Concrete & Palm Trees

May 2014

Paulo Mendes da Rocha exposed
ESTÁDIO SERRA DOURADA, 1973. Municipal stadium, Goiânia (Goiás), View of the interior. Photo: © Leonardo Finotti.
The work of Paulo Mendes da Rocha is almost exclusively situated in South America, but his design concepts have spread throughout the world. His first building was built in 1957, three years after graduating from architecture school, utilising what many consider to be ‘Brazilian brutalism’, and he’s widely accredited to the contemporary transformation of his home city. To Mendes da Rocha, architecture is a discourse of knowledge. He projects what he imagines people could desire, with a somewhat delirious vision as to what this might be; designing for the public, not for himself. In the eyes of this architect, architecture is always something new.
The Milan Triennale celebrates Brazilian architect and 2006 Pritzker Prize recipient Paulo Mendes da Rocha (b. 1928) in a grand exhibition. Referring to this honour, Mendes da Rocha revealed to DAMN°, "For me, this occasion is one of the most important moments in my life… In this way, my work once again submits to public opinion." However, Mendes da Rocha does not readily expand upon the subject, nor does he seem willing to mention the moments in his 60-year career he considers the most significant. "My career is not over yet... many significant moments are yet to come”, he says. And nor does he comment on which of his buildings he regards as the most important. "For me, you never consider just one building, like you never consider just one speech to describe the work of an individual. It is indispensable to continue, even in the worst moments. We are always among living beings and therefore continue to live in an incomplete work. I agree with the philosopher who says, ‘We know that we will die, but we know that we were not born to die, we were born to continue'."
The starting point for the Triennale exhibition is a key concept of the architect's vision: That architecture is the place where a sweeping transformation of territory takes place, changing its physical features and paving the way for changes in infrastructure. Particular attention is paid to Mendes da Rocha's drawings: over 200 are included, from sketches to technical drawings to other graphics on a variety of subjects, which appear to be far removed from architecture. On show are also 150 vintage photographs, contemporary photographs, documents, books and periodicals about the firm, and scale models of buildings both old and new, made simply of sheets of paper – which Mendes da Rocha himself created especially for the event, and a series of Paulistano armchairs. These chairs, made of a continuous piece of solid steel wrapped in leather, were designed in 1957 for Mendes da Rocha's first important building, the Paulistano Athletic Club Gymnasium in São Paulo.
Simultaneously, Mendes is working on another museum: "I'm designing an interesting project for a museum of ethnology at the University of São Paulo, where the exclusive work of scientists and researchers must incorporate public usability”, Mendes explains. "We use elevators inside the vertical structure, so these machines, the lifts, have the task of traversing exclusive areas of research, linking unexpected spaces of public usability. A project a bit sui generis, about the idea of verticalization." Ultimately, Mendes da Rocha is right when he says that it is not the single work that counts, but the complete discourse. What makes the Triennale exhibition significant is that it pays tribute to a great man who testifies to an epoch. "The Brazilian scene has changed in parallel with the extraordinary transformation of the global scene”, the architect admits. "In the growth of consciousness about the human condition, which inhabits a small fragment of matter in the abandoned universe that’s subject to the laws of celestial mechanics; nature is not a simple landscape, but a set of phenomena. By itself, nature would be uninhabitable. We live in cities that are built for us, a transformation of what is found in nature. In America, in particular, whose so called ‘discovery’ occurred at the same time Galileo was being condemned to burn at the stake, the construction of the modern city, a city for all, presents architecture as a peculiar form of knowledge, and indicates the time in which we live, as if it were a monumental revolution or transformation. I believe that education, in general, is the big question. The city as a large enclosure of conversation among men."
© Paulo Mendes da Rocha.
CASA FRANCISCO MALTA, 1963 Cardoso, Morumbi, São Paulo. View of the veranda that overlooks the garden at the back of the house. Photo: © Leonardo Finotti.
MÁRIO MASETTI, 1967-1970 Perdizes, São Paulo. Photos: © Leonardo Finotti.
This article appeared in DAM44. Order your personal copy.