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Paulo Mendes da Rocha: ‘Architects sometimes have to position themselves as the enemy’

Paulo mendes da rocha with royal gold medal (c) morley von sternberg crop
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The AJ’s Hattie Hartman talks to 2017 RIBA Royal Gold Medallist Paulo Mendes da Rocha about Brazilian Brutalism, Trump and why architects should embrace political activism

How should architects react to Donald Trump? 

This is not only about architects. The block of fear – let’s call it ‘the wall’ as an image – is not just a problem for architects. It’s a problem for all of us.

We have to hope that the disaster which we are imagining will not come to pass. We must admit – as if this were something to be admitted – that there is still a possibility that a child will die of hunger. So the fundamental question is how to rebuild peace and to reshape our vision of how to inhabit the planet.

As architects, we have a particular experience through our work and can perhaps have a greater influence simply because of our knowledge of construction. We have special apprehension in the face of a storm, and we must manifest our political condition by raising our voices. We must speak up.

We are sitting here in this room at the marvellous RIBA, which like the Institute of Architects in Brazil, or in Spain, must speak up with political force to influence change so that events we have already seen do not repeat themselves.

The biggest disaster of the recent election is the repetition of things we have already seen. And today it would not simply be history repeating itself, it would be much worse.

It would not simply be history repeating itself, it would be much worse

Since I am here because I have won this prize, I convoke my friends and colleagues to political action in every way that they can act. Think of the public sector, between the government and municipalities, and the number of architects that work there, from public health, to transport, to urban design, landscape, planning approvals, regulations and so on. Think of the capacity for political action that is specific to the architect as the carrier of a particular experience in the construction of shelter generally for human habitat.

We are capable of undertaking political action which has an impact and to reverse terrible conditions which are not inexorable. We can always improve things; in fact, that is what motivates us.

One example I can give is that when Brazil succumbed to military dictatorship, with assassinations, torture and persecution among other things, I was one of the hunted. My architectural licence was revoked. They said I was their enemy. I didn’t see myself as an enemy, but sometimes it is necessary for us to position ourselves as the enemy.

Brazilian museum of sculpture. da rocha.cw

Brazilian museum of sculpture. da rocha.cw

Brazilian Museum of Sculpture

How does architecture sit with populism?

The market is capable of anything. It makes children die of hunger. The propaganda of the market makes us consume things we don’t need. Propaganda is the principal instrument of fascism.

And populism is always dangerous. My impression is that what we call populism creates fantasies about how to solve problems. I would prefer that the government provided work for everyone rather than just making promises.

What are the biggest architectural issues in Latin America? Are there enough strategic plans in place?

I am very much in favour of masterplanning in the Americas. This is order to invert the patterns established by colonialism. Major infrastructure works require collaboration and understanding between partners. Just think, in Latin America, we don’t even have railroads connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic. We should have several. This would demand partnerships between countries.

We don’t even have railroads connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic

These could be tools which foster solidarity and peace between countries, and then you could build new cities, always relying on knowledge of local cultures.

The reason a city like São Paulo has 20 million inhabitants is because there is a lack of smaller cities that offer employment. This is happening all over the world, in Africa as well. Spain with Morocco, France with Algeria, Holland with Sumatra and Borneo. We are confronting the mistakes that were made during colonial era.

This is a global issue. And today I am hopeful that these concerns can be discussed at a higher level, rather than having each country solve its own problems in isolation and building walls between nations. This happened in China but hundreds of years ago.

State museum, sao paulo. da rocha.cw

State museum, sao paulo. da rocha.cw

Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo (1993)

When should architectural education begin?

Remember Brecht’s quote: ‘Unhappy is the land that needs leaders’. This is a question of education that must start with young children. These are subjects that should be addressed by the broad population, not just me commenting as a prize-winning architect. It’s not up to me; it’s up to everybody. The revolution has to happen in schools. The principles of physics and mechanics are easy to teach, for example with a stone hanging on a string. It’s more important than having children cut out cardboard hearts, paint them red and giving them to their mothers on Mother’s Day, which is what happens today.

The quality of a house should be the same for everybody

What has been the result of the street protests in Brazil?

The impact of these demonstrations has been very strong because the idea of ‘the city for all’ or ‘the right to the city’ is very much discussed. For example, the question of housing for the poor. In my opinion, this is a stupid idea. Everyone needs water and sewers and electricity and I cannot imagine the idea of affordable water, sewers and electricity. The quality of a house should be the same for everybody, like transport and education.

Is there still a place for Brutalist buildings?

Brutalism was born in England. In Brazil there never was a movement of Brutalism; it doesn’t exist. It’s the critics who attributed buildings constructed with reinforced concrete as Brutalism in Brazil. But this is an old-fashioned vision, as if Brutalism was only tactile, but that is not what it is. Architecture cannot survive only as a style. Architecture is about the correct response to a particular place at a given time.

Architecture must satisfy both necessity and desire, not just one or the other. It has to strive for these higher human ideals.

Casa Butant by Da Mendes Rocha copyright AnnetteSpiro

Casa Butant by Da Mendes Rocha copyright AnnetteSpiro

Casa Butant by Paulo Mendes da Rocha

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