A Visit From Brazil's Visionary Of the City

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006

Sao Paulo, Brazil, home of 2006 Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Paulo Mendes da Rocha, is often described as a place of dreams and nightmares.

The population of the world's fifth-largest city has doubled in 30 years, to more than 18 million. Unemployment hovers at 20 percent, but commerce is so good that skyscrapers jostle for airspace. Four million autos cruise 10,000 miles of streets, creating traffic jams that send the elite fleeing to helicopters in a "Blade Runner" escape from everyday reality.

The dichotomy of a financial and cultural capital sharing space with impoverished millions, who scavenge scrap wood for shelter, makes the unruly metropolis a perfect test case for the power of architecture, or for its impotence in the face of human need.

"Constructing cities is not a joke, it's not a game," Mendes da Rocha said yesterday. "If you admit illness, it's possible not to have a cure."

Before lunch at the Brazilian Embassy, he talked about his architecture -- powerful swoops of concrete -- and the future of a city that could presage the direction of Washington.

"The flower of all knowledge is the city. The architect's intent is to imagine a city for all," said Mendes da Rocha, who was invited to Washington by the National Building Museum, where he will lecture tonight at 6:30. (Last night, he greeted fans of his leather sling chair, the Paulistano, at the Design Within Reach store in Adams Morgan.)

After 70 years of designing, teaching and living in Sao Paulo, Mendes da Rocha -- who turned 78 on Wednesday -- knows the score.

"Shelter is the foundation of the question," he said. "Architects have to be in the forum of discussion about the future of humanity."

In the firmament of Brazilian architects, Mendes da Rocha is second only to Oscar Niemeyer, designer of the capital city of Brasilia and a Pritzker winner in 1988. If Mendes da Rocha's international profile is modest, that's only because his work is mostly in Sao Paulo. His dramatic designs play out in civic landmarks, museums, schools, clinics, apartment buildings and private houses.

Last spring the Pritzker jury applauded Mendes da Rocha's "deep understanding of the poetics of space." He hopes those who pause beneath an artful canopy that looks like the "wings of an angel" in steel will experience a moment of aesthetic relief.

"The ideal of architects is building with precision to support the unpredictability of human life," he said. "The objective is dignity -- to sustain creativity for all. Buildings are the instruments of life."

Buildings are rising at an astonishing pace in mega-cities around the globe. Sao Paulo happens to be one of 16 such cities -- including Istanbul, Mumbai, Tokyo and New York -- under study at the current Biennale of Architecture in Venice, which is drawing attention to the social consequences of explosive growth. (The United Nations has determined that more than 50 percent of the world's population live in urban settings. In Brazil, the figure is already 81 percent, according to the U.S. State Department.)

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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