Hovering like a wafer-thin concrete halo, held aloft by six chiselled triangular blades, the Paulistano Athletic Club was a futuristic arrival to the Jardim América quarter of São Paulo when it opened in 1958. The concrete blades sprang from an elevated platform, each one resting on an impossibly minimal edge, rising to a point where pairs of taut cables held a steel roof shell in tension, suspended above the gymnasium space below. The ground level was kept open, designed as a free public plane, allowing views into the action from all around.
The architect of this bold balancing act was Paulo Mendes da Rocha, who has died aged 92, after a 60-year career as one of the greats of Brazilian modernism. The athletic club, which catapulted him to national prominence at the age of 30, exemplified the approach he would pursue for the coming decades: it was a feat of concrete acrobatics on a heroic scale, driven by a singular idea, and conceived as a truly public place.
“The first idea of any project should be a structural idea,” he told me when I met him in 2017, on the occasion when he received the RIBA royal gold medal in London. “You can only imagine what you know how to build.” An architect without engineering knowledge, he added, is like a poet without a command of words.
Mendes da Rocha always said that he learned his technical discipline from his father, who was a prominent engineer and designer of ports, harbours and navigation channels. As a boy, Paulo would be taken to see infrastructural works, and marvel at the sheer concrete heft of docks and dams, whose muscular forms would later find their way into his own buildings. Whether designing art galleries, chapels or houses, his projects were imbued with a primal tectonic force, standing as tough pieces of civic infrastructure. They were built to stand the test of time – and the vagaries of changing political regimes.
As a lifelong socialist, Mendes da Rocha was blacklisted for half of his career. When the military dictatorship seized power in Brazil in 1964, supported by the US government, he and his fellow left-leaning architects were dismissed from their university teaching posts and had their architectural licences revoked. He was forbidden from running his own office for almost 25 years. Yet the buildings he would complete from the 1990s onwards remain some of the most compelling in Latin America, enjoying a revival in recent years with a renewed appreciation of brutalism, and the social values it stood for.
Born in Vitória, in Brazil’s south-eastern state of Espírito Santo, Mendes da Rocha was the son of Angelina Derenzi, the daughter of Italian immigrants, and Paulo Mendes da Rocha. The family moved to São Paulo when Paulo junior was still a child. He studied at the city’s Mackenzie University, receiving his degree in architecture in 1954, and opened his own office the following year, winning the competition for the Paulistano Athletic Club two years later.
He became a prominent member of the Paulista school of architects, alongside João Batista Vilanova Artigas and Lina Bo Bardi, who came to be known as the Brazilian Brutalists. They favoured massive, chunky forms and the rough texture of raw cast concrete, compared to their Rio counterparts of the Carioca school, typified by Oscar Niemeyer’s smooth, curvaceous white surfaces. There was a social agenda behind their work, too: this “liquid stone”, as Mendes da Rocha called concrete, was masonry for the masses.
“Unlike many people who are afraid of poverty, I have always been attracted to it, to simple things, without knowing why,” he wrote in 2003. “Not hardship, but the humility of simple things. I think everything superfluous is irritating. Everything that is not necessary becomes grotesque, especially in our time.” His buildings are stripped down to their bare essentials, often looking austere. But they are also generous – not in their excessive use of materials and finishes, but in their embrace of fresh air, daylight, and how they open up the ground plane for all to use. “All space is public,” Mendes da Rocha said. “The only private space that you can imagine is in the human mind.”
In 1969 he won a project that would project him to international fame: a pavilion for the 1970 Expo in Osaka. Working with Flavio Motta, Julio Katinsky and Ruy Ohtake, he conjured a vast concrete waffle slab and made it appear to levitate over an undulating landscape, which rose up to support the great weight of the roof at just three delicate points. It was another daring demonstration of his engineering prowess, and, though intended to be temporary, it was so well received that the local university wanted to keep it as a dance school for children. The Brazilian military government, now in power back home, had other ideas. They had it demolished to make an example of him.
The day after he won the Osaka project, Mendes da Rocha had his architect’s licence revoked. Many of his contemporaries fled the country: Niemeyer went to Paris, where he designed the Communist party headquarters; Vilanova Artigas left for Uruguay. But Mendes da Rocha stayed put. “I couldn’t leave,” he said. “I had five children and I didn’t want to abandon the country. It was a dreadful time. I had friends who were arrested and murdered. Brazil is still living with the consequences of that period today – our current state of crisis is a hangover from those days.”
It was only after his ban was lifted in a 1980 amnesty that the next phase of his career took off. His São Pedro Chapel, built in Campos do Jordão in 1987, was another levitating act, seeming to make a hefty concrete box float above delicate glass walls, the whole thing magically cantilevered from a single column.
For the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture, he carved out a brooding underground bunker, burying the galleries below a terraced sculpture garden with a 60-metre long concrete beam flying overhead. When asked why he did not opt for the more obvious solution of a building with a sculpture courtyard in the middle, he simply replied: “It would hide the things that happen there, and the city would be excluded in some way.”
Mendes da Rocha maintained an office of one, collaborating with others as needs arose. He was based in a modest room in the crumbling 1940s headquarters of the Institute of Brazilian Architects, São Paulo, lit by a naked lightbulb, its walls lined with blackboards on which he would sketch out his structures with incredible freehand precision.
He was showered with international gongs late in life – winning the Mies van der Rohe award in 2000, the Pritzker prize in 2006 and the RIBA gold medal in 2017 – but not every project was a hit. His National Coach Museum, completed in Lisbon in 2015, looks like an aircraft hangar gone astray. Jacked up on great big columns, the gargantuan shed feels at odds with the historic surrounds of Belém, as if lost in translation from the brash streets of São Paulo. Its echoing exhibition halls are cold, dark and impersonal, and its public space at ground level is ill defined.
But his last major project was a return to form, and fittingly in the city where he made his name, in the shape of the Sesc 24 de Maio, designed with MMBB Arquitetos, completed in 2017. Combining a theatre, library, restaurants and sports facilities in a multistorey pleasure palace, it is crowned, like many of São Paulo’s luxury towers, with a gleaming azure swimming pool. “Rather than for millionaires,” Mendes da Rocha said, “this rooftop pool is for the people.”
He is survived by his second wife, Helene Afanasieff, and his children, Renata, Guilherme, Paulo, Pedro, Joana and Naná.