Paulo Mendes da Rocha at his office window in downtown São Paulo. Photo: Luiza Sigulem
Paulo Mendes da Rocha at his office window in downtown São Paulo. Photo: Luiza Sigulem

From the most important living Brazilian architect, winner of all the main awards in world architecture – Mies van der Rohe (2001), Pritzker (2006) and now Golden Lion at the Venice Architecture Biennale (2016) –, one could imagine having a huge office, possibly in a prime area of ​​the city, with many employees and state-of-the-art computers. It's not the case. In downtown São Paulo, in an area best known for its pubs, nightclubs and cheap hotels, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, aged 87 [in 2016], works with just a desk, a computer, a large table, models and bookcases. books. To develop his projects, the architect associates with other offices, generally formed by disciples and former students.

What does he value about the office's region, which is also home to a faculty of architecture and the Institute of Architects of Brazil (IAB), it is precisely urban life and the interaction between people, which makes large cities the “laboratory of man”. Exactly the characteristics that, according to him, Brasília lacks, a “non-city”, built to take the capital out of Rio de Janeiro: “You can't build a capital in the middle of the bush. Copacabana Palace is missing, Rio Branco Avenue is missing, Mangueira Samba School is missing. I mean, you can't go to Italy and say that Rome is no longer the capital. Then he chooses a place to build another city and puts all the politicians together”.

In a long interview with !Brazilians – sitting at his table a few days after receiving the award in Venice – Paulo Mendes da Rocha is not just criticizing Brasília. Capixaba based in São Paulo and a great name, along with Vilanova Artigas (1915-1985), from the so-called Escola Paulista de Arquitetura, he talks about issues related to cities, nature, education, politics and art. He shows that a true architect must be, more than an expert in a specific area, a thinker of societies and the human condition. It is necessary “to face the fact that the planet is a helpless little pebble spinning in the universe, and for the first time man cannot deny that”.

The observation, despite what it seems, does not make Paulo Mendes a pessimist or a nostalgic: “For me, the world is always new”. And, if the world is made of problems, to think that we must know how to formulate and solve them is, in fact, stimulating. “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." Read the full interview below.

Casa Butantã – Residence that the architect designed for himself in 1964, in the São Paulo neighborhood, which was completed in 1966. Photo: Annett Espiro
Casa Butantã – Residence that the architect designed for himself in 1964, in the São Paulo neighborhood, which was completed in 1966. Photo: Annett Espiro

ARTE! - As you have just received the Golden Lion at the Venice Architecture Biennale (2016), I think we can start by talking about some questions raised by the curatorship of this year's Biennale, whose axis is to present projects engaged in solving urban and social problems. in various corners of the world, especially in needy communities. I mean, projects that deal with the issue of housing, the degradation of large cities, the environment... I would like to know how you see this curatorial proposal and if you agree that this is today the great debate to be held in architecture, about responsibilities political and social that belong to it.

Paulo Mendes da Rocha – I think it's the liveliest debate imaginable for the architecture at any time, in essence. It is the question of the human condition itself, not an idealistic view of architecture as a thing in itself. 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. In this Bienal, in particular, I found the position of the curator (the Chilean Alejandro Aravena) very intelligent, especially since he is a Latin American and being in Venice, a city that has all this navigation history. So he has this thing of bringing news, from navigators.

ARTE! - O you refer to the title of the Bienal, Reporting from the Front, or news from the front…

Yes. And, for us, news from America. And the fundamental grace of America is that it doesn't exist, it was all invented. The countries of America, in fact, are the consequences of staggeringly organized geographical divisions. And today this question, a critical view of colonial policy, has become worldwide. It is no longer just a question of the countries that were colonized, but also of the colonizers. Look what is happening in Europe: what is Spain doing now with its people in Morocco? France with Algeria? The Netherlands with Sumatra, Borneo? The world is facing this. Then we have news from Brazil. And the news is the need to unite on the continent. If you imagine the projects that we must do to face this nonsense of the partition that was made, we have the navigation of the rivers that leave one country and pass in another, a connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific that was never made, railroads that connect ports of a side to side. That means we have to come together to design a common America. These problems, in addition to their primary materiality, actually involve the construction of peace in Latin America, because they are projects that we must do in partnership. In other words, from the point of view of spatial management of the planet, to make it habitable, it is an instrument for building peace.

ARTE!Does it make more sense to think in terms of Latin America than Brazil, in terms of a national state?

Sure! How to think about the country in an isolated way if the entire Amazon river basin starts up there, in the Andes, and the entire Paraná-Uruguay basin flows into the Rio de la Plata and crosses Paraguay and Uruguay? In other words, we are facing, I think for the first time clearly, the population of the planet. So there's a novelty: facing the fact that the planet is a helpless little pebble spinning in the universe, and for the first time man cannot deny that. The revelation of evidence from the phenomenology of nature has never been so fast.

ARTE!When he said that there are problems, but that this is stimulating, I remembered Frank Lloyd Wright's phrase, that difficulties are architects' great friends.

It makes perfect sense. What makes a stone fall, which is the force of gravity, is what keeps a Gothic cathedral standing, provided it has the proper geometry. And then you bring up man and engineering.

ARTE!Think architecture along the lines of problem solving, in its most functional side, somehow at a distance from its artistic bias? Or does one thing not exclude the other?

You cannot solve problems, within the scope of architecture as a form of knowledge, 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 concomitant emergence of needs and wants. 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.

ARTE!In this sense, do you consider architecture to be art?

Nowadays 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. It reminds me of an image, Picasso's Guernica, that extraordinary canvas. Few people remember what is on it, painted on top: an electric light bulb. That is, he who painted disemboweled children, houses on fire, screaming animals, torn apart by the bomb, showed that infamy also consisted in destroying electric light. Our existence depends on it. Have you ever imagined what it would be like for a distressed mother, in a cave, to have a child crying without having electric light? Therefore, the infamy of Nazi war, among other things, lies in destroying human ingenuity itself, not just natural life. This revelation of consciousness in the Guernica painting, for example, reveals precisely that this artistic dimension manages to express our thinking in ways never seen before. A revelation of awareness of what is between art, science and technique, between image and word, between sound and image. And so it is in architecture: if you have to repeat bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom, how can you overcome these situations that can seem limiting?

Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, 1998 renovation, by Paulo Mendes da Rocha. PHOTO: Nelson Kon
Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, 1998 renovation. PHOTO: Nelson Kon

ARTE!Responding with this artistic dimension?

Yes, but I think more and more that it is not possible to frame these fields of human knowledge. I think that these divisions of knowledge into spheres, such as physics, mathematics, philosophy, increasingly seem not to be true, they are more instruments of work. It is impossible for a mathematician who is concerned with the statistics of logic and the repetition of phenomena not to be a philosopher and also an artist.

ARTE!Physics, mathematics… And the same can be said of architecture, right?

There are also those who work architecture as a closed discipline. What is nonsense...

ARTE!Yes, in an interview you rightly said that architecture is not a field of professional specialization, but a way of mobilizing knowledge. Is it around?

Yes, if you think that architecture has to know everything. It needs to be concerned with the human condition, therefore with linguistics, philosophy; you have to know how to build, therefore with geometry, mathematics, stability. It's impossible to be wise in all these areas… So, to reach levels of excellence, it has to go beyond all of this being a peculiar form of knowledge. That's why it is said a lot at FAU (Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at USP), for students, that it is impossible to teach architecture, but it is possible to educate an architect.

ARTE!But do you agree that sometimes architecture closes itself “in its own little world”, so to speak?

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

ARTE!Once, commenting on Niemeyer's sentence, which said that life is greater than architecture, you replied that you agreed, but that to realize this life would require a lot of architecture. What I meant?

His sentence is very beautiful and true, but life is made of architectures, isn't it? 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 doomed 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.

ARTE!And would this poem be an example of this necessary architecture in life?

Of course, architecture is objectifying ideas.

ARTE!You always say that the habitat of men is the city, not nature. Do ideologies that criticize cities, that talk about bringing man back to nature, make no sense to you?

Hey, you can do it: try it and die in the forest! In fact, the idea of ​​a city is not one of physical support, 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. This is the result of a delay in Brazil, where there was only work in São Paulo, and everyone came here. It's a disaster. Nobody knows the size of the ideal city, but it seems to me that it is something closer to one or two million inhabitants. And I'm even thinking about the size of areas destroyed to build cities, relationships with water reservoirs, etc. Take the issue of groundwater, for example. In São Paulo, a subsoil spatiality was blocked and the water dammed up, which is terrible. And with that you destroy a reserve. And this contradiction needs to be faced: if we need, in order to live, the transformation of nature into a city, these cities have to be planned according to these desires, which seem reasonable, of connections between seas, navigation of rivers, etc. Many countries were concerned about this, we were not. So our delay is already configured as degeneration in the face of knowledge.

ARTE!Is it not man against nature, is it man walking along with her?

We are here experimenting, we have no way of knowing beforehand, a priori. Today it is already clear that the planet cannot resist overpopulation, and the great revolution we are experiencing comes from this awareness and control of human fertility, which has completely changed male and female relationships. This is the great transformation in 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.

ARTE!You said that about “green”. There is the discourse of sustainable architecture, or green architecture, which is very much in vogue. How do you see this issue?

It's just another fad that becomes a commodity. What is less desirable is that you make a planting that climbs the facade of the building. It makes no sense, it only serves to cover up the disaster that is the destruction of the Amazon Forest, for example. You destroy the Amazon to raise cattle and plant a vine on the building's facade. This is a well-known Jesuit vision: it is the little mirror that deceives the Indian. They are selling this nonsense.

ARTE!And there is this tired use of the word sustainable, which is no longer quite sure what it means. Is it not clear that all architecture should be sustainable?

It must first of all support itself, otherwise it falls.

ARTE!And what to think of these thousands of buildings and houses full of walls and fences, which have gyms, swimming pools and everything so the person doesn't have to go out into the street. Is this the negation of the city, of urbanity?

It is denial, because the city is a democratic space. You can sleep on the sidewalk, but not in a gated community where you don't even enter. The denial of the democratic dimension of the city, of its discursive dimension, is evident. Because the city is where you meet and talk.

Museu dos Coches – Opened in Lisbon in 2015, it was designed together with the offices MMBB (Brazil) and Bak Gordon (Portugal). Photo: Bosc D'Anjou/Flickr
Museu dos Coches – Opened in Lisbon in 2015, it was designed together with the offices MMBB (Brazil) and Bak Gordon (Portugal). Photo: Bosc D'Anjou/Flickr

ARTE!At the same time, a more democratic type of use of urban public spaces seems to be growing, through cultural activities, demonstrations, occupations and the use of alternative transport, for example. Do you agree? In other words, do you see a growing awareness of the city as a public space?

I think so, as we have seen in other moments of crisis, when the acuteness of the problems becomes explicit. And in these moments 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 accomplished with human attitudes simply.

ARTE!And thinking about it, more specifically in the construction of houses, you already said that the resident passes, the house stays. That is, designing a house is not giving in to all the demands and requirements of a client, but knowing that it is part of a city?

You say you are building a house – bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom – as a pretext. In fact you are building the city. So I'm a traitor to my clients (laughs). It is very difficult for you to use the planet to build one's house. It only serves him.

ARTE!And the idea of ​​a popular house, or popular housing?

There is no public housing. The expression popular house, today, is the application of an idea in a stupid way. How to make a popular house? No running water? Is this water not drinkable? No electricity? Telephone? And the sewer, won't you have it? So, to what extent is it popular if there is no popular sewage, if there is no popular kilowatt? Are you going to build a bad house?

ARTE!Speaking of cities, and now in a more specific city, you recently said that Brasília was a historical stumbling block. What I meant?

In my opinion, building a new capital in America is stupid in any situation, in any country. Because there is no horizon or program stimulating enough to design a city in the idea of ​​capital, of administrative center. It is a way of making a non-city.

ARTE!And is that what Brasília has become, a non-city?

It's not that it turned, the idea is. You cannot build a capital in the middle of the bush. Copacabana Palace is missing, Rio Branco Avenue is missing, Mangueira Samba School is missing. I mean, you can't go to Italy and say that Rome is no longer the capital. Then he chooses a place to build another city and puts all the politicians together…

ARTE! - Perhaps it was in the interest of these politicians to isolate themselves from the rest of the country, from the people…
Perhaps unconsciously they knew that this would open doors to what is happening now. Nothing better for the thief than to hide.

ARTE!And this has to do with the architecture of Brasilia?

Nothing to do with Niemeyer's architecture, which is very inventive. The point is that you cannot dismantle a city like Rio by saying: now you are no longer a capital. The matter is right there in front of us for us to see: what is it for you to leave the Senate, in the position of senator, and have nowhere to go, except to go back to the Senate bar? It's not a city. The administrative center of a country is organized little by little in one of its cities, not the other way around. There cannot be this pretext that in order to administer a country it is necessary to make a capital. It makes no sense. The importance of place is missing. That conversation, which makes a city, already existed before, and the capital should be there.

ARTE!In addition to the fact that the capital was displaced, Brasília represented the dream of a modern Brazil, the ideal of a new man, of freedom.

The propaganda was really built around that.

ARTE!And then we are witnessing today that regrettable vote in Congress, which would be the people's house, where the opposite of those ideals predominates...

I don't want to comment on any of this, because it's beyond my ability. The thing has gone too far.

ARTE!Well, only answer if you want… But, in your view, is there a coup in progress?

Thinking about language, about the value of words, coup has a political value of violent opposition, quickly established. And I'm seeing, much more, a slow decay. The same thing, taking the form of rot, mold, rotting little by little. It would be difficult for this not to have happened, given, for example, what we were talking about, the foolishness of creating a Brasilia. You can see that this demagogic move to build a new administrative center was now repeated in Minas Gerais, by the former governor (Aécio Neves, from the PSDB, in 2010), who created the official government headquarters 20 kilometers from Belo Horizonte. It is a form of confinement for this administrative and political class, in the same sense as those housing projects you mentioned, of isolating themselves. And a city cannot be exclusive of anything. It's wanting to escape I don't know what, because the grace of a city is its life, and the coexistence of various types of activities.

ARTE!You once said that it is absurd for children not to study urbanism from an early age, in schools, since the city is as important as the language. Do we urgently need to change the school curriculum?

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 rock 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.

ARTE!Is there a lack of a more intuitive education, shall we say, more connected to the reality of life?

Yes, it is easier for the 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 everything 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 a counterpoint to this official education that we have.

ARTE!To conclude, returning to the Golden Lion with which we opened this interview. Looking back, with everything you have accomplished and lived, and now with the most important awards in world architecture in your hands, how do you feel?

Well, it's always a little amazing to win these prizes, you're not expecting. But I can't say. 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.

ARTE!When I interviewed Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza, he told me that he won awards because he deserved it, but also because of a bit of luck. Does winning Pritzker, Mies van der Rohe and now the Golden Lion, among others, have anything to do with luck?

What he said is interesting, because these are not prizes that you compete for, they are not contests. These are institutions that give these awards, so I think that every time they have a problem to solve: choosing someone. And if the devil, like me, never dies, he ends up winning all the prizes (laughs). It is a matter of mathematics, statistics, of probability. So instead of agreeing with Siza, who talks about luck, I prefer to say that, if the guy lasts a long time, he ends up maturing.

ARTE!You continue with several projects, you show no signs of wanting to stop…

I have some projects. Now, I think I'd rather leave without giving any signs...

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