Paulo Mendes da Rocha by Ruth Verde Zein

BOMB 102 Winter 2008
102 Winter 2008 Body
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Sabina Escola Parque Do Conhecimento, São Paulo, Brazil, 2007. Photos: Nelson Kon. All photos courtesy of the architect and the photographer.

The Practice + Theory series is sponsored in part by the Frances Dittmer Family Foundation.

Paulo Mendes da Rocha is one of Brazil’s leading architects, and his recognition has greatly increased since winning the Pritzker Prize in 2006. That was the peak, but he has enjoyed an international reputation for the last decade. Awarded the “Professional Trajectory Prize” at the 1998 Ibero-American Biennial, Mendes da Rocha renovated the Pinacoteca do Estado, São Paulo’s State Museum. Two years later, this earned him the 2000 Mies van der Rohe Prize for Latin American Architecture and the opportunity to work abroad. In 2002, Mendes da Rocha was one of 12 architects invited to propose designs for a vast sports complex in Paris coinciding with the city’s bid for the 2008 Olympic games. Since then, he has developed building models as well as a topographic scheme for the Technological City, a section of the University of Vigo in Galicia, Spain, which features a series of bridges to which new and existing buildings are connected, preserving the hilly landscape. This year he will finish a social housing project in the community of Vallecas, Madrid. Recent works in Brazil include the revitalization of an abandoned brick-and-stone chapel at the ceramicist Francisco Brennand’s atelier in Recife, and a Children’s Museum in Santo André, São Paulo.

Born in 1928 in Vitória, a harbor city between Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, Mendes da Rocha arrived in São Paulo in the ’50s to study architecture at Mackenzie University. Very early in his career he won a national competition and designed, with João de Gennaro, the Paulistano Athletic Club, using a daring, innovative concrete and steel structure that received the 1961 São Paulo Biennial Grand Prize. He also won the national competition for the Brazilian Pavilion at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan, a minimalist structure modeled on artificial topography and covered by an airy, lightness-lending grid of concrete slabs.

The architect Vilanova Artigas, a generation older, invited Mendes da Rocha to teach at the University of São Paulo in the early ’60s. It was a moment when the lessons of the Carioca Modernist School had been absorbed, and the field had ripened onto other paths. The ’60s were a time of architectural experimentation when important creators like Artigas, Mendes da Rocha, Lina Bo Bardi and several others designed outstanding works tuned with the “brutalist connection.” Described by British art critic Reyner Banham as blending an ethical discourse and aesthetic assertions, they favored rough, apparent concrete surfaces and impressive huge-span structures. This second Brazilian architectural avant-garde trend—the Paulista School—is lesser known abroad but very important in Brazil and Latin America, and Mendes da Rocha is one of its main contributors.

For political reasons Mendes da Rocha and other leftist Brazilian intellectuals were expelled from the University in 1969 by the military dictatorship. Mendes da Rocha was only able to resume his professorship in 1980 following the country’s democratic restoration. Back at the university, a new generation of architects has been influenced by his ethical discourse and strong architectural propositions. Nowadays, most of his projects are being developed with some of these young talents.

About to turn 80, Mendes da Rocha continues to produce outstanding works both big and small, each one an intriguing union of the sensible and the extraordinary. His propositions can be read as poetic statements about art and technique. In this email interview, conducted over the past few months, but really part and parcel of a lifelong conversation, Mendes da Rocha has treated both topics—technique and art—with his usual polemical enthusiasm.

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Patriarch Square and Viaduct Do Cha Urban Renovation Project, São Paulo, Brazil, 1992.

Ruth Verde Zein What do you think of the issue of technique in architecture?

Paulo Mendes da Rocha In my view architecture is not about technique; it is itself technique. It has nothing to do with this material or that technology. Technique is not about the opportunity to use new materials; rather it is about handling and organizing the right resources. This is architecture: the arrangement and application of technical knowledge—each and every time—in an appropriate and possibly distinctive way.

RVZ People sometimes confuse technical improvement with the use of new materials.

PMR Yes, as if technique were a sort of patchwork of items to be put together, rather than an idea or a way of thinking. Nowadays, the best technique is sometimes clouded by the notion that new materials are always necessary to create new architecture. It does not work like that all the time. If you were going to create something totally unprecedented—let’s imagine developing architecture for another planet—that would clearly demand brand-new computer technologies, metallurgic materials, alloys, and so forth. But the idea of a new town, or the idea of solving issues we all dream about solving, such as providing housing for everybody— all this does not require new techniques, but rather the best use of the same ordinary ones. Architecture is like speech: the organization of the words is what’s important. In architecture, technique does not necessarily imply unusual materials; it implies technique.

RVZ So, innovation may be a rearrangement of the already known, the fresh coming from the same, not necessarily from the new.

PMR This technique-architecture analogy can be understood just the way you understand words in literature. They already exist and function in their usual sense in the existing language; however, they can assume another meaning—if you like—in the context of your speech. Moreover, words have a special value in literature and even greater value in poetry. Poetry does not require new words; it is made by arranging words. That’s what makes it so impressive. Through ordinary words, poetry might accomplish the words’ dream: to speak the unspeakable, to express the last tip of our thoughts. You could picture the architect’s materials as words: if you think of words as stones you can build whatever you want to in accordance with the way you organize these stone/words. By rearranging the same pre-existing words, you get another outcome.

RVZ Hence you think that technical innovations and new materials are not necessarily the same.

PMR For example, just look at apartment buildings. An apartment building is often positioned upon a site where a house previously sat, without any rethinking or rearranging of the space. Each apartment block needlessly aims to be self-sufficient, with its small garden, small swimming pool, and separate garage; potential connections are broken by unnecessary walls. This is not the best urban technique. It is a very poor use of technique, all these separate buildings. Their ingredients—their words, their materials—can be joined in a big construction like the Copan [designed by Oscar Niemeyer in the ’50s for São Paulo’s downtown], a wonderful building that deals splendidly with the space in the city center: movie theater, coffee shops, stores, theaters, and several apartment arrangements inside one contiguous space. A new architectural mass should not be a mere repetition of the old forms, but something that can promote a better urban existence. Inside it, a single and bigger swimming pool would do to accommodate all the kids.

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Residence for Paulo Mendes da Rocha, São Paulo, 1964.

RVZ A fine architecture does not need to use a brand-new material, just like poetry does not need to fabricate new words.

PMR The possibility of using extremely superior technologies can overwhelm us and create the desire to use those materials without knowing the reason why or what for, we’re merely driven by an aesthetic sense or to show off. This is completely unreasonable. Architecture is primarily about finding the ideal and sometimes elusive spatial arrangement. The best architectural techniques—especially in settled city spaces—are not showy; they serve to reach an outcome involving our lives and our daily performance. For example, to meet special needs such as lowering the groundwater, or the required thrust of the structural performances, or the efforts to fight or to foresee all this, or to just facilitate one more column of windows that face the sea. So, there is a certain amount of confusion in this excessive display of material and technologies, since the crucial techniques are other ones.

RVZ But there can be a beauty in making these techniques perceived.

PMR Well, you could say that it’s beautiful to make them appear: like in the city of Santos [a harbor 40 miles from São Paulo]. The city sits on top of a former marsh and has seven canals, designed after a project by urban planner Saturnino de Brito at the beginning of the twentieth century to crisscross the marsh regularly. All that is the result of an effort to drain the territory so it could be used for a bigger city. But of course these canals have to become visible—and they are very nice. It’s important to appreciate that the canals’ beauty springs from the fact that they solved a practical problem. The harbor was an unhealthy area full of piers, rivers, warehouses, and trains; it needed to be sanitized. The canals visibly celebrate the essence of the city—to gather people so they take pleasure in working and living.

RVZ What, then, is the role of technique in architecture?

PMR As far as I am concerned, the thing to do is to head off any kind of disaster. Architecture has a huge responsibility regarding calculations; it is mostly not how to do something, but how to stop from doing the norm. For example, we have talked about the right positioning of the buildings in the city, avoiding wasted and constricted space. That might seem vague, but stay with me. Standard apartment buildings have a rear distance from the lot’s border. If you were to combine all of these strangled spaces, you could have a continuous tree-planted strip instead of timid segments, some of which are green and some of which are not. Applying a thoughtful design in the first place prevents the destruction of space. Avoiding disasters is a far more important action.

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Dom Pedro II Urban Bus Terminal, São Paulo, Brazil, 1996.

RVZ At the Dom Pedro II Urban Bus Terminal you applied a rearrangement technique. The roof catches the rainwater, which flows visibly and beautifully down each of the building’s pillars.

PMR This building, a municipal bus terminal, had to be constructed quickly and with minimal funds. There was simply no need for new materials or new technology. There was just reasoning: if you need to shelter people at the bus stop, why can’t the roof be an apron that collects rainwater? A roof that makes the water flow over the edge is not a good idea because it needs a running gutter and a pipe on the edge to take off the water, spoiling the effect of lightness. It is not very difficult to imagine another solution. If you invert the roof, the rainwater will collect and then escape though any hole you make. It’s a beautiful scene; the disadvantage is that people can get wet if they pass under it. But the place where people cannot pass is by the columns. Here comes the fluid part of the matter. The water could pass through the core of each pillar, but then nobody would see anything; instead everybody would be bewildered, thinking: Where has that water gone? The solution at the DPII Bus Terminal was quite simple; the water falls around the columns’ exterior. That wonderful water coming from the sky is so pleasant, so amusing. You just have to protect the immediate vicinity of the column, and so you may prefer to surround it with a translucent panel where you can display information—itineraries and such—but never touching the top, so that the structure can freely move with wind and heat as necessary, as it’s a covered open space. The project uses everyday materials in pretty much the same way that they are always used; it is only a matter of reorganizing the same things in a different manner.

RVZ It is also a matter of asking the proper questions. Here, what is at stake is not just how to support a covering, but how to collect the rainwater; and there is a focus shift that goes beyond the functional and also chooses to please the eye.

PMR It is crucial to identify the core questions in each specific case. It’s easy and necessary to cover a building, and a tiled roof is quite an obvious and ordinary answer. But if you think twice about how to deal with rainwater, well, there you can find a very interesting topic. This is what the technique issue is about—at least for me. You activate the already absorbed knowledge and at the same time think of an entirely different technical approach to transform the task at hand. We praise the cities, and history has invested them with multiple kinds of value, but you also have to think about the future. What would a city triggered by a different technical approach be like? There seems to be an attitude of scorn toward the idea of a new town being built all at once. But we in America have done that so many times—from Washington, DC, to Brasília to Palmas—and thinking of ways to realize something distinctive is fascinating. Not for the sake of the new, but to open up for the better.

RVZ The idea of a new town—even inside an old one—is fascinating. It seems to me that your proposals for the existing city intend to make people see a place anew, and to ask people to think about what their eyes are seeing. That’s the attractiveness of your design for the Patriarcha Square in downtown São Paulo.

PMR Our cities—São Paulo, for example—should be eternal, and that is possible. There is no reason to think otherwise. It is also a disaster to abandon cities so they have to be constantly remade. But if you just mend, aiming only to maintain what already exists, you’ll eventually be left with new stuff that merely looks like the old stuff, and the opportunity for improvement is lost. The hanging cover I’ve designed for the exit of the Galeria Prestes Maia underpass, which connects the Patriarcha Square to the Anhangabaú Valley [the old and the new downtown areas of São Paulo], stands for a desire to make a strong and interesting affirmation about the interdependence of forms and ideas, an urban architecture that not only restores but also creates new images that help to express contemporary urban habits.

RVZ The making of the new is of course the main issue on the outskirts of our metropolitan areas, which are incomplete cities that are forever expanding, painfully constructing themselves.

PMR Well, the question of the outskirts is not how to improve quality, but rather how to staunch the reproduction of predatory occupation. A periphery as such should not exist: it’s a mistake. We need to invigorate city centers, which lack energy because they’ve been abandoned; and what better way to do that than to populate them with people who need to be sheltered? We have a huge city-edge that lacks everything: people living in the periphery plead for housing, hospitals, sewers, schools, utilities, and transportation. But if you make an inventory, it is all there, in the existing city: there is an absurd number of abandoned buildings in the downtown areas, shut up with crude walls in order not to be invaded by homeless people. It is quite bizarre, an impractical waste.

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Renovation of the São Paulo State Museum, 1993.

RVZ Now that we’ve talked about technique, let’s discuss art. Is architecture art?

PMR In a way, it’s always about language, or languages. Art happens when you have to devise a way to make your reflections known. It is a matter of consciousness; you have to carry on and so you create a language to express yourself. But as the poet said, the work of art exists in absolute solitude. You may have never heard of it, and it may not be in a museum or in a tourist’s guide; it is just something inevitable, for human beings can’t help but to act artistically. What we call art is an invention ad momentum, including everything from words to things, everything that is reflexive and transforms our understanding. You do not have to be a scientist to have a scientific vision of things; you just associate repeating phenomena. When you arrange all that in a way that is revelatory to the moment, you’re acting as an artist. You don’t need a diploma to be an artist, nor recognition, nor someone to label you as such. It may happen but that is not what matters: you just want to live, and that’s enough. Art is an attribute of the human condition, the aim to express something ineffable in its absolute solitude.

RVZ Then perhaps architecture is never art, for it can never be solitary; it is made for others.

PMR The idea of solitude here is not quite so material. Solitude may manifest itself in a more abstract way. Do you think that what you say is ever completely understood by the others, or by yourself? You never know how true this is. An artist, a work of art—can you say that you have completely understood them? Shakespeare, or Guimarães Rosa—have they themselves accomplished what they really wanted to say? Everything is just attempts that uncertainly approach but never arrive. That’s why life is so fun: it is always a mere long shot with no certain aim.

In architecture, you can’t believe that since you opened a door and entered a house, this is what you are seeing. Nothing is so clear. And sometimes a house is really a nothing: a bunch of doors and windows with no purpose or meaning except that they were put there. But even then, there is a poetic dimension in the plain repetition that occurs in vernacular architecture. A house possesses an artistic dimension just by the simple fact of its being a house, something made apart from nature.

RVZ So everyone is an artist, but sometimes a hidden one?

PMR When art is hidden it’s okay, since one day it can be uncovered. Art is the immense fortune of mankind. But the worst scenario is when it degenerates, which is an increasing condition. The new generations are not adequately educated; there is a need to consume but without perceiving where or when this or that knowledge has come from, as if every created thing just exists. This is a compromised experience of the world. If you can trace a creation to its roots you can imagine. You can predict or prevent; but when you just don’t know the past or how to perceive the present, it’s hopeless. It’s the absence of connections: a person in a plane in the beginning of the twentieth century was aware of being flown, and of the mechanical effort necessary to put that thing up in the air. In a way, people are losing the ability to be in awe and thus the ability to wonder how things might be improved. This is an artistic loss, when you fail to understand that the ability to be creative is a human necessity.

RVZ But the idea of art as a spontaneous achievement—

PMR —is foolish, of course. You design what you want. If it is impulsive it has no value; even spontaneity is a calculated thing in art and especially in architecture. As the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa says in “Autopsicografia” (Autopsychography), “ O poeta é um fingidor/Finge tão completamente / que chega a fingir que é dor/ a dor que deveras sente ” (The poet is a faker / Who’s so good at his act, / He even fakes the pain / Of pain he feels in fact). But you do not pretend to really understand all this; it is not to be understood but to be done. Overanalyzing can be quite dangerous. I do not have to explain my work; you do that, it’s your task.

Ruth Verde Zein is an architect and architectural writer and critic. She is professor and researcher on the faculty of architecture at Mackenzie Presbyterian University, São Paulo, and is a member of CICA (International Committee of Architectural Critics). Last year she won the National Prize for Doctoral Thesis with her work on São Paulo Brutalist architecture of the 1960s and is now preparing a book and an exhibition on the subject.

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Originally published in

BOMB 102, Winter 2008

Featuring interviews with the Campana Brothers, Cao Guimaraes and Marila Dardot, Ernesto Neto, OsGemeos, Bernardo Carvalho, Francisco Alvim, Lygia Fagundes Telles and Manuel Alegre, Karim Ainouz, Arnaldo Antunes, and Paulo Mendes Da Rocha.

Read the issue
102 Winter 2008 Body