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Orelhão (Big Ear) - The Brazilian Phone Booth

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Orelhão (Big Ear) - The Brazilian Phone Booth

Orelhões in Santos, SP

Patricia Ribeiro

A Brazilian Icon:

Everywhere you go in Brazil, you will have the opportunity to speak from a pay phone sheltered by one of the best-known examples of Brazilian design: the orelhão (pronounced o-re-LYAO), or big ear. Indoors, you may need to use less groovy phone booths, but outdoors, the orelhão rules, with its simple, unobtrusive lines in fiberglass and efficient acoustic insulation. In busier areas, it is installed in pairs or clusters of three or more units.

The Designer:

The orelhão was designed by Chu Ming Silveira (1941-1997), a naturalized Brazilian architect born in Shanghai. She created the project in 1971, when she was the head of the Building Engineering Department at CTB - Companhia Telefônica Brasileira, in São Paulo.

The creation of the orelhão was a spontaneous process. Chu Ming based her design on the circle and focused on ergometrics, functionality and affordability as she developed her project. When she presented it to CTB, it was received with enthusiasm, in a reaction that predicted that of the general public.

In the Beginning:

In 1973, the first orelhões (plural of orelhão) were installed in Rio de Janeiro and in São Paulo, on the cities' anniversaries - Jan.20 and Jan.25, respectively. They were preceded by two other projects: the orelhinha, or little ear, for indoor use, and the concha (shell), a rounder unit that was installed in gas stations. Those earlier styles have been discontinued, while the orelhão has been installed all over Brazil.

At first, the new module was called Tulip, Chu-2 (the orelhinha was Chu-1) and Astronaut's Helmet as well as Orelhão.

View the Original Project:

One of Chu Ming's two sons, Djan Chu Silveira, launched the official orelhão website in 2004, to celebrate the architect and her most famous creation, and timed it with São Paulo's 450th anniversary as a way to mark the city as the birthplace of the orelhão. In Projetos Originais, you can view the architect's original orelhão design, as presented to the 1st São Paulo International Architecture Biennial, in 1973, as well as the project for the concha and orelhinha. Notice the architect's signature and stamp with her name in Chinese characters at the bottom right.

A Strike of Genius:

Also in Projetos Originais, you will find a copy of the hand-written descriptive memorial for the orelhão, orelhinha and concha, as presented by Chu Ming to the 1st Architecture Biennial. In it, Chu Ming expressed some of the concerns that guided the creation of the orelhão: "outdoor application, every kind of user, a high level of noise in public ways, reduced available space on busy sidewalks".

The great intelligence of Chu Ming's solution was put to the test by the impressive growth of Brazilian cities since the 1970s and confirmed by the permanence of her design, which has become synonymous with pay phones.

Fight Against Vandalism:

At the same time the Brazilian population welcomed the orelhão into their daily life, the vandalism that plagued initiatives prior to it zeroed in on the new creation. Campaigns initiatives that highlight the importance and utility of pay phones and orelhões to the community, such as artistic interventions, are attempts to curb a critical threat to the orelhão and the pay phone it protects so well.

Unusual Versions of Orelhão:

Beyond mere painting, there are a few outlandish versions of the orelhão in Brazil. The most famous one is the giant orelhão in Itu, a city in São Paulo State that has made a name for its larger-than-life attractions and souvenirs.

Tai-Pan Refuge in Ilhabela:

One of the most beautiful places to stay in Ilhabela, an island off the São Paulo Coast, is the Tai-Pan Refuge, designed by Chu Ming Silveira and her son, architect Alan Chu Silveira, from Chu e Kato Architecture. Enjoy the beautiful photos on the site designed by Djan Chu Silveira.

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