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Home » Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Architect of ‘Concrete Acrobatics,’ Dies at 92

Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Architect of ‘Concrete Acrobatics,’ Dies at 92

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Paulo Mendes da Rocha was only 30 when he built his first major building, the Paulistano Athletic Club, in his hometown, São Paulo, Brazil. A giant concrete disk atop wedge-shaped struts of the same gutsy material, it looked like a spaceship ready to blast off.

It was 1958, and Mr. Mendes da Rocha, the son of an engineer, had pulled off a technological tour de force, using a humble material and serving democratic principles. Though he would design many private houses for wealthy people over his long career, his heart was in public works.

“All space is public,” he often said. “The only private space that you can imagine is in the human mind.”

It was a feat he would repeat in the decades that followed, even after a military dictatorship rose to power in Brazil in 1964 and scattered his architectural colleagues, many of whom left the country. Though he was blacklisted for 20 years during the regime’s grim reign, he stayed put. He had five children at the time, and he loved his city.

Mr. Mendes da Rocha died on May 23 at a hospital in São Paulo. He was 92. The cause was lung cancer, his son Pedro said.

He was among the group of São Paulo architects called the Paulistas, known for their socialist ideals, whose collective style was often defined as Brazilian Brutalism. But Mr. Mendes da Rocha had a lighter touch than that label implies. “Concrete acrobatics” is how many architecture writers described his work. He called concrete, his material of choice, “liquid stone.”

When he designed the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture, which opened in 1988, he located much of it underground and created a vast public square above, over which a concrete bridge hovered. For his 1993 renovation of the Pinacoteca do Estado do São Paulo, that city’s oldest fine-arts museum, founded in 1905, he turned the ceilings to glass and spanned the courtyards with metal catwalks.

“His São Pedro Chapel, built in Campos do Jordão in 1987, doesn’t look like it should stand up at all,” Oliver Wainwright, the architecture and design critic of The Guardian, wrote, noting the chapel’s mind-bending construction: “a hefty concrete slab sitting on top of a delicate glass box — the whole magically cantilevered from a single column in the middle of the building.”

Charming, gruff and intellectually nimble — he could pun in three languages, and he aggressively favored the Socratic method when he taught — Mr. Mendes da Rocha liked to say that the purpose of architecture was to support the unpredictability of life. He mostly worked in an office of one, characterized by the dusty dishevelment of a run-down civic building or an old newspaper city room, as Barry Bergdoll, a professor of art history at Columbia University and the former chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, put it in a phone interview.

He disdained cellphones and, more vociferously, private cars, decrying their size, weight and environmental impact as a scourge on cities. He preferred to take taxis or walk.

It boggled the minds of many that the creator of such complex technological constructions was at heart an analog guy.

In 2006, Mr. Mendes da Rocha was awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor. He was only the second Brazilian to win the prize, after the Rio-born Oscar Niemeyer, who collaborated on the United Nations building in New York City and won in 1988.

In a statement announcing Mr. Mendes da Rocha’s award, Peter Palumbo, the chairman of the Pritzker Prize jury at the time, said he brought “the joyful lilt of Brazil to his work, and in so doing lifts the spirits of all those whose lives are touched by it, and many more the world over who have been influenced by the monumentality of his buildings and the raw materials that are his trademark.”

Credit…Awakening/Getty Images

Paulo Archias Mendes da Rocha was born on Oct. 25, 1928, in Vitoria, a city in southeastern Brazil. His father, Paulo de Menezes Mendes da Rocha, was an engineer; his mother, Angelina (Derenzi) Mendes da Rocha, was a homemaker whose family had immigrated from Italy.

With his father, he shared a spartan sensibility and appreciation for simple solutions, his son Pedro said, along with a love of engineering’s marvels. He grew up touring the dams and ports his father had designed, and many have noted how those forms made their way into his work.

He earned a degree in architecture from Mackenzie Presbyterian University in São Paulo in 1954. In 1961, he joined the University of São Paulo’s Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism, founded by João Batista Vilanova Artigas, whose muscular architecture defined the Paulistas’ sensibilities. He was barred from teaching in 1969, and his position was not reinstated until the amnesty, as it was known, of 1979.

He did build in those years, however — mostly family houses, including his own, and two public works: a soccer stadium in 1975 and the Brazilian Pavilion for the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan. A slab of concrete balanced on an undulating landscape, the pavilion drew accolades at home and abroad. After the fair, Brazil’s military regime had it destroyed.

Mr. Bergdoll, who oversaw a show of Latin American architecture at MoMA in 2015, said that Mr. Mendes da Rocha’s style and ethos were of a piece with his São Paulo colleagues’. “They were able to exploit technology and really push it to the limit,” he said, “but at the same time do it in means that were rough and austere. It’s that cultural rejection of luxury and finish that carries through.”

The Paulistas’ so-called Brazilian Brutalism was softer than its European counterparts, blooming with moss and other foliage in the damp tropical climate. Mr. Mendes da Rocha used age-old “technologies” — cross-ventilation, thick exterior walls — to cool or insulate his structures. He often put shallow pools on the roofs.

The house he built for his family in 1964 had windows that cantilevered open to let the air flow through. Its bedrooms were built at the core of the house, with walls that stopped short of the ceiling, lit above by atrium windows, all ringed by a common area like a giant veranda. Set on what looks like a berm, it most resembled a futuristic cargo ship.

“Our rooms were like those in a monastery,” Pedro Mendes da Rocha said, “with just a bed, a desk and bookshelves.” His friends loved staying in his house, he said, “with all its peculiar and fantastic solutions.”

Toward the end of his life, Mr. Mendes da Rocha did less and less private work. He wanted to build only public spaces for his park-poor city and worried always about the treatment of the poor, who were crammed into the favelas, the makeshift neighborhoods that ring São Paulo, far away from city services.

His last major work was an iteration of a Brazilian institution called a Serviço Social do Comércio — essentially a worker’s club that provides services like health care, cultural programming, gyms, theaters and more, in one building. In 2017, Mr. Mendes da Rocha turned an old department store into a dazzling open structure with a rooftop swimming pool. Yet like the building itself, he said, the pool was for the people, not for millionaires. That same year, the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded Mr. Mendes da Rocha its Royal Gold Medal, a Pritzker-like honor, one of many he received.

“He took architecture and ideas very seriously,” said Reed Johnson, who as Latin American culture writer at The Los Angeles Times profiled Mr. Mendes da Rocha in 2007, “but at the same time he wasn’t ponderous.” He added, “To keep coming to that funny and wonderfully chaotic office every day and having faith you could rebuild the country and the culture after that terrible period when anybody with an idea could be thrown in jail is just an incredible achievement.”

Mr. Mendes da Rocha’s first marriage, to Virginia Ferraz Navarro, ended in divorce in 1973. He married Helene Afanasieff in 1974. In addition to his son Pedro, he is survived by his wife; two other sons, Guilherme and Paulo; three daughters, Renata Navarro Mendes da Rocha, Joana Mendes da Rocha and Nadezhda Afanasieff Mendes da Rocha; seven grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and a sister, Anna Maria Pinheiro Guimarães.

“If for Niemeyer the first thing that comes to mind is a sort of lyricism,” Mr. Bergdoll, the art historian, said, referring to Brazil’s other most famous architect, “for Mendes da Rocha it’s an austere grittiness, and the creation of places that are stages for joy.”

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