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Architecture

Remembering Paulo Mendes da Rocha (1928-2021)

Paulo Mendes da Rocha, photographed in 2010 for Wallpaper*. Photography: Carol Sachs

Ellie Stathaki
24 May 2021

Paulo Mendes da Rocha, one of the world’s last great modernists, as well as one of his country’s most important architects to-date, has passed in Brazil at the age of 92. Blending beautiful, powerful architectural forms while looking at issues of social engagement, Mendes da Rocha turned his hand to anything from private housing, large-scale, public architecture and furniture; always with a profound sense of materiality, and a flair for creating architecture that is both functional and emotive, defined by bold yet sensitive moves. The architect has spoken about architecture’s impact on the socio-geographic map and urban revitilization, a topic he touched upon also when he became Wallpaper’s advisor for the June 2010 ‘Born in Brazil’ issue. 

‘Paulo Mendes da Rocha of Sao Paulo, Brazil, inspired by the principles and language of modernism, as well as through his bold use of simple materials, has over the past six decades produced buildings with a deep understanding of the poetics of space. He modifies the landscape and space with his architecture, striving to meet both social and aesthetic human needs,’ the jury’s citation read, when the great master won the 2006 Pritzker Prize. 

At Casa Millán, aspiral staircase leads up to the bedrooms. Beneath it is a cardboard table and chair by Brazilian group 100T and a piece by Brazilian sculptor Marepe. Photography: Douglas Friedman

Paulo Mendes da Rocha was born in Brazil’s Vitoria in 1928, and after receiving his architecture degree in 1954, he set up his independent office in Sao Paulo in 1955. He went on to complete a slew of buildings in the country – many of them in Sao Paulo. There, his cultural work – such as the Paulistano Athletic Club (1958), the Museum of Contemporary Art (1975) at the University of São Paulo, the Forma Furniture showroom (1987) and the Brazilian Sculpture Museum (1987-1992) – has played a key part in the city’s development and heritage. Further well known designs include the Paulistano chase longue (1957), Casa Millán for art dealer Eduardo Leme, and the architect’s own home, Casa Butantã (1964). 

Working mostly with simple, geometric forms in naked concrete, his buildings helped define the country’s expression of the Modernist movement – often referred to as ‘Brazilian Brutalism’. Although Mendes da Rocha’s work feels rawer, moodier, and more angular and grounded, compared to, for example, Oscar Niemeyer’s – another great proponent of Brazilian architecture, whose forms are often characterised by sweeping curves and floating white domes. 

For the Lisbon renovation work, the back of the property in the Lapa district has been completely remodelled in concrete and now features a pool terrace and an origami-like corner window framing views of the estuary. Photography: Leonardo Finotti

While the vast majority of his work is within his home country, Mendes da Rocha’s influence has been felt far beyond Brazil’s borders. His long string of honours, awards and prizes attest to that. The architect scooped the Mies van der Rohe prize for Latin American Architecture (2000), the aforementioned Pritzker, and the Venice Biennale Golden Lion for lifetime achievement in 2016, among many others. At the same time, he also completed a smaller pool of works abroad, such as the renovation of a small apartment block into a family home in Lisbon, which he completed in 2018 together with local architect Inês Lobo, and the Museu dos Coches, also in Portugal (2015), which won Best Building Site in the Wallpaper* Design Awards in 2013

With Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s passing coinciding with the opening weekend of the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale, where architects from across the globe come together to discuss ‘How will we live together?’ and architecture’s social role, it becomes even more apparent how much the great master’s absence will be felt acutely throughout the industry. §

Cais Das Artes, Brazil, by Paulo Mendes da Rocha and Metro Arquitetos scooped a Best Building Site gong at the 2013 Wallpaper* Design Awards. Photography: Leonardo Finotti