A visit to Paulo Mendes da Rocha's studio

Carlos Brillembourg recounts his encounter with the Brazilian master, still practicing and teaching at 83, firmly convinced that architecture is a "sublime statement of human dignity".

Seen from the air, São Paulo seems orderly — a continuous urban grid that is centered on the two rivers that flow east-west and north-south, regardless of the continuous change of the elevation of its many hills. Here, Le Corbusier's urban proposal for São Paulo from 1929 is stuck in my head. Even the numerous shanty towns seem to have roads and infra-structure for the most part. A quick image of the city is impossible. What is striking is the endless horizon of thirty story buildings placed on these gentle hills as we drive slowly on the highways towards the center of the town.

On Monday, September 3, 2012, I call Paulo Mendes da Rocha 's office and his secretary of many years, Dulcinea, tells me that Paulo Mendes da Rocha has a full schedule on this very busy week, which includes the opening of the São Paulo art Bienal. Later that day I meet my friend, professor and historian Ruth Verde Zein at an old café near Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie where she teaches. She calls the Mendes da Rocha office and an appointment is settled for 5:30 that afternoon.

Paulo Mendes da Rocha is a polite and elegant man. The office space is an open plan with round circular columns and a steel curtain wall in a 1940's building near the Praza de la Republica in São Paulo. Our conversation at the conference table shifted between architecture and politics. He took me by surprise when I mentioned the 18th Century sculptor, furniture maker and architect Aleijandinho (Antonio Francisco Lisboa 1738-1814). In his view, the colonial epoch — including the uniquely Brazilian Baroque architecture — was irrelevant and unworthy. "Those horrible sculptures made out of wood that is rotten from the inside," he said. Mendes' complete rejection of the value of Brazilian Baroque was heartfelt. It is ironic that Aleijandinho means "little crippled one". The illegitimate son of his architect father was trained as an assistant but not recognized in his will. Aleijandinho from Ouro Preto was the architect and sculptor of the most important baroque architecture in all the Americas. His architecture understood the radical nature of Baroque space indebted to Borromini and very different than the planar baroque of the Mexican or Peruvian with its exuberance of surface ornamentation. Later I understood why this view expressed by Mendes was essential to his view of Brazilian culture. For him, the entire American continent was a frontier of artistic freedom, removed both from the tragic history imposed by the Colonial enterprise and the weight of European history.
Top: Aerial view of São Paulo, Brazil. Above: San Francisco Church in Ouro Preto, Brazil
Top: Aerial view of São Paulo, Brazil. Above: San Francisco Church in Ouro Preto, Brazil
Paulo Mendes da Rocha dismisses architecture concerned with surface spectacle and the photographic image of "new architecture". In his working process he works directly in hard line drawings in plan and section that are tested by making hand cut wooden or cardboard models. When we discuss his celebrated renovation of the Pinacoteca he says, "I did nothing, it was a good building to begin with, I just had to remove some of the decorative layers and then transform the rigid Palladian plan by covering the courtyards and introducing a new circulation that crosses the middle of these voids with new steel walkways and an elevator". This is not false modesty but an example of the clarity with which Mendes views the potential of architecture to transform the existing conditions of the site. In this case, a 19th century building.

Paulo then asks me: "Do you like whisky?" and as we move to his desk area behind the bookshelves, another conversation begins as he lights up a cigarette and we share some scotch. He tells me about his father the engineer and how his parents were introduced. His father worked on the design and construction of a bridge in Southern Brazil in the first decade of the 20th century, all of which was done by oxen and manual labor. When Paulo decided to study architecture his father was a well-established engineer who was teaching at the University of São Paulo. He did not want to study at the same university where his father taught and decided to study architecture and not engineering at the Mackenzie University, a school established by the Scottish engineers, who built most of the railroads throughout the country so their children could learn a profession in a university that was not Catholic. A couple of years after graduating, he won the competition for the Paulistano Athletic Club (São Paulo 1958). This building gave national reputation to this young architect as an innovative and capable of using advanced reinforced concrete and steel structures. In this case, using a sculptural concrete base for the amphitheater as the anchor for a steel cable structure that in turn holds the metal truss roof.
João Batista Vilanova Artigas: FAU São Paulo University
João Batista Vilanova Artigas: FAU São Paulo University
At this time, João Vilanova Artigas — ten years his senior and the most influential teacher/architect/engineer of his generation — invites him through a proxy to be his teaching assistant at the University of São Paulo in FAU . This relationship of thirty years teaching together was important for both. One could argue that the transition in Artigas work from the Wrightian influence of his early work to the raw structure based concrete work was not only a result of his knowledge as engineer/architect but perhaps also the influence of his close friend and co-teacher Paulo Mendes da Rocha. After a second whisky, we discuss his relationship to Artigas at the University of São Paulo, and to his father, the engineer and professor. Artigas was a founder of the Communist party and dedicated many years to this political activity as his practice changed from private houses to more institutional work. Paolo Mendes da Rocha's politics were influenced by this close friendship but his creative temperament was not as severe as Artigas's more radical stance. That said, they probably did not disagree on the fundamental ideas of a Marxist critique of capitalism and most likely both regarded the architect's primary responsibility as a progressive agent of cultural transformation: as a professor in Artigas' extraordinary School of Architecture, or as an architect interpreting the program and the site given by the client.
Although labeled brutalist, Mendes da Rocha's work could be more accurately characterized as essentialist, through his insistence on the abstraction and reduction of architecture toward a highly refined poetic space.
João Batista Vilanova Artigas: FAU São Paulo University
João Batista Vilanova Artigas: FAU São Paulo University
Since the 1930s a strong modernist culture flourished in Brazil and produced a large and influential group of artists and architects who were united in their vision for a better future for Brazil. During the early 1950s Mendes da Rocha and others were part of an architectural avant-garde based in São Paulo that advocated for an architecture different from the Carioca (Rio de Janeiro) school, led by Lucio Costa, Oscar Neimeyer, Jorge Moreira, Marcelo and Milton Roberto, Alfonso Riedy, and Henrique Midlin. The European architect most admired by the Paulista School was Mies Van der Rohe, rather than Le Corbusier. Although concrete was the common building technology throughout Brazil during that period, they built experimental structures that combined concrete and steel construction methods, including innovative pre- and post-tensioned steel reinforcement. By 1951 the Sao Paolo architects established the Architecture Bienal of Sao Paolo and exhibited the work of important architects such as Carlos Raul Villanueva, Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Max Biel, Paul Rudolph, among others. In the 1960s the group expanded and consolidated as the Paulista architects whose leading figures were Lina Bo Bardi, João Batista Villanova Artigas, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Pedro Paulo de Melo Saraiva, Ruy Ohtake, and Joaquim Guedes.
Paulo Mendes da Rocha: Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, Brazil
Paulo Mendes da Rocha: Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, Brazil
Although labeled "brutalist," Mendes da Rocha's work could be more accurately characterized as "essentialist," through his insistence on the abstraction and reduction of architecture toward a highly refined poetic space. The floating steel canopy of his Patriarch Plaza (São Paulo, 1992–2002) offers a monumental entrance to the subway, and has become an important civic structure, creating an urban center in an amorphous and sprawling city. The thin sections of steel that make up this canopy hover above the plaza like a generous wing. His architectural language is never literal; this solution springs from need to offer shelter, in a poetic expression of civic values that is reminiscent of the aspirations of the work of Louis Kahn who said, "needs are just so many bananas." Perhaps his most surprising project is the State Museum Pinacoteca of São Paulo of 1993. This renovation/restoration of a late 19th Century School of Arts and Crafts could be compared to Scarpa's Castelvecchio Museum in Verona in its radical approach to the original building, but the important difference is that instead of Scarpa's obsessively unique solutions, Mendes da Rocha's interventions are restrained to the minimum of expressiveness, contrasting the stripped down shell of the Beaux-arts building with abstract steel catwalks within the luminescent skylight spaces of the old interior courtyards.
Paulo Mendes da Rocha: MUBE, Brazilian Sculpture Museum, São Paulo, Brazil
Paulo Mendes da Rocha: MUBE, Brazilian Sculpture Museum, São Paulo, Brazil
The architect, still practicing and teaching at 83, gradually turned away from doctrinaire structural expressiveness towards a subtle architecture of refined structures in steel or reinforced concrete that are inflected to accommodate different spatial conditions. Through his work for state sponsored projects such as sport stadiums, museums and large scale civic projects, he has been able to put into practice his belief that architecture is a "sublime statement of human dignity". This brief encounter left me with a profound impression of a man whose commitment to architecture was equal to his commitment to "humanist" values. Even when he was confronted by the severe hardships imposed by a military government, Paulo Mendes da Rocha the teacher and architect, fought for an architecture that can suspend time — in the sense that all great architecture seems to remain timeless and always relevant to the present — while building the institutions for a just society in a continent of endless frontiers.
Paulo Mendes da Rocha: pórtico de la Praça do Patriarca, São Paulo, Brazil
Paulo Mendes da Rocha: pórtico de la Praça do Patriarca, São Paulo, Brazil

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