The world has long thought of Brazil in extremes--an exotic, fun-loving behemoth with great sports and glorious sands, a place of profound poverty and gut-churning violence.
"People know us for soccer, beautiful women, beaches and favelas," or hillside shantytowns, said Mario Garnero, one of Brazil's most prominent businessmen. "I say let's show the world that we can make something more than that."
And so Garnero, who heads the giant Brasilinvest group here in Sao Paulo, wants to send the world a $1.65 billion, 1,600-foot-high message.
The businessman, in partnership with the Maharishi Global Development Fund, is planning to construct the world's tallest building, taller than the 1,483-foot Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
It will house apartments, hotels, offices, a rooftop restaurant, a coliseum. The complex will have 103 floors and 1.6 million square yards of floor space. Assuming the project gets off the ground--Sao Paulo already has a glut of office space--construction would begin next year and finish five years later.
Brasilinvest is teaming up with the Maharishi fund to design and construct the skyscraper. The fund, part of the empire of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Transcendental Meditation guru, will finance about 60 percent of the project--which explains why the proposed glass-and-steel structure will take the pyramid shape of a Vedic temple.
Garnero's extraordinary ambition reveals an anxiety that pervades this nation of 167 million. For all their gentle pride and easy charm, Brazilians are deeply concerned about how the outside world, especially Europe and the United States, sees them. The question is: Can a building help bring Brazil the respect it craves?
"It's a chance to say, in a physical way, that Brazil is a nation of almost 200 million people and this is what we can do," said Edison Musa, president of Brazil's major association of architects. "It's a chance to put Sao Paulo on the map as a global town."
In decades past, Brazilians worked hard to cultivate and protect their reputation as some of the world's warmest, most gracious people, said Roberto A. DaMatta, the nation's preeminent anthropologist. But even then, he said, they longed for respect as an economic and technological powerhouse.
Instead, Brazil was viewed as Latin America's perennial underachiever, a nation of enormous natural and human potential unable to overcome insidious hyperinflation and corrupt, ineffective leadership.
In recent years, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's economic strategy has vanquished hyperinflation, pulled millions out of poverty and created a burgeoning consumer class. That newfound economic stability has again heightened Brazilians' hunger for national symbols that emphasize progress, DaMatta said.
"People want to show the world our technological capacity," said the anthropologist, a professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. "The external symbols of progress--buildings, highways, shopping centers, have become very important. It's a naive view of modernity."
Large projects have long enthralled Brazilians. In the late 1950s, there was Maracana Stadium. Built to hold 160,000 people, it has accommodated 200,000. In fact, Brazil boasts of no fewer than 10 stadiums with capacities of at least 100,000.
Then there was Brasilia, which took five years to build and replaced Rio de Janeiro as the capital in 1960. The city, intended as a gateway to Brazil's historically neglected interior, still can fire fierce debates over whether its avant-garde design (at the time) was necessary or practical.
Then, during the 1970s and early 1980s, Brazil and Paraguay constructed the world's largest hydroelectric power plant, known as Itaipu. The plant took 17 years to build and cost $17 billion.
And so Garnero, 62, believes that his Sao Paulo Tower project falls in line with these other grand ventures.
About 50,000 people will use the complex daily, Garnero said. He said construction of the tower, to be located in an run-down area Brazilians call the "original downtown" of Sao Paulo, will create more than 4,000 jobs.
And given the recession and political crises that currently dominate the national conversation, said architect Musa, Brazilians may welcome a project of this scale and imagination.
Unemployment, especially in industrial centers such as Sao Paulo, has rocketed to record levels in recent months, by some calculations. Violent crime continues to plague urban neighborhoods. The once-vaunted currency, the real, has seen its value shredded since devaluation in January. And Cardoso's popularity continues to crumble.
"Brazil doesn't have anything to fill up our need for a national project," Musa says. "This project has the possibility to ignite the imagination of the people and the power to get their participation. It's a chance to create something of pride."
Whether the project comes to pass and whether it can lure business remain unanswered questions. In Sao Paulo, a glut of office space has stagnated sales of commercial buildings, particularly large ones. Some architects say a complex of this size almost surely will take longer than planned, and they doubt Garnero will be able to control costs that typically come with construction delays.
Architects also question whether such a project is an appropriate vehicle for galvanizing national pride and international praise in a country of such jolting economic contrasts as Brazil.
"It's fine for Brazilians to want the biggest, the tallest, the best," said Roberto Candusso, a prominent architect. "All citizens like to be proud of their projects. But you don't really start making progress in a society until you deal with the contrasts--the differences between the rich and the poor. That's what makes you a modern society."