Skyscraper Would Send Sao Paulo to the Top

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- From Mario Garnero's penthouse office in the skyscraper he built, the view invokes the way Mario de Andrade, Brazil's modernist writer, once described this city - "a great mouth with a thousand teeth."

In almost every direction, crops of steep structures jut out of the concrete in a show of the magnitude of Sao Paulo, the third largest metropolis in the world, after Tokyo and Mexico City.

But Garnero, 61, a business tycoon with interests ranging from waste treatment to telecommunications, plans his newest and grandest venture for a spot eclipsed by this jagged skyline, in the decrepit, neglected downtown district where the city's first high-rises were built in the 1920s. There he hopes to build the world's tallest skyscraper, 486.6 meters high. Modeled on the Vedic temples of India, it would surpass the 444.9-meter Petronas Twin Towers of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

"This building will be the symbol of Sao Paulo's new era, of a post-industrial Sao Paulo in a league with the world's great cities," Garnero said.

To compete with tallest-building projects that are planned or under way on other continents, Garnero, a tall man himself, with a penchant for pinstriped suits, is teaming up with the investment arm of the followers of the Indian-born guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Maharishi Global Development fund, whose assets are mainly from contributions by practitioners of the guru's twice-a-day meditation methods, has agreed to be the main investor in the project, with a role in overseeing its design.

The Maharishi fund and Garnero hired Minoru Yamasaki Associates, the architectural firm based in Rochester Hills, Michigan, that conceived the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

The resulting design for the 103-story Sao Paulo Tower, unveiled in May, has stirred up a tempest. Stylistically, it has nothing in common with the postmodern skyscrapers erected in Sao Paulo during the relative economic calm of the 1990s, nor does it resemble the drab high-rises of earlier decades, many of which seem better suited to Eastern Europe under communism than to subtropical southeastern Brazil.

Inside the Sao Paulo Tower, which will look something like a layered pyramid with ornate touches, will be hotels, offices, residential apartments, a convention center, a university and, during the workday, about 50,000 people, Garnero said. At the top will be a restaurant within a golden crown.

Aside from the surprise expressed by some architects over the unusual design, most critical views center on the project's contribution to a troubling trend - the confining of more and more aspects of public life within buildings. In crime-plagued Sao Paulo, better-off residents increasingly retreat into gated communities and guarded shopping malls.

"This is a fortress, a mega-intervention in a city dying for public space," said Raquel Rolnik, an architecture professor at the Catholic University of Campinas.

Another well-known expert, the urban planner Jorge Wilheim, said, "We need this building like we need a hole in our head."

Other Brazilian architects defend the project, saying it could bring new creative energy and international attention to Sao Paulo. "This building would catalyze popular hope," said Edison Musa, the president of a national association of architects and chairman for Latin America of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

Musa likened the Sao Paulo Tower to American skyscrapers, including the Empire State Building, completed during the Depression. "It is an affirmation of our national capacity," he said.

Brazil has long had faith in the idea that the design of its buildings and cities can bring positive change. This thinking was behind the construction 40 years ago of a new capital, Brasilia, deep in the savannas of the country's interior.

As the controversy unfolds over the building's design and its eventual impact on the city's crazy-quilt sprawl, a more urgent issue presses: financing. The Maharishi fund, which manages assets of roughly $600 million, is committed to raising money through donations, borrowing and returns on its investments to provide half the estimated $1.6 billion needed to complete the building.

If construction is to begin as planned in January, the fund's managers and Garnero will have to drum up the other half quickly.

"Money is currently so expensive that one has to wonder where they will get it," said Daniel Citron, the chief financial officer of Brazil Realty SA, a large developer of commercial real estate. Indeed, many people in Sao Paulo's real estate industry have expressed doubt whether the project can get off the ground at a time when domestic interest rates for real estate lending are above 25 percent.

If the project is built, there are chances it will not retain the title of tallest building for very long. Investors in Shanghai, China; Taipei, Taiwan; and Melbourne, Australia, are also competing to erect the world's tallest building.

A real estate firm in Chicago, where the Sears Tower reigned as the world's tallest until 1996, unveiled plans last month for another contender, although, at 468.48 meters, it would be shorter than Garnero's.