Born: 1928, Vitória,
College of Architecture, São Paulo, 1954
Practice: Formed architectural studio in São Paulo in 1957
Plaza, São Paulo (2002); Pinacotheca do Estado, São Paulo (1993); Brazlian
Sculpture Museum, São Paulo (1988); Forma Furniture Showroom, São Paulo (1987);
Saint Peter Chapel, São Paulo (1987); Brazil's pavilion at Expo '70,
Osaka, Japan (1969); Gymnasium in the Paulistano Athletics Club, São Paulo
Books: Paulo Mendes da Rocha: Fifty Years, Projects
1957-2007 (Rizzoli, 2007); Paulo
Mendes da Rocha, 1957-1999 (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002); Paulo Mendes da Rocha: Works and Projects (Arthur
Teaching: Architecture College of University of São
Awards: The Pritzker Prize
(2006), Mies van der Rohe
In your short text The Americas, Architecture and Nature,
you say that “for Brazilians and Americans in general, the historical
experience begins with the modern world. There is a difference between
rebuilding old cities in Europe and building new cities in the Americas.” Could
you elaborate this thought?
This is not a
question for me to answer. This is an interpretation of what I said. Of course,
there is a difference in attitude when one builds in such a new place as Brazil
or the American continent in general as opposed to Europe. The landscapes are
different, cities are different, cultures are different. How can you compare
St. Petersburg in Russia and Vitória, my hometown, in Brazil?
True, these cities are very different,
but interestingly, architecture, which is being built now, no longer offers
much of a difference whether it is built in one place or another. It is now
common to talk about national and regional characteristics as a reaction to
global architecture. Do you see yourself as a Brazilian architect? I am asking
this because you once said: “Architecture that is done here can only be
interesting when it possesses a universal dimension. There is no such thing as
Brazilian architect.” Why do you think so?
architect is not just about where you are. Architecture is universal. Just
because I am here doesn’t mean I produce Brazilian architecture. I look around,
I take advantage of the resources available, the materials; I acknowledge the
climate and so on. Being an architect is a matter of knowledge – you explore
the place and interpret how to respond to a particular site and situation.
Water is water, gravity is gravity, and sunlight is sunlight. It is the same
Still, historically, the results were
quite different. In the past architecture was much more responsive to specific
place and culture. If you traveled in the 18th or 19th century, you would see a
very apparent difference between, for example, French, Italian, and German
architecture. Contemporary architecture, for the most part, has become
There was the
time when classical architecture was also global and undistinguishable. But now
in Brazil we have a good chance to produce architecture different from European
and other places. Here we need millions of new housing units, which are in much
greater demand than in Europe. This is a good moment for us to build in a new
way and explore possibilities for what Brazilian architecture can become.
Are you working on any housing
projects at the moment?
This is not
architecture; what they are building is just boxes. There is no room for
architecture in these projects; they simply provide the necessities.
You don’t think architecture is
possible on a tight budget?
just boxes with utilities. They are not built to last. They are just like the
latest version of a mobile phone. It is just utility, a tool, nothing more.
What do you think about social housing
projects by Alejandro Aravena in Chile? He told me that you participated in the
work of the jury in the competition that he organized. I find his work very
sophisticated and inventive and from what I can judge, his idea of half a house
is very clever and, in my opinion, the solution is quite elegant and not just
I think the
question whether this is architecture or not should be answered by people who
live there. In any case, this would not work here in Brazil because the other
half of the house still has to be built by the families and they will look like
shit. We already have favelas here; people build as they want. What they have
in Chile is just another model for favelas… It is a political trick; they want
to use free labor to build cheap housing… I did not have an active role in that
jury and I did express my opinion about these types of projects very clearly.
What do you think about Oscar
Niemeyer’s work? Was he Brazilian or universal architect in your opinion?
What do you
I think if he practiced elsewhere, his
architecture would have been very different. So for me he is associated with
Brazil. But what do you think? Was he a big influence on your work?
architecture? I think it comes from knowledge and skills of an architect. Some
architects are true artists. He was a very close friend and I admire what he
did. He was like Picasso, a great artist. You can’t put him into any category.
Oscar was absolutely unique. Have you heard about Oscar’s curves being inspired
by the surrounding mountains and women?
This is all
bullshit. He would not argue this because he liked the way it sounded.
Wasn’t he the one who promoted these
inspirations? Where do you think his curves came from?
Let me give you two examples. Take his Cathedral of Brasilia. It was
Brunelleschi who did his famous dome at the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore
in Florence. You need perfect circular structure to resist stresses uniformly.
The structure of a circle is always perfect. You can’t reinvent it. This is how
structures work [Mendes da Rocha draws the shape of the dome, inverts it and
adds a mirrored profile to illustrate an inverted dome]. And here you have the
same dome but inverted. Isn’t it the Cathedral of Brasilia? It is the same
structure and now we have different materials, we can do great spans and forms.
This is not inspired by a woman’s curve; it is just the way structures work in
In principle, it all looks easy and
rational, never mind the fact that Brunelleschi’s dome was not a circle and
took years to resolve. Principles aside, some of Niemeyer’s sculptural roofs
stand against the mountains as a backdrop, and I find it hard to believe that
there is no direct link between the two… His buildings seem to fit perfectly
into their settings, but you need to be Oscar Niemeyer to introduce such
eccentric shapes that seem consequential and even inevitable when we try to
rationalize them. I don’t think beauty is inevitable…
don’t need to be a genius, just intelligent. You just need to do what
Brunelleschi did and interpret it in modern ways. Let’s talk about the other
example – Oscar’s Edificio Copan here in São Paulo [the building can be seen
through Mendes da Rocha’s office window]. Oscar was an intelligent man, he said
to the developer that we can make it into a popular place, well integrated into
the city’s infrastructure, such as metro, and parking, and provide commercial
base with stores, cafes, galleries, and so on…
architect is not an exceptional person. We have schools with thousands of
students who explore such projects. It is impossible to teach architecture, but
you can educate people to be architects. All you need is intelligence. That
site is not big enough for many buildings to be built there. You need one large
building connecting all various services along its base and you need to provide
as many apartments as possible to make it successful for the developer, so you
wouldn’t place a building on a straight line there.
structurally, it makes perfect sense to curve a very long building, so it is
more stable in its resistance to the wind loads [he bends a sheet of paper into
a double curve and demonstrates how this way it can stand on its own, as
opposed to a flat sheet, which has no rigidity]. The fact that this building is
curved has nothing to do with women, it is based on principles. It is a great
building. I lived there myself. It is brilliant, but not because of its shape.
It is wonderfully planned. The building is not just beautiful, it works. It has
a capacity to transform a place in the city.
Why do you think it is not possible to
is an emergency. You have to go there and see what needs to be done. You can
only teach architects to think by empowering them with knowledge and skills.
Do you teach?
I am too old
now. There is a law in Brazil – you can only teach up to the age of 70.
It is a pity, the wisest can’t teach.
I used to
teach the final year of the design studio. I would not try to influence the
students too much because they were almost professional architects themselves.
Of course, they only think they know everything, the reality is that no one
knows anything. But a good teacher has to act like he knows. Confidence is very
important, not only knowledge. Every problem requires thinking, not readymade
solutions. You know that you don’t know, but there is urgency to do something.
You have to discover the knowledge – that’s the whole point.
Wouldn’t you say that it is not just
about knowledge, but feeling?
are born into architecture. It is part of them. They have a need for building
beyond the utilitarian. You can only be taught about traditions, construction
methods, and so on. The rest is up to your talent.
What words would you chose to describe
If I spent
time thinking of words I would not have time left to do any architecture.
[Laughs.] Architecture is a discourse. You could spend your entire life talking
about it. Look at the Pyramid of Cheops at Giza. Why do people still talk about
It is the Great Pyramid; it is
magnificent, but also mysterious...
There is no
mystery there. That is the only shape the Egyptians could have built then. That
was the only way to carry the stone to the top. Today we can build very
different forms, but four and a half thousand years ago, that was the rational
form to build. The Egyptians used the advantage of basic mechanics to push the
stone blocs up the incline plane. There are shafts there through which you can
see the stars. I think the desire was to build this pyramid of crystal. This
was realized when I. M. Pei built his pyramid of glass in the Louvre in Paris,
but just like Niemeyer he did not talk about it. Architecture is not about
inspirations, it is about history and principles. Inspiration does not exist.
Architecture is about hard intellectual work. You have to think through
problems and analyze history and reality rationally.
You said that contemporary
architecture is essentially the design of the city. Here is a short quote: “We
need to untie the knot in the schizophrenic separation of architecture from
urbanism, art from technique, and art from science.“ So you think that
architecture is all of these things, right?
It is not
about what I think. This is how it is. Architecture always was and has been
about technique, art, and science. If you don’t know how to read or write you
can’t come up with a poem. You have to know these basic tools. It is all about
extracting knowledge from such disciplines as anthropology, geology, structural
mechanics, building construction, design, and so on to come up with a spatial
interpretation, which is called architecture. It is a peculiar way of
knowledge, not a form for form sake. It is about methodology.
In a number of your projects, you rely
on basic geometric forms. You stress that you focus more on the program rather
than on form, on accentuating simplicity of the form rather than its
complexity. Do you ever try to invent new forms in your work?
is different, but there is no need to invent a new form every time. For
example, I designed a master plan for the University of Vigo in Spain where the
topography is very complex, so I provided a series of straight elevated axes
for students like promenades and all new buildings would be elevated off the
terrain and connected to the main links. It is very simple. I don’t search for
new shapes; I search for results that work. Some projects require different
solutions. When I was designing Capela São Pedro in Campos do Jordão using
clear and stained glass windows, I was searching for a form that could work
best with the ideas of intensifying the views and creating multiple reflections
and other optical illusions. It was important to come up with a particular
solution with a form that explored these ideas.
Let’s talk about your Brazilian Museum
of Sculpture in São Paulo. You conceived it as a garden with the sculpture
gallery underground. Could you talk
about the relationship of this project to the ground?
I wanted the
Sculpture Museum to be outdoors garden. Fortunately, I could take advantage of
the sloped site and turn it into terraces with the interior gallery hidden
underneath, leaving the whole site open and free. Another solution could be to
build a building with the sculpture garden on the roof but it is always
challenging to get the roof access and in this project, the whole site serves
as one big garden.
The Museum’s which is shaped as a
portal is somewhat reminiscent of Lina Bo Bardi’s Museum of Art here in São
Paulo. This may not be a conscious reference; nevertheless, there is a visual
connection between the two…
make such assumption, but it is not so. You see, if the whole museum is placed
underneath it is confusing for visitors – where is the museum? I needed a
symbolic gesture and to frame the view to have a symbolic entry into the
building underground. It is a huge mistake people make… Look at the scale
difference, the purpose is also different. Her museum is up, mine is down. There
is nothing in common. My suspended beam is not accessible. It is a symbolic
portal; the top frames the important space. It brings attention to the entry.
Its only function is to hold the lighting to lit sculptures below.
line is there to keep the balance between architecture and sculptures; it is a
particular way to frame the collection. It is like walking around a sculpture
and touching it… No one knows how to read architecture. [Laughs.] It is like
literature – the author writes for everyone, but it is for people to interpret
the meanings. Architecture could be anything and its interpretations are
limitless. Architecture does not desire to be functional; it wants to be
Would you say that your Paulistano
Athletic Club of 1957, finished just several years after graduating from
university, was your manifesto?
think about that then, but I would like to think so because in this building I
tried to express many of my ideas. It was my first major project. It was not
only about providing space to play basketball or other sports. It was about
creating a beautiful space for people to interact within and express its
structure on the outside. The building was conceived as a space with opportune
and when, for example, Merce Cunningham, an American
dancer and choreographer came to São Paulo where he was looking for space to perform,
he was shown the Club and he chose it for his performances. Still, I don’t like
manifestoes. Every project is unique.
You said the city’s purpose is man’s
supreme work of art. São Paulo is work in progress. How do you see this city in the future?
If I took on one more project I would chose the whole
city of São Paulo to correct many planning mistakes – how the energy is
generated and distributed, its relation to the water, and so on. I would like
to involve many people in re-planning the city in a better way for all the
people. Every city is all about its people – how they go about their everyday
lives. The people are the conscience of cities. I hope people of São Paulo will
be able to transform the entire city the same way my project transformed the
Pinacoteca building here. The decayed urban chaos would turn into a beautiful