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In step with the cosmos

Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Pritzker winner and raconteur, makes concrete and steel dance.

November 25, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — The architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha takes language as seriously as he takes buildings because, he says, "words are not just words, they are ideas." His b.s.-detector is always in the "on" position, wary of glib phrases, buzzwords, grand abstractions -- even if they're his own.

When asked, for example, to give some specifics about his hope for a "green," i.e. environmentally friendly, popular culture, which he expressed in an interview with The Times last year after winning the prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture, Mendes da Rocha shrugs his shoulders.

"What is green?!" he demands. "I am red!" One, two, three. . . . "That's a joke!"

Without skipping a beat, the 79-year-old designer and lifelong socialist turns serious. The way to begin formulating such a culture, he says, is simply by talking. "Talking about our lives, our problems, our anxieties, our desires. Talking in any form, literature, movies, talking to each other, dancing, singing. . . . It's all included."

He picks up a ruler from a table in his office. "If you move this from here to here," he says, "you change the world." This leads him, by several extempore turns of thought, to digress about the mysterious shrinking of the world's bee population, which triggers a rueful aside on the evils of cellphones, which crescendos in a rapturous utterance about the solar system's elegant Newtonian symmetries. "Now you talk architecture!" he says, eyes glinting. Heavenly bodies, astral mechanics, the stars, the sky. . . . " 'Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds'!" he exclaims. "That's architecture, too. You put architecture where you want."

Architecture as acrobatics

Gravitas and whimsy -- it's a duality that has been noted throughout Mendes da Rocha's long, productive career. A December 2005 story in Architectural Record observed that the maestro treats his preferred medium of concrete ("liquid stone," he calls it) and steel "as delicate materials that might snap upon touch." The writer added that, "while monumental architecture can sink under the weight of its own massiveness and grave intentions, Mendes da Rocha often lightens the mood with pure acrobatics."

That description certainly fits the architect's signature works, many located within a few square miles of one another in this loose, baggy monster of a metropolis: the Forma furniture showroom, with its peekaboo street exposures; the 40-ton, ski-slope-shaped concrete awning that he draped over Patriarch Square, transforming a derelict public plaza into a humming urban crossroads; the old polytechnic he remodeled into the Pinacoteca art gallery, now an elegant post-industrial expanse of bare brickwork, glassed-in courtyards and metal catwalks; and his masterpiece, the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture, a multilevel configuration graced with a massive concrete "bridge" and ponds stocked with lazily gliding koi fish.

Like buildings and cities, the architect believes human life requires a balance of elements, as well as an awareness of its interdependence with other forces. Today we award scientists the Nobel Prize for improving our ideas about how the universe works, but five centuries ago, "which is nothing, Galileo was condemned to burn because he said that the Earth turned around the sun."

"Our condition is to confront nature and understand its mysteries. The issue with globalization is not about companies, it's not about entrepreneurship, but the formation of a conscience that we are part of nature, and the inhabitants of this planet."

The Savonarolas of the world are still with us, alas. But Mendes da Rocha (pronounced men-dez da HO-cha) seems in no danger of being hauled off to an auto-da-fe, not now anyway.

Until recently, he was the lesser-known of the country's two most revered living architects. The other, 99-year-old Oscar Niemeyer, is the more famous brand name, his reputation sealed by the DeMillian-scale government buildings he designed in the 1950s for Brasilia, and by the trademark concupiscent curls of his cathedrals, hospitals, apartment buildings and countless other edifices, many in his base of Rio de Janeiro. But Mendes da Rocha's international stock has soared since April 2006, when the Chicago-based Hyatt Foundation awarded him its annual Pritzker Architecture Prize, the first time for a Brazilian since Niemeyer shared it with Gordon Bunshaft in 1988. His current to-do list includes an ambitious design for the University of Vigo in Galicia, Spain, a modern extension to the National Fine Arts Museum in Rio and a children's science museum outside Sao Paulo. He's also doing a harborfront redevelopment project in his hometown of Vitoria in the Atlantic coastal state of Espirito Santo. Harbors and canals have fascinated him since boyhood, when he used to accompany his engineer-father on excursions to watery locales.

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