A book review by Michael Webb
It’s unsurprising that Oscar Niemeyer should have captured the world’s attention and become the poster boy (and later, grand old man) of Brazilian architecture. Though he built throughout the country and abroad (largely defining the UN complex in New York) he remains closely linked to Rio, his beloved home city. The sensual lines of his architecture were directly inspired by the women sunbathing on the beach in full view of his office. Images of this kind define a country, especially in the United States, where much of the world is viewed in cartoon terms.
Paulo Mendes da Rocha represents a radically different aspect of Brazil, and one that is much harder to engage with. Over a sixty year career he has become the doyen of the Paulista school of architecture: creating massive structures of poured concrete that seem to have been carved out of solid blocks, alternating with daring cantilevers that evoke bridges and cranes. São Paulo is the second largest metropolis in the Americas (closely tailing Mexico City): a vast and intimidating sprawl of high rises, suburbs and slums; vibrant and overloaded. Mendes da Rocha, like his mentor, João Batista Artigas, and Lina Bo Bardi, matched his work to the demands of this city. His houses resemble caves, dark and impregnable; his public buildings—from the Paulisto Athletic Club with its cable-suspended roof to the Brazilian Sculpture Museum’s spectacular span—are feats of architecture and engineering on a grand scale. One cannot fail to be impressed.
Daniele Pisani immersed herself in the life and work of her subject in Paulo Mendes da Rocha: Complete Works. This monograph (first published by Mondadori Electa in Italian) is as monumental undertaking as the work it chronicles. It’s a book for scholars and deeply serious architects that makes extensive use of original plans and delves deeply into the intellectual ferment out of which Mendes da Rocha emerged.
Paulo Mendes da Rocha: Complete Works. Daniele Pisani. Rizzoli International. $95