paulo mendes da rocha: 10 landmark projects by the late brazilian architect
May 24, 2021
paulo mendes da rocha, the celebrated brazilian architect, has passed away at the age of 92. mendes da rocha worked primarily in his home country, and is widely credited for transforming são paulo — the city where he lived and worked for most of his life. born in 1928, the architect began his career in the 1950s as a member of the ‘paulist brutalist’ avant-garde. after receiving a degree in architecture in 1954, mendes da rocha opened his own office in 1955. ‘architecture is a discourse of knowledge,’ the architect told designboom in 2007. ‘I project what I imagine people could desire — I have a delirious vision on what this might be, I don’t design for myself — I don’t follow my own needs.’
described by the pritzker prize, an award he won in 2006, as one of the most ‘consistently daring’ architects of the 20th century, mendes da rocha primarily worked in the public realm, creating concrete and steel forms of immense power and grace. in 2016, mendes da rocha was awarded the venice architecture biennale’s golden lion for lifetime achievement before winning the praemium imperiale international arts award in the same year. a renewed appreciation of the architect’s work followed, with the architect presented with RIBA’s royal gold medal in 2017. to celebrate the life and work of the great brazilian architect, we take a look at 10 of paulo mendes da rocha’s key projects — see the list in full below.
‘SESC 24 de maio’, a 14-storey leisure and culture complex, was one of mendes da rocha’s later projects. completed in 2017, the architect collaborated with MMBB arquitetos to reuse a previously-existing structure in the center of são paulo. the development, which is a destination of SESC, a non-profit brazilian institution that has a variety of outposts across the country, includes a rooftop swimming pool and a subterranean theater. other services in the building include sports facilities, a library, and even a dental clinic.
in the late 1990s, paulo mendes da rocha completed a respectful renovation and remodeling of the pinacoteca do estado, são paulo’s oldest fine arts museum. the project involved repairing and renovating the existing structure, and introducing new circulation routes in the form of elevated bridges that span the building’s interior courtyards. overhead, new skylights illuminate the space and protect it from the elements.
in 1992, paulo mendes da rocha started work on a project in the center of são paulo. the ‘patriarch plaza’ project involved remodeling a public square with an ingenious urban intervention. the architect suspended a large curved canopy from a steel frame, simultaneously protecting and defining the entrance to a bus station below. the project, which included other improvements to the urban realm, was completed in 2002.
mendes da rocha completed the brazilian sculpture museum (MuBE) in 1992. again located in são paulo, the project is defined by its low and linear profile, with most of the museum existing below ground. above ground, the architect designed a long concrete structure that protects visitors from the region’s hot sun and seasonal rain. this bold gesture also delineates the outdoor sculpture gardens, which celebrate and host the best of brazilian sculpture.
completed in 1964, ‘casa butantã’ was one of mendes da rocha’s earlier projects. located in butantã, a residential district of são paulo, the house is one of a pair that the architect designed for himself and his sister. built from concrete, the modular residence was originally designed to be prefabricated.
completed in 1987, the ‘capela de são pedro’ (or the chapel of saint peter) is a concrete structure with large, double-height glazed walls. again located in são paulo, the building’s interior spaces are articulated around a central concrete column, which in turn supports a series of platforms designed for various purposes.
in 2008, paulo mendes da rocha was commissioned to design portugal’s new national coach museum — an institution that has one of the finest collections of historical carriages in the world. together with MMBB arquitetos and bak gordon arquitetos, the team completed the project in 2015. located in lisbon, the structure comprises a main building with a suspended hall and annex, which are connected by an overpass that allows people to move from one to the other. the project serves a two-fold purpose as a cultural facility and a public space. in the words of mendes da rocha: ‘the museum has no doors and creates opportunities for interaction on every side’. the museum additionally functions as a piece of urban infrastructure, providing the city with a new public space.
in 2012, metro arquitetos associados completed the new ‘leme gallery’ — a resurrection of the original structure designed by paulo mendes da rocha located two blocks away, which was demolished in 2011 as a result of the all-too-common urban transformations in são paulo. it was decided that the new building would be a replica of the old to preserve the architectural memory, but also features a 9-meter by 9-meter cube additional support volume that communicates to its host through a translucent foot bridge, marking an outdoor spill-out courtyard space beneath.
the ‘cais das artes’, or ‘pier of the arts’, is a museum and theater complex located in vitoria, just north of rio de janeiro along sua bay’s built coast. the site comprises a concrete plane along the dock in an area benefiting from views of the native landscape and city backdrop, among new constructions and historical treasures. the primary strategy by mendes da rocha, working in collaboration with martin corullon of metro arquitetos associados, was to command this important space, and convert it into the cultural center of the metropolis while preserving the character of place — not an easy task considering the very large masses that would need to be built to accommodate a three-level museum and 1,300-seat theater. ‘this is an urban-oriented architectural action, in the sense of adjusting history and geography to a desired view of the present,’ mendes da rocha told designboom, ‘indicating at the same time a museological conception, an effort to combine art and science, under an integrated perspective.’
manufactured by objekto in 1957, the ‘paulistano’ chair was, for many years, part of the living rooms of the athletic club of são paulo. the constructivist concept of the structure — made from a single bent steel bar, and its cover from either leather or cotton — gives the armchair an aesthetic lightness and incomparable comfort. edited in a small series within the last few years, the ‘paulistano’ has emerged from the past to show that the purity and the elegance of its lines are timeless. the piece has been included in the permanent collection of MoMA.