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Paulo Mendes da Rocha: Rocha and concrete

MIGUEL BOYAYAN“My father raised me to be an architect/ But my health left me one day”/ “Did I become an architect? I couldn’t!/ I’m a minor poet, forgive me!” lamented Manuel Bandeira, opting for dichotomy when he could have had the dialect. Who says that a poet is not an architect of words? Neither is it impossible to think of an architect as a poet in concrete forms. In both cases there is only one requirement: not being a small one. “Bandeira wasn’t and Paulo Mendes da Rocha isn’t”, praised his colleague Francisco Fanucci as being capable of “making poetry of concrete”. Hence, one cannot understand the general surprise when it was announced, last month, that he was the winner of the Pritzker Award for Architecture of 2006, which annually rewards an architect who brings together talent, vision and commitment, having contributed in a significant manner towards humanity and the manufactured environment. Before him only Oscar Niemeyer had received this honor, whose nickname is a reflection of its importance: The Nobel Prize for architecture. The jury, which included among so many others Frank Gehry, justified his choice by the capacity Paulo has to “modify the landscape and space with his work, always with a profound understanding of spatial poetry and a sense of responsibility towards the inhabitants”.

Born in 1928, in Vitoria,  in the  state of Espírito Santo, Paulo lists among his influences Burle Marx, Affonso Reidy, Niemeyer, Vilanova Artigas, “but without forgetting, naturally, my memories of childhood: both the high winds, so much water, the Prata Bay, the Amazonian Bay, 8,000 kilometers of coastline, ships etc.”, as he likes to emphasize, in a manner that would tear away, with certainty, the forgiveness of father Bandeira. His own father was an engineer who brought his family to São Paulo in the decade of the 1930s and gave lectures  at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo during the 1940’s. The son chose to study at Mackenzie University and graduated in 1954, the year of the death of President Vargas. A curious coincidence, since the period of formation of Brazilian modern architecture occurred exactly during the New State ( Getulio Vargas’ dictatorship), whose authoritarian character would make the nascent art grow devoid of logic and of desirable social ideology. If the rest of Brazil had delighted itself with the curves and lightness of the architecture of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo could not stop. Its nature of industrial power demanded various urban and architectonic solutions different from those of Vargas’ conservativism and the federal capital. The Copan building is a clear example of the disharmony between the Rio school and the hard poetry of Sao Paulo’s corners, as indeed recognized its author, Architect Oscar Niemeyer. The metropolis had rejected an architecture of self-absorbed, self-sufficient buildings but, paradoxically, demanded a layout that would privilege the “sociability” between the construction and its surroundings.

For such, the union between the technician, the intellectual and the urban proletarian gave origin to the sea of concrete – “under the exacerbated circumstances of the decade of the 1960’s, Mendes da Rocha consolidates a rich vocabulary that is going to influence generations: formal abstraction, pre-fabrication, ingenious techniques that include the development of constructive details on a mechanical scale and the reduction of architecture to its spatial and essential constructive elements”, in the exact synthesis of the architect from FAU-USP, Luiz Recamán. The major step was taken in 1958, with the project for the gymnasium, sports complex and pools of the Paulistano Athletic Club. The next year, Vilanova Artigas, seeing his love of teaching, invited him to lecture at the FAU, and in 1962, Mendes da Rocha created the project for the construction of the Anthropology and Sociology School building at USP. International recognition came in 1969, with the creation of the Brazil Expo 70 pavilion, in Osaka, Japan. Afterwards there were various successes: a finalist in the competition for the construction of the Beaubourg, of Paris; the design of the new home for the Contemporary Art Museum of USP; the Brazilian Sculpture Museum project; daring, in the creation of the space of the Forma Shop, in Sao Paulo; carrying out the urban renovation of the Patriarca Square and the Viaduto do Chá; the restructuring of the State’s Pinacoteca (Art Museum), where he brought together modernism and the city’s past, in perfect harmony. But enough has been said about forms. It’s Paulo’s turn to talk.

Your award was hailed as a victory for Brazilian architecture. Do you yourself believe in a “Brazilian architecture”?
It’s an intriguing question. However, one’s not dealing with a search, at any cost and in any way, of the idea that “this architecture is Brazilian”, because here we’ll enter onto a route of degeneration, of absurdity. Nevertheless, there should be a Brazilian trait in architecture, since it is America, it involves the whole question of territory. The Spanish philosopher, Eduardo Subirats, in one of his books, cried out against this destruction of Latin America by the hand of colonialist policy that destroyed everything. He calls the book O continente vazio [The empty continent]. But this is a malicious form of saying: it had not been empty, but was dealt with as if empty. I always remember, for example, the issue of construction by our Indians, of extraordinary ingenuity, with suspended structures, of curved wood. This is what makes me see that, where there is man, there is architecture. And in this there is something that must be considered. Our Christian Western inheritance must not be the only source of information. But this Brazilian trait would be just because we’re facing this inauguration. Indeed, it is the same architecture of the Neolithic Age, it is what man knows, by history, with experience, and by desires. These may well not be specifically Brazilian, but, with an attentive eye, you see things herein that one doesn’t see outside. If you observe our transformation of nature, it is different from anyone only observes the patrimony of, for example, a city such as Rome. A Roman architects stated that “for us, geography is what is constructed”. Our chaos is diverse. Even at that, our geography in natura should give some force, even if it is in the lyric or poetic direction of form. But the process was highly calamitous. Think of the Rio de Carioca coastline: that “sea of buildings”, whose justification was “the children want to bathe in the sea, so we’ll all stay here”. Thus, make it vertical, the elevator, the cubicle. For us the sea is only charming when seen from a window in a city. We don’t have the vocation of the explorer. Because, from the window one can return to the interior, where there is the furniture, the kitchen, the comforts. Nature gives us fear. Thus let’s go building. And nothing was re-designed. One of the evils of this process is exactly this, one cannot edit the final expression of human intelligence. There is also a lack of ideas about the city, a lack of desire of the city. Worse still: there is an absence of  demand of city planning on the part of society. A part of it doesn’t want the city and excludes itself, flees from it into the closed condominiums. The architect suffers a lot when he reasons with these things, because he sees what was not done. And, what could have been done.

What is the weight of this anguish?
Things happen and develop more quickly than I can accompany them and I see myself always running after the world. Consequently I prefer to see in architecture the resources of the construction and planning of the city. We can do everything if we so wish. In this contradiction lives, can we say, our fear always in the face of things. You work with what you learn. I like to say to my colleagues, to the younger ones mainly, to the university in  general, that they pay attention to the following: we have a good standard of education and at the same time we are on the edge of an abyss of losing conscience about this standard  in the university environment. Architecture courses tend to degenerate, in my opinion, very easily, by the wants of professionalism, shall we say, of the market. The viewpoint that architecture deals with all of the forms of knowledge is being lost. If you want to mobilize the idea of purpose, you have to mobilize not yours, but the purpose of your countrymen, of the people. And if you, moved by this purpose that is not yours, need to construct, you need to know how to construct very well. And this purpose, on the other hand, obliges you to take into consideration the situation that we’re within, in the universe of today. You get yourself involved with philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, geography, the issue of place, of precinct. In architecture you can discuss the house. Today, the house, if it has a fundamental attribute then it’s the address. You cannot imagine a house. Gothic, colonial, Normandy. It makes no sense, you have to see where it is. Architecture cannot pretend to know all of this in depth. One is obliged to have a peculiar form of knowledge, because it requests these view points, all part of human knowledge. The flower of human knowledge is the city. And it’s all that we have. And it’s all the best that we can do. Thus, exactly the major contradictions are here (that the city is chaotic, that the city destroys nature with its pollution etc.), all of this is sad on the one hand, but is a grand stimulus for you to summon  knowledge and to say “let’s fix all of this, let’s invert this route to disaster”. This is very political, and architecture turns itself, in my opinion, to be very important in the university environment. We should assume this. And if possible, watch over carefully so that such poor courses and little separate things don’t proliferate. Principally in this dilemma that is here positioned for us: private or public. There should be liberty, but the paradigms we have to maintain. In this, the public university is fundamental. The professors that we have, the environment in which we lived and were educated, is very rich. The Polytechnic School of São Paulo is something extraordinary. But it can be lost in these horizons of pulverization, of pulling apart of fundamental interests. I believe that the formation of conscience today is fundamental for education. The major revolution, for me, will be in the area of teaching and of culture. Of the fomenting of a culture that could come to be an opportune culture in the times in which we’re living. Because the question of nature is (positioned) on paper. The entire world is bending towards this question one way or the other. By approximations that are wholly superfluous as this question of ecology. The so called “popular culture” moved the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. We need this grasping of position by indignation: “This we already knew, this is foolish, let’s get out of there”. I have the impression that we could assume that this is forging a dimension of popular dimension about the nature of the world, in spite of some disillusionments and some reactions to the contrary, like the proliferation of religions in each back yard, things like this, a type of reaction to what has already been seen. And this conscience perhaps will move the world in such a manner that we have never seen, so fast and so extraordinary. Because it places us together, all of us, on this little planet, by conscience. It doesn’t matter that we’re together like in confinement. We’re together, because this conscience is being forged. And you can place this further on, can say “look, I don’t know if man can’t live serenely”, without bravado. We’re effectively beginning to experiment, to rehearse, the expansion of human life in the Universe. What is it that Hannah Arendt says? “We know that we’re going to die, so why are we so excited?” Because we know that we are not born to die, we are born to continue. Architecture adopts a very interesting sense in this environment, in this space, in this Universe. I had believed that children had to be taught in this manner, after there would be the practice, the construction. This human plan of needs and desires, as Marx would say, is what moves us. Therefore, we have to forge and to discuss these needs and desires.

You yourself are an example of a committed architect, restless, like others of your generation. Today, do the new professionals have this same ample vision of the world?
I don’t believe very much in the architect of today and the architect of the past. Neither in the man of today or the man of yesterday. We’re always pursuing our human condition, if not, there wouldn’t be history and history wouldn’t have value as experience. Nor would there even be what we call knowledge, this conscience upon the state in which we’re in the Universe. What can be measured is a certain negligence in relation to these questions, in general, we’re degenerating. What is possible to correct, retaking the route. What one can also imagine, in order not to dream in vain, to not live on the moon, is that, not even if it were for strict necessity, since we have mentioned this duality, at times necessity prevails, at times desire prevails. The necessity can reach the extreme. We accept incredible things with passiveness. For example, in São Paulo there are instruments on the street that classify  the quality of the air: “regular”, “tolerable?”etc. If “poor” appears, what do you do? Breathe slowly? Though, I don’t have any fear of disaster. Confront it. Speak openly, with conviction, about the construction of peace. Until a short time ago war was laudable, countries prided themselves in having an unbeatable army. All of this is horrific in today’s world. Nevertheless, the expectation of man is that he adjusts his horizons so that his presence in the Universe should be eternal. And this is not a question of the architect. No architect can save the world, this is not the idea. It is that the world could have some coherence in relation to its horizons, so that architecture can flow with grace. If the world were to catch fire, there would be no point in you calling ten architects and saying “now gentlemen save this rubbish”. There’s no way out. Because before the form there is the issue of the way. It is the way in which we live that is destroying the city, not the form of the city. The form of the city is a consequence that is supporting all of this because this is the way it is wanted. We have to change what is wanted. Architecture only reflects that, in this manner, there is no possible architecture. The idea that we have of a city would be, in two words, a city for all.

Does everyone understand this concept? Does the inattentive passer-by on the streets perceive the force of the architect, of the urbanist in improving the city?
Things must be seen, like books must be read. There’s no point in you walking around concentrated to the maximum, from there to here, in the library of Alexandria, without reading anything. If you read ten books in a boarding house in Catete, being a poor student, you can become wise. We only speak about others, and we only build one thing for another. We only think the thought that has already been thought out. This is the pleasantry of our lives. We aren’t alone, we’re supported by desire, which is in the future, and by the past through experience. The present is very short. It’s an interesting question in architecture, the idea of urgency. We don’t have much time. We can’t be saved by what we did, by what has been done. But we can be helped by what makes us reflect. Or that is: architecture is a discourse, before anything else. Flávio Motta, who is a marvelous philosopher, called me o congratulate me for the award and I complained that I would have to go to Istanbul to receive it. “You’re wrong, this is the award”, he said to me, talking about the oriental culture, about the Santa Sofia Church etc. This is a perspective that reflection concerning architecture is directly linked to the city, to the human habitat. Have a look: the problems that we have in Brazilian cities today are basically the same problems, which they have in France with its Algerians, which they have in Spain with Morocco, which they have in Holland with Sumatra etc. Now, I have no concern if architecture is functional. It can’t be, because we don’t even know the functions that we want. I remember someone who asked of Niemeyer why he had made the Senate without windows. He stopped, thought and responded: “Just for fun”.

Returning to Santa Sofia, it’s a symbol of the resolution of an architectonic problem (to place a round dome on top of a square structure) that has a lot to do with your enthusiasm for the technique.
These things are here as universal patrimony, they are knowledge. Do you want to see  an interesting reflection? If you see the famous dome of Brunelleschi, it’s centered on an ingenious virtue like that which you have just mentioned. (inventiveness). You said,  “with your enthusiasm”: but it’s not me, it’s all of us. It’s yet again the question of universal patrimony. If you were to invert the Brunelleschi, you would have the cathedral of Brasilia. There’s the little circle up top working the compression and the circle that one doesn’t see, which would be the upper edge of the cylinder, of that excavation that is there below, that is working, in this case, the traction. Thus, Brasilia is a reflection that Oscar must have made. It’s not a copy of Brunelleschi, who would smile if he were to see that. Our conquests of today and of always, are ancient dreams that become reality. But they become reality because it was promised that they would be realized. We have been designing everything for a long time. Indeed, they are revelations of meticulous observation. It’s easy. One only needs to pay attention. Like the absurd alienation of any of us when turning on a water tap on the 20th floor of a building without having the full conscience of the marvel in doing that. Any great grandmother of any one of us would have fetched water from the well. Sometimes she wouldn’t  return, the cheetah would eat her. This ingenuity has to be evaluated, thought of, relished, more often. We relish little in life and we don?t make use of the question of conscience over wisdom. It’s a little frightening for you to imagine the world made by alienated  people.

Within this context, how do you see the city split up as of today, in which the elite isolate themselves in ghettos, and the slums, on the other hand, appear more organic throughout the city?
The famous outskirts now belong to the richer people. What the city intends, before anything else, is to introduce, to guarantee tranquility and quietness to people. The notorious free time, which is reflection time, to understand the city as the place of wisdom and of the reproduction of wisdom. The city is such an invention that we don’t have another possible habitat. The slums, in the manner in which they are around, especially because they are more visible and are implanted, have a spatial disposition evidently selected, chosen by men, are there in the heart of the city. The slum is exactly the manifestation of conscience of the necessity to urbanize. It’s a desire. The most urbanized man in Brazil, from the point of view of conscience about urbanization, is the slum dweller. With great difficulty he went there in any manner, in order to live together principally with that which the city engenders, which is service, service supply. It shows the malignant mode with which all of this is done because housing was never built for that population and they have reached the point that we’re seeing here. The model that’s there is of the civilization of those who have gone there. They’re much more civilized than the others who have left, then, and made a wall, hire  those from the same slums to look after them with a machine gun and so on, and it’s getting to what we are seeing. A city can’t have any security, it has to be open, free and democratic. Security is made by the level of civilization of the city. It’s impossible to put in place a fence, guards, barbed wire around each property. In this way you don’t create a city. For an architect, or for the universe of architecture and urbanism, there’s no privacy, nothing private. Everything is public. Private architecture doesn’t exist or private urbanism. Privacy we only have in our minds. If you engender a poem, your first concern is to publish it, to make it public. Or else nobody would know that you were a poet, nothing would be done. Indeed, our live is regulated, is configured by the public dimension of our existence. You couldn’t be private even if you wanted to be.

Today, is the city for you personally a symbol of beauty or of horror?
Every city is beautiful from the simple fact that it exists. São Paulo is beautiful. Because you can imagine that these 20 million inhabitants sleep every day, enjoy themselves and on the next day return to work upright, even with all of this horror which is there. Ugly cities don’t exist. This population that is here in whatever manner shows that there is a desire. Let’s do it, sooner or later. The revitalization of the central abandoned areas. They’re abandoned, but are populated by a population that was not the original one. The city will  belong to them, in one way or another. Either we carry out a beautiful partnership or… There are buildings in São Paulo walled up from the inside so that they will not be invaded. All of them empty. You see them from the outside, by way of the windows, the brick put on the inside to protect the building. In England, if you have proof through witnesses that a building has been abandoned for six months, you can occupy it. Which is very logical. Better than you bricking up and seeing the person dying in the street, sleeping outdoors. I don’t believe that man is going to, for always, oppose such a logical idea.