Paulo Mendes da Rocha in his office, in 2016, in a portrait made by Luisa Sigulem and published now for the first time. Photo: Luisa Sigulem

None afternoon in June 2016, a few weeks after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, Paulo Mendes da Rocha (1928-2021) received this reporter in his office, in downtown São Paulo, to grant an interview to Brazilians magazine. It was one of the many international honors received by the Brazilian architect in recent decades – such as the Pritzker, the Mies Van der Rohe, the gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) and the Imperial Prize of Japan – that crowned his nearly 60 years of professional trajectory. The prize granted by the Italian event, in fact, was just the pretext for a long conversation on the most varied topics, from the architect's perceptions of cities, art and nature to criticism of the construction of Brasilia, to the concept of “housing popular” or “green architecture” and the education system in Brazil. Paul made no concessions, he was forceful in his statements.

Over an hour and a half of interview, the architect made it clear, once again, that architecture cannot be thought of as something separate from everyday life, from solving people's problems and the search for the satisfaction of human needs and desires. The title of the article, published in that month’s edition of Brasileiros – “The broad sense of architecture” – and the headline on the cover – “Paulo Mendes da Rocha: a thinker” – tried, at least, to account for this breadth of the architect’s thinking. , at that time, was the last living great name of Brazilian modern architecture. 

Now, five years later, shortly after the death of Paulo Mendes da Rocha, aged 92, as a result of lung cancer, the arte!brasileiros recalls some of the most striking parts of that conversation. The architect, born in Vitória and based in São Paulo, was one of the main names of the so-called Escola Paulista de Arquitetura – alongside his master João Vilanova Artigas. He designed, among many others, the gymnasium of the Paulistano club, the MuBE (Brazilian Museum of Sculpture and Ecology), the renovation of the Pinacoteca do Estado, the Marquise in Praça do Patriarca, the Coach Museum (Lisbon) and the Sesc 24 de Maio . He was a professor at FAU-USP, persecuted by the civil-military dictatorship in the late 1960s, and markedly influenced the architectural thinking of the generations that followed him. With an emphasis on constructive technique, the adoption of exposed reinforced concrete and the enhancement of the structures of houses and buildings, his works are an unavoidable reference in Brazilian architecture. 

But, in addition to his works, it was his ideas and positions that made him one of the biggest names in national architecture – as happened with Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, Artigas and Lina Bo Bardi, among others. Read excerpts from the 2016 interview below.  

About architecture and art

“We are here, in any of our activities, to solve problems. There are always problems, because it is very difficult to be any living being in nature. You see what species had to come up with, from a dragonfly to a giraffe, the business is very complicated. Seen in that light, things get to some extent exciting, because we have to solve problems. Or, for this to be configured, we need to know how to formulate our problems”.

“You can't solve problems, in the realm of architecture, from a purely functional point of view. Then you at most create machines. Precisely the grace of architecture is to keep the discourse alive that, in the face of the urgency to do something, it is already done with high ideals of the vision we have of ourselves. This is what linguists call the concomitance of the emergence of needs and desires. You transform the strict need, at the same time, into desire. That is, you solve a problem from a practical, almost mechanical point of view, giving an expression that it can still be solved better in the future”.

“Today, I see the expression art as somewhat reductionist. It can't just be art, and that's the beauty of architecture, that you don't know if it's art, science or technique. In other words, it has to be all of these at the same time. It is a discourse about knowledge. The impression I have is that everything that man does has an artistic dimension. Our existence requires a position of what we call art, or an artistic attitude. In speech, gesture, expression, concern for the other… Deep down, deep down, art means concern for the other”. 

“There is a market of a so-called architecture, gaudy, flashy, which, like any package, the market produces, with a fictitious value, capable of being promulgated as value. Architecture as a commodity is a mistake. Architecture is not a commodity, it is always the result of needs”.

“I find it very beautiful to use this popular expression “architect”. People say: what are you architecting? And that is: to be giving form to an idea, a will, a desire. We are condemned to transform an idea into a thing, because otherwise nobody knows your idea. If you write letters on paper, here is the poem turned into a thing. When it was just in the poet's head, it was nothing.”

Paulo Mendes da Rocha. Photo: Luisa Sigulem
About cities and public space 

“Actually, the idea of ​​a city is not about physical protection, in the sense of protecting from wind and rain. It's a place where you can talk. The city is man's laboratory. He needs to be together. And to live together you need public transport, you need the children's school, etc. This does not mean that the city of São Paulo, with 20 million inhabitants, the result of the decadence resulting from a colonialist policy, is the ideal city”.

“In these moments of crisis, when the acuteness of the problems becomes explicit, the city transforms itself to say precisely what it intends to be. When spaces are occupied, when the street takes on the character of an assembly, it is also an architectural vision of transformation. Because architecture doesn't always require you to build something. It can be realized with human attitudes simply”.

About man and nature

“Because there is this tendency to think that talking about nature is talking about green. No, nature is even the male and female condition of the human being, and this has never been faced with as much evidence as when faced with the question of the impossibility of an overpopulation on the planet. We are nothing. We always have to imagine what we will be. And when you ask that, here is the political dimension of our existence. What will we be if we can make decisions about our directions? It's about avoiding disaster. In the end, that's it."

“One has to face the fact that the planet is a helpless little boulder spinning in the universe, and for the first time man cannot deny that.”

About education and training

“The education system is all wrong. We were supposed to teach physics, elementary mechanics along with literacy. A child plays with a pawn in the palm of his hand, flies a kite, lets go of a rocket, throws a marble. That is, he knows what a sphere is that touches a plane only at one point. You don't play marbles with a cobblestone, but with perfect spheres. And you tie a stone to a string and any child will understand what gravity is, conservation of energy, etc. It is easier to teach a child elementary physics and mechanics than it is to teach what Mother's Day is. The difficult thing for a child is to understand the nonsense they say. And then I'm talking about the whole world, not just Brazil. Education today is made to subject the comrade to the enjoyments of the market and the ideology that is put there, of stupid capitalism”.

“It's easier for a child to understand what a heart is if you put him to feel the pulse with his hand, in his own body, than if you put him to draw a red thing on paper, so abstract. The fisherman's son knows all about wind, weather, etc. The confrontation with nature in its set of phenomena educates, even today, in a way that serves as a bit of counterpoint to this official education that we have”.

“I don't have much experience, for me the world is always new. I don't know what was and what will be. I just know that I'm not afraid of things, much less the present, because he's all we have”.

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