Welcome back to #ModernistMondays! At TTC, we are constantly inspired by modernist architects and artists from past and present. To showcase some of our favorites, we launched #ModernistMondays, where we highlight one modernist each month to explore with quick, interesting facts. Our September feature highlights celebrated Brazilian Brutalist Paulo Mendes da Rocha.
Architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha was born in Espírito Santo, Brazil, and moved to São Paulo with his family at a young age. In 1954, he received his architecture degree from Mackenzie University and began work in his home city, São Paulo, shortly after.
One of Mendes da Rocha’s first buildings was a precursor to his daring work in the future; the Club Athletico Paulistano, a concrete sports center housing departments for numerous sports. The unique structure is a ring-shaped pavilion raised above a recessed public area, with built-in stands. Not surprisingly, the finished work led to a high demand for Mendes da Rocha’s bold visions.
In 1962, Mendes da Rocha was tapped to design the Jockey Club in Goiâna, a second concrete-based athletics facility. As Brazil’s Goiâna city center rapidly developed and installed a railway network, its government hoped to bring recreational activities to the city’s dwindling open spaces.
When Brazil's military dictatorship barred architects from freely practicing in their native country, Mendes da Rocha left the University of São Paulo, where he had been teaching, and took his talents to Osaka, Japan where he represented Brazil at the 1970 World’s Fair. His contribution was a concrete and steel pavilion attached to an artificial hill. The brutalist pavilion was temporary, but many locals campaigned for the geometric work to be made permanent.
From the mid-70s to the mid-80s, Mendes da Rocha continued to populate São Paulo with concrete public spaces, including a stadium, a chapel, and a furniture showroom. In 1988, Mendes da Rocha’s most notable project, the Brazilian Sculpture Museum, was finished. The 75,000 square foot museum is uniquely designed as part-underground, part-above ground, appearing and feeling like a sculpture itself.
Extending his Brutalist concepts from buildings to furniture, Mendes da Rocha designed the iconic Paulistano chair, originally developed for use in the Club Athletico Paulistano, his first public project. The chair consists of only two elements: a 17-foot long steel rod, bent to act as a frame, and a cow hide used as the seat. Seemingly simple, the chair has become one of the most recognizable pieces of furniture in design, and is still sold today.
In the late 1980s, Mendes da Rocha returned to teaching at the University of São Paulo, where he remained until 1999. During this time, Mendes da Rocha also had his hand in the performing arts, leading set design for two Brazilian operas in the 1990s, Suor Angelica and The 500-Year Opera. The set of the former featured harsh, metallic surfaces and rungs attached to the set’s back wall, allowing performers to climb up and down, adding height as a dimension rarely seen in previous stage productions.
Mendes da Rocha, in a bid to promote cultural tourism in Portugal, designed a new building to house the National Coaches Museum, a collection of historic stagecoaches previously displayed in the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art.
Comprising two structures connected by an above-ground walkway, the museum and its offices, completed in 2012, is now one of the most-visited museums in the country.
For his contributions to modernism and Brazilian design throughout his career, Mendes da Rocha was awarded the Mies van der Rohe Prize in 2000, and the Pritzker Prize in 2006. Although he passed away recently in 2021, his legacy of concrete Brazilian Brutalism makes him one of Brazil’s most creative forces of all time.
“Brazilian Museum of Sculpture,” Architectuul; “Retrospective: Paulo Mendes da Rocha,” Architectural-Review.com; “Paulistano Athletic Club Gymnasium, São Paulo,” ArquitecturaViva; “Paulo Mendes da Rocha,” Britannica; “Eight architecture projects by the late Paulo Mendes da Rocha,” Dezeen; “Brazil's dictatorship caused lasting damage to architecture education, says Paulo Mendes da Rocha,” Dezeen; “Mendes da Rocha,” PritzkerPrize.com; “Paulo Mendes da Rocha,” Wikipedia