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Paulo Mendes da Rocha must surely be the best-known unknown in the architectural world. The 77-year-old is this year's winner of the coveted Pritzker architecture award - considered the Nobel prize for architecture - yet he remains relatively anonymous on the world stage.

In his native Brazil, however, his signature concrete style is as famous - and as adored - as Rio de Janeiro's statue of Christ, Corcovado.

Much of São Paulo, Brazil's business capital and home to 18 million people, has been shaped by Mendes da Rocha's hand.

His Modern, often Brutal, designs include private homes, housing complexes, a church, museums and sports stadiums.

The Pritzker jury praised Mendes da Rocha for showing a deep understanding of space and scale over the past six decades as an architect and, latterly, as a university lecturer.

'Inspired by the principles and language of Modernism, as well as through his bold use of simple materials, he modifies the landscape with his architecture, striving to meet both social and aesthetic human needs, ' the panel said.

Among Mendes da Rocha's most popular works is the 1992 remodelling of Patriarch Plaza in São Paulo, symbolised by a floating canopy suspended from an architrave.

Other noteworthy buildings include the semi-subterranean Brazilian Sculpture Museum, also in São Paulo, where he used large slabs of concrete to create underground space.

Mendes da Rocha's penchant for steel and concrete is also evidenced at the city's famous Forma Furniture Store. His design is distinguished by a store-length glass facade - a recurring theme of his work.

Throughout his career, Mendes da Rocha has never been afraid to take risks. A 1954 graduate of the Mackenzie Architecture School, he shot to national fame in Brazil with a radical flying saucer-shaped design for the Paulistano Athletics Club, São Paulo. This structure - which won him the Presidential Award at the 1961 sixth Bienal of São Paulo - features reinforced concrete with steel cables suspending a steel roof, and was completed in 1958. It was considered revolutionary for 1950s Brazil, where construction lagged behind the rest of the world.

Like many architects, Mendes da Rocha designed his own home in 1960. The singlestorey structure, resting on pillars, is embedded in a small hill and maximises the use of prefabricated and massproduced reinforced concrete.

1969 saw the architect make his international debut, designing the audacious Brazilian Pavilion for the International Expo in Osaka, Japan. He travelled to Japan to manage the project - featuring a concrete and glass deck - needing special permission from the Brazilian military dictatorship to do so.

Despite being a finalist in the Pompidou Centre competition in 1971 and, 30 years later, creating Paris' bid for the 2008 Olympics, international project wins have largely eluded the new Pritzker winner.

But a recent success with a scheme for the University of Vigo, in Galicia, north-west Spain, could elevate his international status. The brief is to integrate a series of buildings - a library, engineering departments, administration offices, and student residences - designed by several different Spanish architects, into a single campus. On the strength of this win, the Spanish government has commissioned Mendes da Rocha to develop a statefunded social housing scheme.

Parallel to practising, Mendes da Rocha has lectured since the 1960s at the University of São Paulo's school of architecture. His controversial views on social and humanistic issues brought him to the attention of Brazil's ultra rightwing dictatorship. In 1969 he was forced to quit teaching and only returned in 1980 when an amnesty was declared.

Mendes da Rocha still lives and works in his beloved city of São Paulo. His other great passion besides architecture is designing furniture - one example is the highly modernistic Paulistano chair.

Pritzker may be Mendes da Rocha's most glittering accolade, but it is by no means the only award gracing his mantelpiece.

In 2000, for example, he collected the Mies van der Rohe prize for Latin American architecture.

While few of his buildings have been realised outside Brazil, the lessons to be learned from his work, both as a practising architect and a teacher, are universal. Few architects can claim to be the author of such audacious, Modern designs that test the limits of construction.

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