In step with the cosmos

Times Staff Writer

The architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha takes language as seriously as he takes buildings because, he says, “words are not just words, they are ideas.” His b.s.-detector is always in the “on” position, wary of glib phrases, buzzwords, grand abstractions -- even if they’re his own.

When asked, for example, to give some specifics about his hope for a “green,” i.e. environmentally friendly, popular culture, which he expressed in an interview with The Times last year after winning the prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture, Mendes da Rocha shrugs his shoulders.

“What is green?!” he demands. “I am red!” One, two, three. . . . “That’s a joke!”

Without skipping a beat, the 79-year-old designer and lifelong socialist turns serious. The way to begin formulating such a culture, he says, is simply by talking. “Talking about our lives, our problems, our anxieties, our desires. Talking in any form, literature, movies, talking to each other, dancing, singing. . . . It’s all included.”


He picks up a ruler from a table in his office. “If you move this from here to here,” he says, “you change the world.” This leads him, by several extempore turns of thought, to digress about the mysterious shrinking of the world’s bee population, which triggers a rueful aside on the evils of cellphones, which crescendos in a rapturous utterance about the solar system’s elegant Newtonian symmetries. “Now you talk architecture!” he says, eyes glinting. Heavenly bodies, astral mechanics, the stars, the sky. . . . “ ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’!” he exclaims. “That’s architecture, too. You put architecture where you want.”

Architecture as acrobatics

Gravitas and whimsy -- it’s a duality that has been noted throughout Mendes da Rocha’s long, productive career. A December 2005 story in Architectural Record observed that the maestro treats his preferred medium of concrete (“liquid stone,” he calls it) and steel “as delicate materials that might snap upon touch.” The writer added that, “while monumental architecture can sink under the weight of its own massiveness and grave intentions, Mendes da Rocha often lightens the mood with pure acrobatics.”

That description certainly fits the architect’s signature works, many located within a few square miles of one another in this loose, baggy monster of a metropolis: the Forma furniture showroom, with its peekaboo street exposures; the 40-ton, ski-slope-shaped concrete awning that he draped over Patriarch Square, transforming a derelict public plaza into a humming urban crossroads; the old polytechnic he remodeled into the Pinacoteca art gallery, now an elegant post-industrial expanse of bare brickwork, glassed-in courtyards and metal catwalks; and his masterpiece, the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture, a multilevel configuration graced with a massive concrete “bridge” and ponds stocked with lazily gliding koi fish.

Like buildings and cities, the architect believes human life requires a balance of elements, as well as an awareness of its interdependence with other forces. Today we award scientists the Nobel Prize for improving our ideas about how the universe works, but five centuries ago, “which is nothing, Galileo was condemned to burn because he said that the Earth turned around the sun.”

“Our condition is to confront nature and understand its mysteries. The issue with globalization is not about companies, it’s not about entrepreneurship, but the formation of a conscience that we are part of nature, and the inhabitants of this planet.”

The Savonarolas of the world are still with us, alas. But Mendes da Rocha (pronounced men-dez da HO-cha) seems in no danger of being hauled off to an auto-da-fe, not now anyway.

Until recently, he was the lesser-known of the country’s two most revered living architects. The other, 99-year-old Oscar Niemeyer, is the more famous brand name, his reputation sealed by the DeMillian-scale government buildings he designed in the 1950s for Brasilia, and by the trademark concupiscent curls of his cathedrals, hospitals, apartment buildings and countless other edifices, many in his base of Rio de Janeiro. But Mendes da Rocha’s international stock has soared since April 2006, when the Chicago-based Hyatt Foundation awarded him its annual Pritzker Architecture Prize, the first time for a Brazilian since Niemeyer shared it with Gordon Bunshaft in 1988. His current to-do list includes an ambitious design for the University of Vigo in Galicia, Spain, a modern extension to the National Fine Arts Museum in Rio and a children’s science museum outside Sao Paulo. He’s also doing a harborfront redevelopment project in his hometown of Vitoria in the Atlantic coastal state of Espirito Santo. Harbors and canals have fascinated him since boyhood, when he used to accompany his engineer-father on excursions to watery locales.


The Pritzker also served as belated recognition that although sunny, sashaying Rio attracts more tourists, it is Sao Paulo, draped in ambivalent light and frequent drizzle, that is Brazil’s center of cultural production, with cutting-edge architects, influential young couturiers such as Alexandre Herchcovitch and innovative designers including Carlos Motta and the Campana brothers.

Although Mendes da Rocha tends to build locally, he thinks globally, even cosmically. Mankind constructs its own environment, he’s fond of saying, but we are merely a blip in the universal space-time continuum, an “aberration in nature,” and “no one can be sure that we . . . will exist 1,000 years, or maybe even one century.” We refer to human creations (a slum, for instance) as “phenomena,” but our use of this term is misguided, he says.

“Phenomenon is thunder, rain, tides. Between us humans there is no phenomenon,” he intones in a voice both magisterial and filled with knowing winks, as if he were simultaneously channeling an Old Testament prophet and Groucho Marx.

“He’s a real citizen of the world, even without leaving his building,” says Paulo Lima, founder and editor of Brazil’s Trip magazine. “He’s a guy who’s always flying. You can’t tie him on the floor.”


Indeed, “gravity-defying” is an adjective often applied to the architect’s work, and the same could be said of him. Puffing away on a cigarette in his office, Mendes da Rocha free-associates like a character in a James Joyce novel. He crafts wordplay in Portuguese, Spanish and English, answers questions with questions, savors conundrums.

When I observe that his office seems almost perversely low-tech -- dusty rows of bookshelves, stacks of drawings on a scuffed wooden table, and only one secretary to assist him -- he smiles and points a finger at his head. “I am high-tech. I am walking high-tech. Like Johnny Walker!” Yes, he acknowledges, he’s a whiskey drinker: “I am not nationalistic about drinks and ideas.”

However tricky his sense of humor or roundabout his conversational style, Mendes da Rocha rarely sidesteps a challenging issue. Like one of his multifaceted structures, he demands that you approach an idea from every possible angle so as to comprehend the whole.

“He’s very aggressive, intellectually. He looks in your eyes very sweetly, but very aggressive,” says Motta, who as an architecture student in the 1970s interned with Mendes da Rocha. “He’s try- ing to understand all the time because he loves human beings.”


The architect’s close association with Sao Paulo results partly from choice, partly from historical circumstance. As a socialist, he was one of several faculty members at the University of Sao Paulo forced out during the right-wing military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.

While many prominent Brazilian artists (including Niemeyer) fled the country during that period, Mendes da Rocha chose to stay. Many of his friends were imprisoned or killed during that long, dark night of Brazilian history. Although he was largely barred from accepting foreign architectural commissions, he did design the Brazilian pavilion at Expo 1970 in Osaka, Japan, and was a finalist for Paris’ Pompidou Center competition in 1972.

He made good use of his internal exile. Along with contemporaries such as Joao Filgueiras Lima, a.k.a. “Lele,” and the late Italian-born Lina Bo Bardi, Mendes da Rocha brought a sense of style and self-confidence to this city of 10 million. Heirs to Le Corbusier, the so-called Paulistano “Brutalist” school of architecture developed an avant-garde tradition of using simple, solid materials to construct buildings that were broad-shouldered and firmly rooted in their urban fabric, yet also highly sculptural and light on their feet. One of Mendes da Rocha’s earliest projects, the Paulistano Athletic Club (1958), has been described as having a metal roof suspended on steel cables that “seems to hover like a spacecraft.”

His public buildings know how to play nicely with their neighbors, and the architect insists that private homes be good citizens too. Motta recalls one time when his mentor chastised a high-society client who wanted her new house designed so that she wouldn’t have to see her maids.


“He got really mad, said, '[Expletive!] That maid washes your dirty underwear! She’s preparing your food! She’s cleaning your toilet!’ ” In the end, Motta says, the client came around to the architect’s viewpoint.

Nor does Mendes da Rocha suffer bureaucratic tampering with his creations. Suzanna do Amaral Cruz Sampaio, vice president of the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture, says the architect was furious when a previous museum administration installed a wall to create a new gallery space, blocking a vista to the outside. “He makes terrible attacks against us,” she says. “In reality, the senor is a little authoritarian.”

A world awaiting discovery

The neighborhood where Mendes da Rocha has worked for three decades is what urban planners euphemistically call “in transition.” Prostitutes ply their trade in the local parks, and street children sleep on filthy carpet scraps lining the sidewalks. But yuppies lately have begun re-colonizing landmark residential buildings such as Niemeyer’s curvaceous El Copan apartment complex. Mendes da Rocha and his second wife, Helene Afanasieff, a Russian-born architect and designer, reside in an apartment a few blocks away. Nearby is the Mackenzie Architecture School, where he received his degree in 1954.


The architect, who speaks of private cars and their impact on cities as one might describe a plague of dengue-bearing mosquitoes, walks to his office, a habit he believes should be instilled from infancy. “Walking to school, it’s the beginning of civic life. If you drive your child to school, it’s a crime. If you’re a boy or a girl, the best thing you can do is get lost. . . . I abandoned my children in the street. I gave them the world as a gift. Lost in paradise!”

His personal lifestyle choices are in keeping with his philosophy of how urban society should function. “There is no private space,” he says. “You can have private moments, you can be studying, but there is no private space. . . . You cannot have a kilowatt for rich people and a kilowatt for poor people.”

In sum, Mendes da Rocha believes, cities “can’t be something eternal” but must always be changing. Beauty, imagination and adaptability are what’s needed from architects and architecture, not monuments. It’s not change that troubles him but “human stupidity.” After seeing entire cities wiped off the map during World War II, he briefly hoped that humanity might mend its ways. Instead, he says, we’ve reverted to more of the same. “About this, architecture can do nothing.”

Evening has arrived. Outside the office windows, the surrounding high rises are lighting up.


Despite his forebodings about the future, Mendes da Rocha says, “I am not a futile optimist.” Escorting his visitors toward the elevator, he passes a file cabinet on which he has constructed a scale maquette of the theater-museum complex he’s designing for the Vitoria waterfront. A miniature freighter about 8 inches long glides along the gray, metallic ocean of the cabinet’s surface. It’s flying a flag, two horizontal bands of red bracketing another of yellow. Spanish, by any chance?

A sly expression steals over the architect’s face.

“No,” he says, smiling. “It’s a new country.”