The architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha (1928–2021) passed away in the early hours of Sunday, May 23. The Brazilian architecture scene has lost its most prominent ambassador since Oscar Niemeyer’s death in 2012. Hailing from the state of Espírito Santo, Mendes da Rocha was part of the iconic generation of modernists from the Paulista School led by João Batista Vilanova Artigas, whom he worked alongside before opening his own studio and designing emblematic buildings all over Brazil—and in the city of São Paulo in particular. In 2006, Medes de Rocha received the most prestigious architecture award in the world, the Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Mendes da Rocha trained as an architect and urban planner at the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning at Mackenzie Presbyterian University, and in 1954 was part of the first classes to graduate from the institution. From his very first large project, the Paulistano Athletic Club Gymnasium, he was strongly influenced by the work of Artigas. The Paulista School of Brazilian architecture was characterized by exposed reinforced concrete, large open spaces, and rational structures. The architects who followed the trend aimed to create raw, clean, clear, and socially responsible projects; the aesthetic inspiration for the movement came from European Brutalism.
In 1961, Mendes da Rocha began to lecture at the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP). At that time, professors and students were engaging in intense debate as to the role played by architects in the larger society. The military government that came to power in Brazil in 1964 outlawed these discussions and revoked Mendes da Rocha’s political rights in 1969, bringing an end to his teaching activity. He did not return to the university until 1980, and he was forced to retire in 1998.
Mendes da Rocha’s work was revered around the world and he won a number of prizes as a result. Among his most prestigious awards are the Mies van der Rohe Award for Latin America for his project to renovate the State Museum of São Paulo in 2001 and the Pritzker Prize in 2006. In March 2015, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Lisbon, and in May 2016 he won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. Over the years, his work received critical acclaim and served as an important source of inspiration for a new generation of Brazilian architects.
Read on to find out more about the main projects shaped by eternal master Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s rational approach.
Paulistano Athletic Club Gymnasium (1961)
Created in collaboration with João de Gennaro, the gymnasium at the club located in the Jardins area of São Paulo has a particularly striking roof, supported by six exposed concrete pillars arranged in a circle. The roof has a diameter of more than 12.5 meters.
House in Butantã (1964)
Designed as a home for Paulo Mendes da Rocha and his sister, the house in Butantã, São Paulo, is actually two homes with an almost identical layout and structure. Each building comprises a single floor elevated by four pillars. With few divisions and no windows in the bedrooms, they were designed to face inwards.
Guaimbê Building (1965)
Located on Rua Haddock Lobo in São Paulo, the Guaimbê Building has an exposed concrete façade and no gate to separate it from the pavement. The sides of the building feature brise-soleil, allowing light to enter while protecting residents’ privacy. Inside, there are no corridors, and the walls curve to separate the different areas.
Serra Dourada Stadium (1975)
The Serra Dourada Stadium can hold 50,000 spectators. The overhanging roof is the most striking element of the design, and there are two large gardens inside the stadium. Round pillars create huge openings that give a sense of levity, simplicity, and symmetry to the project, which blends effectively into the surrounding landscape.
Brazilian Museum of Sculpture (MuBE) (1986)
One of the most important projects in Mendes da Rocha’s career, MuBE in São Paulo is built around an immense beam running perpendicular to the main road to create a 60-meter free span. The exhibition areas are located below street level, bringing silence and creating a cozy atmosphere for contemplation. The museum is an architectural sculpture in itself and is enhanced still further by the garden designed by Burle Marx that surrounds it.
São Pedro Apóstolo Chapel (1987)
The clean, clear architecture of this chapel in Campos do Jordão exemplifies the principal characteristics of Mendes da Rocha’s body of work. With an exposed concrete structure and glass walls, the public can look out over the region’s lush landscape. In the midst of this magical setting, the chapel’s glass framework reflects the sky, people, and surroundings, creating confusion between what is outside and what is in. The nave is mirrored by a reflecting pool, where the baptistry is located. A single pillar supports the nave, choir, and roof.
Renovation of the State Museum of São Paulo (1988)
Originally designed by Ramos de Azevedo in 1805, the building housing the State Museum was renovated in the 1990s following plans designed by Mendes da Rocha. The building needed modernizing and a more functional infrastructure was required. To this end, an elevator was installed to transport materials and people, new bathrooms were built and the storage and exhibition areas were extended. The restoration laboratory, library, and electricity network were also modernized. The interior courtyards were covered with metal and laminated glass structures supported by the masonry. This protected the courtyards from the rain and made it possible to use them for exhibitions.
Gerassi House (1989)
For this project in São Paulo, Mendes da Rocha drew on an innovative construction method that was rarely seen at that time: a prefabricated system more commonly seen in public buildings. The upper volume, which houses the rooms, is supported by pillars to create a 15-meter void for the garage. Inside, the spaces are fluid, encouraging greater interaction between family members. There is abundant natural light and ventilation due to the ample openings on the side walls and floor.
Roof for the Prestes Maia Gallery, Praça do Patriarca (2002)
A metal canopy links the old center of São Paulo to the new. The roof, supported only by the structure at the top, is elegantly designed and reminiscent of airplane wings. Beneath it, a 40-meter void provides shelter and shade. The roof is the product of a partnership between Associação Viva o Centro and São Paulo City Council, and is intended to boost the revitalization of the city center. The space for the square was obtained by demolishing an entire block once taken up by bus stops.
Renovation of Luz Station and the Museum of the Portuguese Language (2006)
The main challenge facing the architect in this project was how to install a modern museum in a historical building while ensuring that the flow of passengers through São Paulo’s Luz Station could continue unhindered. He opted to create a rather unusual itinerary for visitors, which ran from the top of the museum to the bottom. To enhance visitors’ comfort, four new elevators were installed, requiring large voids to be opened up in the floor of the building. A metal-and-glass roof, rather similar to the one at the State Museum building in Rio de Janeiro, was positioned over the courtyards.
National Coach Museum (2008)
In Lisbon, the National Coach Museum is characterized by fluidity between the public and private areas. The ground floor features the museum entrance, a café, and a shop, as well as a large square. On this floor, every room has glass walls to create a sense of blending into the outdoor world. To reach the exhibition rooms, visitors take an elevator that is also made from glass. An adjoining building made of concrete and steel houses the museum’s administrative offices and library, while the restaurant can be found in another building.
Cais das Artes (2013)
The architect’s first project in his home city, Vitória, comprises a museum and theatre, which are equipped to host large-scale cultural events. The main characteristic of the architectural complex, located in Enseada do Suá, is that it showcases the city’s landscape and history. For this reason, Mendes da Rocha decided to raise the buildings off the ground and create a square for the people of the city. The project was carried out in partnership with the METRO studio.
This article originally appeared in Casa Vogue in Brazil.
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