‘One never builds something finished’: the brutal brilliance of architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha

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'One never builds something finished': the brutal brilliance of architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha
Paulistano Athletic Club in São Paulo (1961) / © RIBA
'One never builds something finished': the brutal brilliance of architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha
Paulistano Athletic Club in São Paulo (1961) / © RIBA

He’s been blacklisted and seen his work torn down. But the great Brazilian creator of vast gravity-defying buildings has just entered architecture’s elite

“All space is public,” says Paulo Mendes da Rocha. “The only private space that you can imagine is in the human mind.” It is an optimistic statement from the 88-year-old Brazilian architect, given he is a resident of São Paulo, a city where the triumph of the private realm over the public could not be more stark. The sprawling megalopolis is a place of such marked inequality that its superrich hop between their rooftop helipads because they are too scared of street crime to come down from the clouds.

But for Mendes da Rocha, who received the 2017 gold medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects this week – an accolade previously bestowed on such luminaries as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright – the ground is everything. He has spent his 60-year career lifting his massive concrete buildings up, in gravity-defying balancing acts, or else burying them below ground in an attempt to liberate the Earth’s surface as a continuous democratic public realm. “The city has to be for everybody,” he says, “not just for the very few.”

His most celebrated work, the Brazilian Sculpture Museum (MuBE) in São Paulo, completed in 1995, is the result of trying not to make a building at all. The site is instead conceived as a terraced sculpture garden, with the museum’s galleries located underground and a concrete canopy flying overhead, a jaw-dropping 60-metre long levitating beam. When asked why he didn’t opt for the more obvious solution of a building with a sculpture courtyard in the middle, he simply replied: “It would hide the things that happen there, and the city would be excluded in some way.”

The ageing Marxist, with his baggy navy blazer and bristling white moustache, makes for an unlikely addition to the list of famous names chiselled into the walls of RIBA, alongside Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel. In the past decade Mendes da Rocha has been showered with awards, winning the Pritzker prize (architecture’s Nobel), the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale and Japan’s Praemium Imperiale award last year, but he doesn’t fit the stereotype of a globe-trotting “starchitect”. […]

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