Remembering Paulo Mendes da Rocha

Paulo Mendes da Rocha

Pritzker prize winner architect, Paulo Mendes da Rocha designed with a daring difference and heralded modern design in Brazil.

Paulo Mendes da Rocha is one of Brazil’s greatest architects and urbanists. He was born in Vitória, Espírito Santo in 1928. He is one of the most representative architects of the Brazilian Paulista School, also known as “Paulista Brutalism” which utilizes more geometric lines, rougher finishes, and bulkier massing.

Mendes da Rocha began his career in São Paulo, Brazil, in the 1950s as a member of the “Paulist brutalist” avant-garde. He received a degree in architecture in 1954, opened his office in 1955, and soon thereafter created an early masterpiece, the Athletic Club of São Paulo (1957). His most famous buildings are in São Paulo, including the Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of São Paulo, the Brazilian Sculpture Museum, and the Athletic Club of São Paulo. His cultural buildings are credited with modernizing Brazil’s largest city.

One of the most consistently daring of twentieth-century architects, Mendes da Rocha has worked notably in the public realm, creating concrete and steel forms of immense power and grace. For the Brazilian pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, he balanced a building on a single point of terrain with audacious elegance. The next year, he placed as a finalist in the competition for the design of the Centre George Pompidou, Paris. 

Among his widely known built works are the Museum of Contemporary Art (1975) at the University of São Paulo, the Forma Furniture showroom (1987) in São Paulo, and the Brazilian Sculpture Museum (1987–1992). In the imaginative modernist spirit that marks his buildings, he designed the Paulistano Armchair (1957) to be part of the living rooms of the Athletic Club of São Paulo. Made by bending a single steel bar and attaching a leather seat and back, the elegant sling chair pushes the limits of structural form, yet remains completely comfortable and functional. In 2006, he received the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

The jury cited his “deep understanding of the poetics of space” and an “architecture of profound social engagement.” He was also a professor at the Architecture College of the University of São Paulo, known as FAU-USP, until 1998. His work was influenced by Brazilian architect Vilanova Artigas, from the Paulist Brazilian School. He was honored with the Mies van der Rohe Prize (2000), the Pritzker Prize (2006), and the Venice Biennale Golden Lion for lifetime achievement (2016). 

Mendes da Rocha died on May 23, 2021, in São Paulo at the age of 92.

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