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The virtue of simplicity

Books portray the wealth of the architectural ideas of Paulo Mendes da Rocha

COSAC NAIFYRocks are the major challenge launched by nature against human beings: how can one re-transform an unmovable ‘obstacle’ by using techniques. “Geography is first and foremost architecture. I was trained with the certainty that humans transform original beauty, nature, into desired and necessary virtues to enable life to install itself in urban locations. For an architect, nature is the material foundation where human beings operate the necessary transformations,” points out the person who bears the challenge in his name, architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha (rock), for whom “the city has nothing to do with nature; the city is man’s loftiest design on the planet.” At first glance, these utterances sound like the words spoken by the protagonist of Goethe’s Second Faustus, in his burning desire to transform nature and old things in the name of progress and development of peoples.

In the opinion of the winner of the Pritzker Award in 2006, previously granted to only one other Brazilian, Oscar Niemeyer, the Faustian dilemmas encompass ethics. Perhaps the proximity of Goethe’s character is more to the other side of Faustus, as when he points out to Mephistopheles: “Fame is nothing; action is everything.” In the architect’s opinion, it is more important to seek the spaces that shelter humanity and not merely the human being, by means of buildings that merge into nature instead of appropriating nature. Proof of this lies in the second volume dedicated to the architectural designs of Paulo Mendes da Rocha, published by Cosac Naif (160 pages, R$ 99), under the coordination of historian Rosa Artigas; the second volume analyzes his recent architectural designs, prepared between 1999 and 2006. The active production that the book focuses on comprises educational buildings, housing complexes, technical, recreational and religious buildings, sports facilities and museums, as well as urban planning studies on a grand scale. The projects and architectural works published in the book, which includes current photographs, designs and sketches, comprise the Sesc 24 de Maio recreational facility; studies for São Paulo’s candidacy to host the Olympic Games in 2012; the Nossa Senhora da Conceição Chapel and the high-rise parking facility at Paço da Alfândega, in the City of Recife; the Engenho Central Park, in the city of Piracicaba; and the master plan for Vigo University in Spain.

The book’s texts contain testimonials by the architect and reiterate his humanistic and anti-dogmatic attitude, reflected in his view of architecture as an activity that should ‘support the unpredictability of life’ and the unchangeable desire to build a ‘city for everybody’. The publishing company has also launched Maquetes de Papel (Paper Mock-ups) (64 pages, R$ 28), a graphic project developed by Flávia Castanheira, which transforms the book into a three-dimensional object, whose shape imitates the contour curves of a plot of land, represented by a sectional drawing, in the shape of steps, on each side of the book. A book/class, Maquetes stemmed from a course taught by the architect, a native of the State of Espírito Santo, at the Casa Vilanova Artigas center, in the city of Curitiba, in 2006. Mendes da Rocha reveals how he prepares the solutions of his architectural work, specifies some of his creative suppositions, discusses contemporary issues involved in architectural designs and resorts to references from various fields of knowledge, especially from physics, geography, fine arts and philosophy. The architect emphasizes the importance of the moment when he builds paper mock-ups as a means of checking out his proposals. In the course, he reveals the paths he took which allowed his ideas to come true in the form of shapes and volumes in space, and shows that the city and the human beings are always the structural reference for the creation of buildings.

The leadership spirit of Mendes da Rocha is the prevalent theme of both books. In his opinion, “architecture cannot be viewed as something that you commission and find a way to execute; the initial drive, of making something appear, which is what the architect does, is an emotional calling.” In the opinion of Rosa Artigas, these concepts have made it difficult for critics to classify his architecture under models, schools or movements. “His architecture is uneasy, in view of the urgency of needs and problems; it is present, possible and criticizes ordinary solutions, stereotypes, uncomplicated taste and unjustified savings. It responds to contemporary life issues” in the broadest possible sense. Mendes da Rocha does not believe in concepts such as “Brazilian architecture.” “Perhaps it would be better to state that there shouldn’t even be Brazilian architecture. It doesn’t make sense to defend a national characteristic. However, one can certainly imagine that there is something peculiar in the experience of America”, he points out. “The breath of its social utopia becomes more evident when we notice the scarce use of the word Brazil and the recurring reference to America. The great adventure of civilization in a new geography is what unites us; it is the promise of a future in common,” says architect Abílio Guerra, a professor at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning of the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP). When one looks at the recent architectural designs of Mendes da Rocha one identifies this encompassing view of intervention in the big cities, or, in the words of the architect himself, “building American cities in nature, establishing new thought processes regarding the state of the waters, the plains, the mountains, the space within a continent, new horizons for our imagination regarding form and the ingenuity of the things we shall build.”

COSAC NAIFYGuerra points out that Mendes da Rocha’s work contains the constant and growing presence of the certainty of the inappropriateness of the European civilization model for the tropics, as well as the unshakeable belief in the virtues found in innovative human actions in relation to lush nature, a possibility that materializes through the ingenious appropriation of Western technology. “There is a similarity to the intellectual mechanisms of Oswald de Andrade’s anthropophagic view, which also drew its utopian and transforming direction from the selective withdrawal of civilizing development and the rejection of imported intellectual vices and misrepresentations”, the professor analyzes. Hence the possibility that the local architect can revert the movement and ‘teach’ the Europeans to reflect better on their spaces, such as the architect’s designs for the 2008 Olympic Games in Paris. Even though the city lost to Beijing, the work of Mendes da Rocha, one of the 12 architects from around the world chosen by France to show their ideas, – nature, the territory and the urban memories are unveiled in Paris by the River Seine and its channels, which denote a pre-existing European unity,” says Rosa Artigas. This becomes even more evident in the plan for the possible 2012 Olympic Games in São Paulo, in which the Olympic feast would spread all over the city, starting from the Tietê River, its effluents, the reservoirs and the parks and public spaces that are part of the city’s daily life.

“The desire behind this strategic-spatial project is to find an excuse – while cleaning up the house to host the visitors – to encourage and unleash old and irreplaceable projects for full consolidation of the complex structural system of São Paulo’s urban engineering,”, says Artigas. Brazilian cities are galvanized when Mendes da Rocha faces the restrictions imposed by real estate speculation and weak urban policies. “He reacts with remarkable courage, as in the case of the project for the Rio de Janeiro Fine Arts museum. Or he replies gently when viewing certain urban areas, such as the Paço da Alfândega and the tiny Nossa Senhora da Conceição Chapel, both in Recife. Sometimes he astonishes us with his inventions, such as the additional ‘navette’ designed as a functional support for the headquarters of the Sesc 24 de Maio cultural center, or the retractable screen in the gallery of the Portuguese Language Museum”, says Rosa. There is even a total about-turn for the initial design requirements, in the pursuit of a better solution, as in the case of the proposals for the USP museums, whose established location is questioned by the architect, who transfers them to another location thus changing the landscape. “Architecture is not supposed to be histrionic. It is of no interest to a city with so many urgent needs (houses for everybody, schools, etc.) to place cherries on its disasters. Showing simplicity is a virtue,” says Paulo Mendes da Rocha.