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Paulo Mendes da Rocha wins Praemium Imperiale

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Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, 87, has won the prestigious Praemium Imperiale award for architecture

Awarded by the Japan Art Association and worth about £110,000, the prize is the richest in architecture and is part of the wider Praemium Imperiale Laureates award programme, often cited as the cultural ‘Nobel Prize’.

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.

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 Bienal of São Paulo.

Mendes da Rocha won Venice’s Golden Lion for lifetime achievement this year, and was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2006 (see AJ 13.04.06).

Despite this recognition, 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.

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 Praemium Imperiale, launched in 1988, is awarded in memory of Japan’s late Prince Takamatsu, who was the association’s honorary patron for 58 years. Mendes da Rocha will receive the award from Prince Hitachi, honorary patron of the Japan Art Association and younger brother of Emperor Akihito, at a formal ceremony in Japan in October. 

The Praemium Imperiale is awarded in five categories: architecture, painting, sculpture, music and film/theatre.

Previous recipients of the architecture prize have included Steven Holl, David Chipperfield and Zaha Hadid.

Praemium Imperiale architecture laureates 1989-2016

2016  Paulo Mendes da Rocha  
2015     Dominique Perrault     
2014     Steven Holl    
2013     David Chipperfield    
2012     Henning Larsen    
2011     Ricardo Legorreta    
2010     Toyo Ito    
2009     Zaha Hadid    
2008     Peter Zumthor    
2007     Herzog & de Meuron    
2006     Frei Otto    
2005     Yoshio Taniguchi    
2004     Oscar Niemeyer    
2003     Rem Koolhaas    
2002     Norman Foster    
2001     Jean Nouvel    
2000     Richard Rogers    
1999     Fumihiko Maki    
1998     Álvaro Siza    
1997     Richard Meier    
1996     Tadao Ando    
1995     Renzo Piano    
1994     Charles Correa    
1993     Kenzo Tange    
1992     Frank Gehry    
1991     Gae Aulenti    
1990     James Stirling    
1989     IM Pei    


Paulo Mendes da Rocha: Praemium Imperiale citation 

Although nearly 90, Brazilian Architect, Paulo Mendes da Rocha does not look his age – he looks much younger – and his creativity and energy show no signs of waning.

Influenced by his father, a renowned engineer whose projects included constructions in harbors, over rivers and canals, Mendes da Rocha aspired to be an architect from childhood. After graduating from the Mackenzie Presbyterian University in São Paulo, he showed prodigious talent from an early age, winning a competition when he was only 29, to design the gymnasium in the Paulistano Athletic Club. Subsequently he has carried out numerous projects that have helped define São Paulo’s character as a city, including his renovation of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture, and the Patriarch Plaza redevelopment project – well-known for its iconic Portico. Many of these projects highlight the innate appeal of simple materials such as concrete and steel, and are structured to utilize spaces to maximum effect.

At the heart of da Rocha’s architecture is the pursuit of an ‘ideal harmony between the internal and the external’. While comprehensively taking into account locality, history and landscape, he notes that ‘an architect doesn’t design for himself. He designs for society. So it’s society that is in charge. And these desires are very complex, and are necessarily addressed by us in a total complexity and all at the same time. Furthermore, he continues, ‘I think the charm of architecture is that there aren’t any pre-established rules. It is subject to the human imagination. You must be very free in order to be an architect.’

Most of Mendes da Rocha’s works are concentrated in São Paulo, where he still resides, but in 1970 he designed the Brazilian Pavilion for the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka, Japan. He remembers his month in Osaka fondly, ’It was one of the greatest adventures of my life.’ More recently, he has come to international notice with his first large scale overseas project, the National Coach Museum (2015) in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal.

Over the years, he has taught at the University of São Paulo and served as President of the Brazilian Institute of Architects and remains as one of Brazil’s most prominent and active architects working today.

Of his compatriot Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect who received the Praemium Imperiale Award in 2004, he recalls, ’We never worked together, there was never any professional collaboration, but we became great friends. He often called me on the telephone, and whenever I visited Rio I would visit him in his wonderful office.’ Because of this friendship, da Rocha was overjoyed to be the second Brazilian recipient of the Praemium Imperiale for architecture, saying, ’I see that it’s not a prize for me, as a person, but it’s a sort of commemoration of our friendship, the people of Japan and the people of Brazil.’


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