Paulo Mendes da Rocha (1928–2021)

John Hill
24. May 2021
Paulo Mendes da Rocha receiving the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

The great Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha died on Sunday, May 23, at the age of 92. Just a week earlier he was named recipient of the UIA Gold Medal, which he would have received at the delayed UIA2021RIO in July.

Mendes da Rocha's death, as reported by ArchDaily, was due to lung cancer, coming after the architect was hospitalized in São Paulo, the city he was synonymous with over his long career. Mendes da Rocha established his studio there in 1955 and three years later, at the age of 30, won a major competition for the Paulistano Athletic Club Gymnasium in São Paulo. His first masterpiece, the saucer-like building surrounded by an esplanade would define much of his ensuing architecture: daring concrete and steel structures with strong attention to public spaces.

A decade later his structural daring was on full display to a wider audience, with the Brazil Pavilion at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan. A huge concrete roof was anchored at just three points and cantilevered over an undulating ground plane with an underground exhibition space. At the time of the commission the left-leaning architect was barred from practicing architecture and teaching in Brazil, following the right-wing dictatorship put in place by a military coup in 1964. Accordingly, many of the architect's later masterpieces followed the dictatorship's downfall two decades later, including the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture (MuBE), the Forma Store, and the Patriarca Square and Viaduto do Chá Overpass, all built in São Paulo in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Another project, the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, earned Mendes da Rocha the Mies van der Rohe prize for Latin American Architecture in 2000, one of many awards given the celebrated architect. Other honors include the 2006 Pritzker Architecture Prize (the second Brazilian architect to win it, after Oscar Niemeyer in 1988), the Praemium Imperiale and Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, both in 2016, and RIBA's 2017 Royal Gold Medal.

Last year it was announced that Mendes da Rocha's huge archive of around 10,000 drawings, models, and other objects would be going to to Casa da Architectura in Matosinhos, Portugal. That country is home to one of the architect's few buildings outside his native Brazil: Museu Nacional dos Coches (National Coach Museum), designed by Mendes da Rocha with São Paulo's MMBB arquitetos and Lisbon's Bak Gordon Arquitectos. The building was completed in 2012 but did not open until 2015, making it one of the great architect's last buildings.

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