Brazilian Wins Pritzker Prize

The amphitheater of the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture shows the architect's penchant for bold, open designs.
The amphitheater of the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture shows the architect's penchant for bold, open designs. (By Nelson Kon -- Associated Press)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 10, 2006

Paulo Mendes da Rocha, a leading Brazilian modernist for nearly half a century, has been selected to receive the 2006 Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture's most prestigious international honor. He becomes the third Latin American, and second Brazilian, to win the award in its 27-year history.

The 77-year-old architect "has over the past six decades produced buildings with a deep understanding of the poetics of space," the seven-member Pritzker jury said in its official citation. Mendes da Rocha "brings the joyful lilt of Brazil to his work," said jury chairman Lord Peter Palumbo, "and in so doing lifts the spirits of all those whose lives are touched by it."

Mendes da Rocha will receive the award -- and the $100,000 check that comes with it -- in a May 30 ceremony at the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul.

Most of the architect's buildings and urban design projects are in or near Sao Paulo, the huge industrial city where he has lived since childhood. In recent years, however, Mendes da Rocha has been doing work outside Brazil, most notably in northern Spain, where he is creating a master plan for a "technological city" as part of the University of Vigo.

Modernist roots, structural clarity, sculptural presence, a certain severity, a concern for both nature and urbanity, and a drive for originality became outstanding characteristics of Mendes da Rocha's works. All are apparent in one of his earliest buildings, the Paulistano Athletic Club, completed in 1958 in Sao Paulo.

From a distance the building, which accommodates a covered, 2,000-seat amphitheater and other athletic facilities, resembles one of those circular spaceships popular in science fiction films and comic books of the time. In reality, it is both a rational and a highly inventive structure, its metal roof held aloft by cables attached to angular concrete fins that project dramatically outward.

Just as for Swiss master Le Corbusier and Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer (winner of the Pritzker in 1988), reinforced concrete has remained the favorite building material of Mendes da Rocha. He comprehends both its pliability and its strength, and has put both qualities to good use throughout his career. Nevertheless, his buildings also often have an open, almost airy quality -- glass is perhaps his second favorite building material.

For his 1987 Forma store in downtown Sao Paulo, for instance, he created a dramatic contrast between a flat concrete facade and a long, high band of glass at the second-floor level -- a window into the store that became, in effect, a lively billboard. For his own residence in Sao Paulo, completed in 1960, Mendes da Rocha devised an extraordinary enclosure, raised on concrete piers, that shades long bands of windows that look directly out into the surrounding trees.

Mendes da Rocha's most widely known building, perhaps, is the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture, competed in Sao Paulo in 1988. Although its most stunning visual feature is a 197-foot-long, 39-foot-wide concrete beam that divides the large site, much of the museum and its courtyards are underground. Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Prize, noted that "the museum and the landscape are treated as a whole," and the result is a "building in dialogue with the city."

The Pritzker Prize was created by the Hyatt Foundation in 1979 to honor living architects. Fifteen individuals from Europe have won the award, along with eight architects from the United States, three from Asia, one from Australia and, now, three from Latin America. Luis Barragan of Mexico was the Pritzker laureate in 1980.

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