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Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha wins Royal Gold Medal


Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, 87, has won the 2017 RIBA Royal Gold Medal in recognition of his lifetime’s work

Mendes da Rocha becomes only the second Brazilian to have been awarded the medal – the first being Oscar Niemeyer in 1998.

The medal is the highest honour for architecture in the UK, and the ‘revolutionary and transformative’ architect joins a glittering pantheon of past Royal Gold Medallists which includes Zaha Hadid (2016), Frank Gehry (2000), Norman Foster (1983), Frank Lloyd Wright (1941) and George Gilbert Scott (1859).

Mendes da Rocha, born in 1928, made his name in São Paulo with projects such as the Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of São Paulo (1975), the Brazilian Sculpture Museum (1988), and the renovation of one of Brazil’s most important art museums, the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo (1993).

Mendes da Rocha is known for his steel and concrete buildings, a style that has been referred to as ‘Brazilian Brutalism’. 

His breakthrough, precipitating him to national fame, was his 1957 saucer-shaped design for the Paulistano Athletics Club, which won him the Presidential Award at the sixth Bienal of São Paulo in 1961.

Mendes da Rocha’s work typifies the architecture of 1950s Brazil – raw, chunky and beautifully ‘brutal’ concrete

Speaking about the award, RIBA president and chair of the selection committee Jane Duncan said: ‘[His] work is highly unusual in comparison to the majority of the world’s most celebrated architects. He is an architect with an incredible international reputation, yet almost all his masterpieces are built exclusively in his home country.

’Revolutionary and transformative, Mendes da Rocha’s work typifies the architecture of 1950s Brazil – raw, chunky and beautifully ‘brutal’ concrete.’

She added: ‘Paulo Mendes da Rocha is a world-class architect and a true living legend; I am delighted he will be presented with the Royal Gold Medal, one of the world’s most important honours for architecture.’

Hattie Hartman, AJ sustainability editor and guest editor of Brazil AD: Restructuring the Urban (2016), said: ‘Mendes da Rocha is an architect who understands the city, and influenced generations of architects through his teaching at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo.

‘The depth and creativity of Brazilian architecture is woefully under-recognised abroad and it is wonderful that this leading Brazilian practitioner should receive further international recognition’

Pritkzer 4

Paulistano Athletics Club

Mendes da Rocha’s saucer-shaped design for the Paulistano Athletics Club, which won him the Presidential Award at the 1961 sixth Biennial of São Paulo

The RIBA accolade comes just weeks after the Japan Art Association handed Mendes da Rocha the Praemium Imperiale award for architecture, often cited as the cultural ‘Nobel Prize’.

The architect also won Venice’s Golden Lion for lifetime achievement this year and was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2006 (see AJ 13.04.06).

Despite these recognitions, with most of his projects built in São Paulo Mendes, da Rocha remains relatively unknown on the worldwide stage. His international debut came in 1969, when he designed the Brazilian pavilion for the Expo in Osaka, Japan, but further global successes evaded him until this century.

In 1971 he entered the Pompidou Centre competition without success, and he was also part of Paris’s failed bid for the 2008 Olympics.

Clive Walker described Mendes da Rocha as ‘the best-known unknown in the architectural world’

Last year, however, Mendes da Rocha attracted international attention for designing the new National Coach Museum in Lisbon, Portugal. 

Writing about Mendes da Rocha’s obscurity outside Brazil, former AJ contributor Clive Walker described him as ’the best-known unknown in the architectural world’. 

The Royal Gold Medal, which is approved by the Queen, will be presented to Paulo Mendes da Rocha in early 2017.

Capela de S.Pedro interior copyright CristianoMascaro

Capela de S.Pedro interior copyright CristianoMascaro

Source: Cristiano Mascaro

Capela de São Pedro interior


John McAslan on Paulo Mendes da Rocha

I’m pleased to have been invited to prepare the following citation in honour of the eminent Brazilian architect, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, the 2017 RIBA Royal Gold Medal winner. Paulo’s international stature, which has been considerable for decades, arises from a remarkable and sustained combination of architectural originality, social concern, and educational work.

‘All space must be attached to a value, to a human dimension,’ he said in 2004. ‘There is no private space. The only private space that you can imagine is the human mind.’ He has also said: ‘Every problem requires thinking, not ready-made solutions. You know that you don’t know, but there is urgency to do something. You have to discover the knowledge – that’s the whole point.’ That remark applies not only to the nature of architectural enquiry, but to the way Mendes da Rocha has approached teaching over the decades.

His potential greatness was immediately apparent in 1957 when, as an emerging architect, he designed and built his first major work, the Paulistano Athletic Club. The building immediately confirmed him as an original force among the international Modernist avant garde, and established so-called Paulista Brutalism.

His structures are never designed to shock, but rather engage as directly as possible with ordinary people

Though very different, his architecture projects have the same degree of powerful formal and structural presence as the works of masters such as Louis Kahn and Kenzo Tange. Whilst Mendes da Rocha’s architecture may seem to fit Robert Hughes’ definition of Modernism as ‘the shock of the new’, his structures are never designed to shock, but rather engage as directly as possible with ordinary people, ordinary lives, and ordinary settings.

The ideas that continue to produce his architecture are still internationally influential. When Mendes da Rocha was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2006, the citation spoke of his mastery of the poetics of space. And this year, when he was selected for the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale, the citation referred to the physical and stylistic timelessness of his buildings and the fact that his ‘astonishing consistency’ was the product of ‘his ideological integrity and structural genius’. His 2016 citation as an Academician of the Royal Scottish Academy also refers to these qualities, and whilst highlighting his influence on the post-Second World War groundbreaking work in Scotland of Metzstein and MacMillan and others, brings the relevance of his work even closer to me.

A further and recent accolade for Paulo is this year’s Praemium Imperiale Award by the Japan Art Association, for this lifetime contribution to architecture.

His architecture resists summary, but it very often counterpoises massive concrete formal elements with relatively delicate transition points of structure. This, in itself, is not uncommon. But the way da Rocha assembles the pieces in the geometry of his buildings remains unique; his engineering intelligence has always equalled his formal originality.

For example, his Brazilian Pavilion at Expo 70 in Japan was effectively balanced on a single point of terrain. At the gymnasium of the Paulistano Athletic Club, six concrete blades supported the thin, pre-stressed concrete circular roof; the blades anchored 12 cables which held up a central cap to the roof – a riveting combination of heavy elements and relatively delicate structural details that added something new to Modernist architecture.

The same originality of form, and social connection, can be seen in his Brazilian public buildings in the 1970s and 80s, which included Estádio Serra Dourada and the Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of São Paulo in 1975; and the Forma Furniture showroom and the Saint Peter Chapel in 1987; the latter a concrete structure with two-storey glass facades, and a single concrete column anchoring the centre.

In the 1990s, in his Mies van der Rohe Award-winning scheme, Mendes da Rocha transformed São Paulo’s oldest fine arts museum, the Neoclassical Pinacoteca do Estado, with internal bridges, a central canopy and an architectural language which magnificently retains, to this day, a freshness and quality of raw beauty and remains, in my view, one of his finest works.

Among his other important works are the Cais das Artes, Vitoria; the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture, São Paulo; and the dramatic canopy structure at the Patriarch Plaza, São Paulo. His domestic architecture – such as the Casa Mendes da Rocha, Casa Masetti, and Casa King – reflects the same explorations of strikingly clear compositions involving heavy structures and finer details.

Brazilian Sculpture Museum (1988) by Paul Mendes da Rocha.

Brazilian Sculpture Museum (1988) by Paulo Mendes da Rocha.

Source: Nelson Kon

Brazilian Sculpture Museum (1988) by Paulo Mendes da Rocha

Most recently, the scale and articulation of the 2015 National Coach Museum in Lisbon is continuing proof that the humane integrity and structural boldness of Mendes da Rocha’s approach to architecture is absolutely intact.

On a personal note, when I first met Paulo, with his family in São Paulo in 2012, I found him to be very clearly, deeply concerned with how architects can improve people’s lives and with an unfailing commitment to the art of architecture. He certainly did not consider himself as a heroic designer of iconic architectural objects, which makes this highly engaging and modest innovator even more engaging and relevant today.

’I think everything superfluous is irritating’

I would like to end my citation by quoting something da Rocha wrote in 2003: ‘Unlike many people who are afraid of poverty, I have always been attracted to it, to simple things, without knowing why. Not hardship, but the humility of simple things. I think everything superfluous is irritating. Everything that is not necessary becomes grotesque, especially in our time.’

In the increasingly closely bound worlds of architecture, consumerism and corporatism, the resonance of that remark has increased through time. Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s particular genius may have originated in the mid-1950s, but he unquestionably remains an architect – and specifically not a ‘starchitect’ – for our own times. This is surely the essential mark of his greatness.

Paul Mendes da Rocha's Patriach Plaza

Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s Patriach Plaza

Source: Nelson Kon

Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s Patriach Plaza


Readers' comments (2)

  • Come to Lisbon and walk around his Royal coach museum still to be completed.....(his public toilets are very much to the human scale - you can just about get into them and that is if you can find them).......then make your own judgement.....oh and do the same for Calatrava´s station at Expo.......

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  • Having spent the summer in Brazil researching Brutalism, da Rocha's works were some of the most impressive examples, especially the relationship between monumentality and the human scale. It was also very evident his role in influencing another generation of architects in São Paulo that are designing with a real appreciation for materiality.

    One of the disappointments from my trip, however, was the visit to the gynasium at the Clube Atlético Paulistano, where the club have 'decharacterized' the building through various adaptions and renovations, which have closed off the upper balcony and hidden the structure.

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