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A Visit From Brazil's Visionary Of the City

A plaza in Sao Paulo designed by Paulo Mendes da Rocha. Below, the Pritzker winner in his Paulistano chair.
A plaza in Sao Paulo designed by Paulo Mendes da Rocha. Below, the Pritzker winner in his Paulistano chair. (By Bebete Viegas -- Paulo Mendes Da Rocha)

The Brazilian contemporary social theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger, a Harvard professor, has described Sao Paulo as a place where the haves seek refuge in shopping malls or in the privatized public spaces provided by fortified office buildings and secure country clubs. Meanwhile, the have-nots fend for themselves among their "sepulchres of match boxes." (Their houses in the favelas, or slums, have inspired a wood-chip designer chair by Brazil's celebrity design duo Fernando and Humberto Campana. )

Mendes da Rocha talks of the charms of a city that is "absolutely contemporaneous." But like others, it is challenged by a "lack of planning in the economies of countries that makes cities excessively, fantastically attractive" to migration, leading to huge semi-slums on the shoulders of glamorous urban villages. Architects aren't the problem, but they might not be the answer, either.

"We don't have kilowatts for the poor and kilowatts for the rich," he said. "This is a consequence of ancient disturbances of the human order."

His response has been notably in the public realm. His design for the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture merges shelter and landscape while hiding the building's mass in a composition of free-standing walls, terraces, pools and sunken galleries linked by a beam of concrete 39 feet wide and 197 feet long. His earliest masterpiece, the 1958 Paulistano Athletic Club, has muscular flying buttresses and a disk-shaped cover that resembles an alien spaceship. For the Brazilian pavilion at the 1970 world exposition in Osaka, Japan, he balanced much of the building on a single point of terrain.

The buildings exude 1930s European modernism with a futuristic Brazilian streak. Locals call the style "Paulista brutalism," but Mendes da Rocha uses unadorned concrete with expressive grace. He is not yet satisfied.

"We work in anguish every time," he said.

The architect earned his Pritzker in part for trying to humanize architecture, whether by shortening the walk from a car or providing a gathering place under an olive tree. He has taught that architecture is about transforming places rather than making objects.

Mendes da Rocha's teaching was interrupted from the late 1960s to 1980, when he and others at the University of Sao Paulo were forced to resign by the military government. He retired in 1999.

"We must have hope in the future," he said. "For millions and millions of years, we have been constructing the human dimension of man. We must go on."

On the other hand, as an architect, the only thing he can assure is that "the building doesn't fall."

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