Hattie Hartman talks to the 87-year-old 2017 RIBA Royal Gold Medal winner Paulo Mendes da Rocha about his life, his future and missing out on designing a Serpentine Pavilion
How do you see the role and position of architecture today? During your lifetime, architecture seems to have declined in importance.
I am ever more convinced that architecture is not an isolated object. What is important is the construction of human habitat on the planet. Nature by itself is not enough, we have to build human shelter. The main question today is the contemporary city.
Can architects influence the cities of the future?
Architects have an obligation to try to do this, to influence. The political position of architecture as an activity is very important. Architecture is a form of knowledge, not just simply the exercise of a profession. Palladio said this way back in the 16th Century. Ancient cities were made of monuments and that is the origin of the monumentality of the city. The great challenge of the city today is to build human shelter.
Are today’s so-called ‘starchitects’ today addressing these challenges?
I am saying for me this is fundamental to architecture. Evidently there are many architects who see a building as an extraordinary isolated object. But this is not the fundamental question of architecture. It is about transforming nature into habitation, including the preservation of everything we are destroying that forms an essential part of our existence, the air we breathe, our water.
Within the context of our universities and education generally, this larger horizon has enormous value. Architecture is a particular form of knowledge that has an important role to play in education today.
Is the next generation of architects engaged with these humanitarian concerns?
Yes, I am not inventing anything. The genesis of this consciousness is the current situation we find ourselves in; we are continually more aware that we are responsible for the world we create.
How has the practice of architecture changed?
It’s changed a lot, and for the worse because there are more and more regulations and bureaucracy which impact our work.
Brazilian museum of sculpture. da rocha.cw
The World Cup and the Olympics in Rio precipitated unprecedented street demonstrations across the country. Have Brazilians woken up to the fact that they can shape the future of their cities?
More than anything, this was a global encounter of people. You can criticize the amount of money that was invested, that it was exaggerated. Maybe it wasn’t necessary to build all that. We already had the facilities to receive all these visitors, perhaps in more genuine conditions, rather than building everything new.
But these international events are important because they bring people together and demystify foreigners. This helps everybody realise that we are all the same people living on one planet. So do all international encounters, and the existence of organisations like RIBA.
How do you see the current situation in Brazil today?
There is no point in being a pessimist. We have to work because the future depends on us. The situation in Brazil right now is very difficult. It’s also promising because it has unleashed a chain of events which has caused critical reflection about what has happened and what should happen in the future.
Do you have one contribution or achievement that you are most proud of?
These prizes have made me realise that everything one does has value. You can’t eliminate anything. It’s like letters in a word, if you take one away, the word doesn’t exist. I can’t isolate a single work. All my work contributes to this universal knowledge which leaves any person very satisfied.
But you must also include in my work that which I have not done yet!
Anything more I do, will also be part of my work, won’t it?
Patriach plaza by mendes da rocha copyright nelson kon
Source: Nelson Kon
What are you working on now?
Near where I was born, which is a small seaside city Vitória in Espirito Santo, I am doing a beautiful square commissioned by the government with a theatre and a museum of contemporary art that will be complete in a few months. It’s on a spectacular site at the entrance to the bay where there is intense passage of ships all day and you sense that Vitória lives from the activities of the sea.
And finally, have you ever been invited to design the Serpentine?
I was invited once. Some people from the Serpentine came here to São Paulo to see me and it was very interesting. I’m not sure what happened. I believe that year it was suspended.
I am old and I have worked so many years. I can’t help but be satisfied by the recognition of these international prizes. I also received a prize in Japan which has a special meaning for me since I designed the Brazil Pavilion at the Osaka World’s Fair (1970).
I thank very much the kindness of Jane Duncan. She called me herself to tell me about the prize which gives me great happiness. I thank all my English colleagues.