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Paulo Mendes da Rocha. Structural transcriptions

by Alessandra Coppa

The work of 2006 Pritzker prize-winner Paulo Mendes da Rocha, a Brazilian architect born in Vitória, has powerful infrastructural connotations in terms of construction of the territory and a strong political dimension. It is inextricably bound up with the complex events of Brazil’s post-Second World War history, when he was expelled from the university for a decade and forced to reduce his professional activities for a period of twenty years.
In his very first building, the Gymnasium in the Paulistano Athletics Club (1957), he used reinforced concrete to create large open spaces and rational structures. This was to become a hallmark of the Paulista school of architecture (in marked contrast to the Carioca or Rio school of Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer), whose aim was to promote architecture that is “clear, clean and socially responsible”, rational and embodying formal solutions of great “structural truth”. Given its tendency towards reduction and abstraction, it can be defined as a brutalist – or to be more precise “essentialist” – form of architecture, inspired more by Mies van der Rohe than Le Corbusier.
Mendes da Rocha’s work has a strong spatial content and expresses a desire to create a “projeto de humanidade, a sublime statement of human dignity” with a special focus on the social dimension and concept of place.

How does your architecture succeed in always being so future-oriented whilst resisting “fashion”?
I must say that this has always been my aspiration but I’m not certain I have succeeded. To be sure, this condition of persistence that keeps my projects well away from passing fashions is determined by the “architectural language” I have adopted. I should add that I am really not interested in creating “imposing” architecture. I like simple solutions that at the same time reveal an invisible content. My intention is always to create something “magical” through a process of spatial simplification that derives from the transcription of a structural system.
Architects must address the needs of a fast-changing society, a society that in some cases is evolving more rapidly than the images of certain buildings that are fashionable today. I also believe that here in America things happen rather differently from the rest of the world. In Brazil we face material needs such as new housing and schools, as well as needs that are projected into the future. Architecture therefore has the task of addressing these issues and where possible must also add a concept, because architecture is both a concept and an image.
In what sense must an architectural project be linked to the social dimension?
It’s an inescapable condition, although many architects are focused on themselves rather than the role of architecture. I don’t believe that this kind of individuality can work. Architects must always strive to relate to society. Knowledge belongs to the people. The architect must transform society’s urgency and desire into a built work.
In this respect the issue of the city has become crucial to my research over the last few years: architecture cannot be thought of as a single isolated object but must be part of a larger whole that defines the city.

In this respect, the floating steel canopy over Praça do Patriarca creates an urban centre in the shapeless and congested city of São Paulo …
I believe that the object I thought of for that location already existed, it was already written into the site. All I did was translate it into architecture.

You said the same thing for your famous renovation of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo.
That’s true, although in that case I didn’t do anything at all. For a start it was a beautiful building, all I had to do was to remove a few layers of decoration and then transform the rigid Palladian layout, cover over the courtyards and renovate the distribution routes with new steel walkways and a lift.

Earlier on you said your works come into being as a “transcription of a structural system”. What did you mean by that? The coherency of your architectural vision seems to me to be strongly bound up with the definition of space through structure.
As I said, my language is strongly linked to geometry and the structural system. This is probably because construction techniques have undergone enormous development in Brazil, in part due to the construction of large metal structures such as oil platforms.
I believe that my thinking is part lyrical and part structural. I strive to create the things I imagine through a precise construction. I think simultaneously of construction techniques and desire, which suggests to me that even a poem is a construction.

Is there such a thing as a Brazilian architectural identity?
This region of Brazil has a very short history. Visually, we are influenced by what the natives used to do. It’s astonishing for example to see how they mastered colour and texture and how they used these aspects in the construction of communal homes through the working of wood. São Paulo is a city that has been strongly influenced by the colonial city.

Has Europe influenced Brazil in any way?
Europe has influenced South America through the architecture of Palladio, but also through the modern Italian architecture of the thirties and forties, such as the work of Terragni – which in my view has nothing to do with fascism – and of Lina Bardi, who combined what she had learnt in Italy with her sense of wonder at the freedom of Brazilian culture.

At the opening of the Brazil pavilion in Osaka, you said: “geography is the primordial architecture”. Could you tell us about the relationship between architecture and place in your projects?
Once you have chosen exactly where to build a city, the project is done. This decision is a process that provides instructions on how to proceed. The choice of a location within a geographical context is itself a project.

One of your most recent projects, the National Coach Museum in Lisbon, prompted much debate. Why was this?
Yes, the Coach Museum is a much-discussed project. The museum is made entirely of reinforced concrete and glass. A small pavilion adjacent to the museum is connected via a bridge to the main exhibition space, a 150 metre by 50 metre arena divided into two 20 metre wide sections. Between the two exhibition spaces, a 10-metre wide central backbone houses the museum workshops. This bridge also leads to the administration space, but without interfering with the flow of visitors. The problem is not the project itself but the fact that the museum’s atrium consists exclusively of a large lift. The entrance level houses solely a small workshop for restoring the coaches and a cafeteria. The lift is enclosed in a kind of glass case, while the rest is empty space. The museum is located in Belém, a tourist area of Lisbon, and I believe that it needed to remain a place where people can walk, so I allowed the park to extend below the building as far as the river Tagus.