The morning light filters into the exhibition space
of the new Leme Gallery, cutting across the floor
and the béton brut walls. The diffused reflection
illuminates the whole interior, revealing the
surfaces of two slabs set at an angle. The triangular
section accompanies the eye upwards, towards
the skylight at the top letting in the sun. As in
the Pantheon, this is the only source of natural
light, which fills the exhibition space and gives it
a uniform appearance. This feature also confers a
kind of poetry on the simple geometrical shape, a
concrete parallelepiped completely opaque on the
Work and circulation areas are inserted in the spaces between the triangular shape of the slabs and the external facade of the parallelepiped. In contrast to the academic repertoire, which turned these areas into unimportant, residual spaces, the spaces here are designed to let you appreciate the geometry of the exhibition space, as one volume within another.
Mendes da Rocha, the building's designer together with Metro Arquitetos, expresses a unique relationship with the history of architecture. Deeply knowledgeable about important historical buildings, Mendes da Rocha creates free interpretations and innovative relationships with no residual historicism. These references emerge in some of his works and in his interpretations of the work of other architects. Discussing Niemeyer on his centenary, Mendes da Rocha compared Brasília Cathedral to Brunelleschi's dome in Florence. In his opinion the two cathedrals were the same, apart from the fact that in Brasília the dome had been inverted. This was made possible by the properties of reinforced concrete, which performs equally well in traction as it does in compression, with the result that the Brazilian cathedral could adopt the same arch shape as Brunelleschi's stone structure. In the small chapel Mendes da Rocha designed in Campos do Jordão (1988), a single, gigantic, cylindrical column—designed to resemble a fragment of a column from a Gothic cathedral—supports the roof, the choir, the altar and the pews.
The use of Pantheon-style lighting in a simple art gallery does not therefore come as a surprise, as it is bound up with a central feature of Mendes da Rocha's poetics.
The problem that arises is created by the very brief life cycle of the first Leme Gallery. Built in 2004, the original building was then demolished in 2011 to make way for a new art gallery nearby, one similar to the first and designed by Mendes da Rocha and the Metro group. It is a case that combines the rapidity of architectural decay with the contrast between the reproducibility and the uniqueness of the modern architectural work.
Once their original functions have been taken away, buildings tend to decay or disappear unless they find a new role or are deliberately preserved. The idea of conserving architectural monuments changed greatly during the 20th century, expanding to include urban complexes and constructions that express, as the Venice Charter of 1964 puts it, "a particular civilisation, a significant development or a historic event".
In this case, it was not the construction itself but the land it stood on that undermined the building's utility and led to its demolition. It was established that the area had greater manufacturing potential soon after the building's construction, and this reassessment changed the value of the real estate and made it an object of interest for big business.
The pace of urban change in São Paulo is dizzying. At the start of the last century, the city had 239,000 inhabitants; today it has 11.2 million. Despite all the efforts made to enforce public control, this speed is a structural characteristic of modern Brazilian society. The building of the new gallery nearby to a design by the same architect was a way of preserving the main features of this work, its specific use and the poetic expression of the architect—the opacity of the béton brut volume and the overhead lighting of the interior.
The new location and size of the plot gives the building greater detachment from the urban landscape, and makes it complete.
The reproduction of the gallery's architectural design might have inhibited any movement to preserve the original. But did the operation mean the loss of original, unrepeatable features? Did the organisations working to preserve the country's heritage fail in this case?
The whole story only goes to confirm how unstable the ideas of originality, reproduction and conservation have become in contemporary society. The work of the modern avant-garde was based on the recognition of profound changes in the status of art, caused by new reproduction techniques. Notions of typology and mass production—which featured in the New Objectivity and Le Corbusier's purist ideas—seemed to dispel definitively the air of uniqueness surrounding an artistic object in architecture. The development of late-20th-century culture revealed that this movement was not as straightforward as it had appeared, and it had often sought to confer artificial uniqueness on products created using industrial techniques.
Some of Mendes da Rocha's works, such as the Pinacoteca do Estado or the Praça do Patriarca, are based on a relationship with pre-existing constructions, meaning that it would not be possible to reproduce them elsewhere. This is something that did not apply to the gallery, which—given its urban location and brief period of existence—did not have the kind of unique character that would have justified its conservation.
The demolition and the new construction did not cause a reaction in Brazil, even though the building was the work of a Pritzker architect. The story thus serves as the "testimony of a society in a precise moment"—a society that is changing rapidly and in a detached way, challenging the limits of current principles regarding conservation. Renato Anelli
1. Paulo Mendes da Rocha interviewed by Guilherme Wisnik in the article The builder of enigmas in Folha de São Paulo, 9 December 2007
2. Venice Charter, 1964; Second International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments