We pay tribute to architect Ruy Ohtake (1938 – 2021)
Brazilian architect Ruy Ohtake, the master of Brazilian modernism, has passed away in São Paulo, at 83 years of age. To honour his memory, we revisit the Tomie Ohtake Residence, which he designed in 1968 for his parents and named after his mother, abstract painter Tomie Ohtake. Scroll down, to read this interview from the Wallpaper* archive, first published in 2001
From the outside, the work of Ruy Ohtake epitomises all the unique qualities of modernist Brazilian architecture: the formal sculptural gesture, the open plan, the fluidity of form, the built-in concrete furniture and the simple rawness of approach. Qualities much admired but rarely produced with the same flair elsewhere.
Ohtake studied architecture in the late 1950s in São Paulo and started his own practice in the 1960s, when Brazilian modernism was at its apex. This was a rich cultural time in Brazil. Music, cinema and theatre were at their peak. ‘Who would not know bossa nova or teatro novo even today?’ Ohtake asks.
Ohtake rebelled against the pragmatic Paulista School of architecture in Sao Paulo and emphasised organic shapes in his work, using concrete sculpturally, an approach mostly seen among the architecture developed in Rio, and especially that by Oscar Niemeyer. Ohtake takes any comparison between his work and Niemeyer’s as a great compliment. He explains: ’I see Niemeyer’s work as the vertebral column of Brazilian architecture.’
Ruy Ohtake: Brazilian modernist master
His extensive body of work (more than 200 buildings) has made Ohtake famous in Brazil. The strongest are the residential projects completed early in his career and the residential tower blocks built in the 1980s. Our favourite, and the location for this photo shoot, is the Tomie Ohtake Residence, a definite modern classic of Brazilian architecture, built in 1968 for Ohtake’s parents. Its value was recognised at the time, winning an architectural prize by the Brazilian Institute of Architects in 1971.
The design was progressive even then – a live/work space was not a typical request in the 1960s. The plan is extremely simple: a large rectangular space with an adjacent garden and swimming pool area. Years after its completion, an adjacent lot was added to the house as a service area. This addition is so well integrated into the early scheme that it is barely detectable. The main house, decades on, still feels contemporary with its appealing flowing concrete forms.
Although Brazilian born, Ohtake’s Japanese ancestry adds a powerful simplicity to his work. Colour and texture are always present, a lesson he might have learnt from his mother, Tomie, a well-known abstract painter. The house is filled with her paintings and sculpture and much of the home’s built-in furniture is a combined effort between architect and artist. One of Ohtake’s signatures is the use of built-in furniture as spatial intervention. In the Tomie Ohtake Residence, many pieces work this way – such as the fluid concrete bench visually supporting the cantilevered concrete fireplace above it. Another element which is seen regularly in his projects is the use of very thin concrete partitions to divide the living spaces.
Ohtake sees furniture design as a complementary activity to his architecture. While it may take five years to complete a house, furniture pieces are usually designed and prototyped in 60 days. These are generally one-off pieces for the residential projects Ohtake works on and do not address mass production; a very architectural way of looking at furniture design. Ohtake is a believer in a unique Brazilian cultural identity although he has seen many changes since the 1960s.
’It is not about preservation, it is about evolution! Preservation is about stagnation,’ he says. Ohtake’s work has changed as a response to new materials and technology but his language has remained the same. We stand by his residential projects of the 1960s, which provide the perfect backdrop for a lesson in Brazilian design. §
A version of this piece first appeared in Wallpaper* 174, July/August 2001