minor rain. Every day I placed a sofa, two armchairs, a coffee table and a flowerpot underneath, and the space turned into an improvised living room of a Polish architect “in exile” – perfect for receiving guests. For five weeks, every evening, all sorts of events took place on the roof. Concerts, DJ sets, sponsor dinners, lectures, dances, improvised barter markets and everything that could attract people and at the same time bring life back to the roof. For my intimate, personal space, a bed and a desk in one of the renovated rooms had to suffice ­– shrouded in fumes from the sewage leaking during the rain. During the day, neighbours from the district came by, attracted by my appearances on local television. Descendants of Polish emigrants and former kindergarten students also came and reminisced with tears in their eyes about the part of their childhood spent here. There has been no elevator in the building since 1980, so getting to the top floor required a lot of perseverance, but the plan worked: life had returned to the roof of Casa do Povo.

At this point, the fairy tale could have had a triumphant ending, but the story continues, and it reminds us of its own unpredictability every now and then. Until recently, the president of the country was a man who openly glorified Nazism and threatened Brazilian democracy with his actions. What is more, he was also a danger to the rest of the world because he wanted to cut down a big chunk of the rainforest in order to distribute the Amazon area among the latifundists who supported him. Just like in a fairy tale. The forces of good – or perhaps simply the Brazilians – managed to remove the irresponsible president from power, but the question is for how long… This text comes from Jakub Szczęsny’s book Azyle, nisze i enklawy, a catalogue of small-scale utopias that will be published in autumn 2023 by Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej (Museum of Modern Art). We would like to thank the author and publisher for permission to include it in this issue.