Helene Afanasieff, widow to the man who passed away in 2021, attended the pre-opening with her children alongside dozens of other guests, saying “I think it was the best exhibition I have seen of Paulo’s work, because in addition to being complete, it’s been very well taken care of.”
Back in 2020, it was announced that Mendes da Rocha had donated his entire archive to the Casa da Arquitectura, a decision that was met with controversy back in Brazil, concerned over the countries’ former colonial ties. “The USP (University of São Paulo), the people in Brazil, were very offended,” Helene said. According to her, when Paulo was confronted with these issues, he replied “I know how the collections are conserved at FAU-USP (Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism, USP). They are kept in tubes in the middle of the corridor. I am sure that Portugal will take good care of it.”
Meanwhile, Nuno Sampaio, the Casa da Arquitectura’s director, stated: “Mendes da Rocha chose the Casa da Arquitectura for the work we do: our mission includes supporting research and spreading the knowledge of architecture not only to professionals but to the wider public.”
The exhibition is called ‘Constructed Geographies: Paulo Mendes da Rocha’ and will be placed in Casa’s main gallery. “We chose to work on the theme of geography, saying that this is the first architecture. When a man arrives at a place and decides to implant his humanity, his daily life, his poetry there, that is the first architecture. All of us are architects in some way,” explained co-curator for the exhibition Vanessa Grossman, who worked alongside Jean-Louis Cohen on the curation.
“Throughout his troubled career, which was marked by the dictatorship, and despite everything, he managed to make projects that range from true domestic experiments, like the house that became a space of invention for him, to a public school on the outskirts of São Paulo, where recreation gained a very broad dimension, but also apartment buildings and cultural facilities,” Grossman explained the variety in the late architect’s work.
The exhibitions present 138 original drawings and models, as well as 8 new models and 10 videos depicting the featured projects produced for the event. In total, 12 major projects are to be shown from their origins to their current state, from Butantã House (1964-1967) in São Paulo to the likes of the National Coach Museum (2008-2015) in Lisbon. There are also 44 original drawings by Flávio Motta surrounding the Osaka Pavilion project, which was censored by the government of Brazil during the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.
Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s work is described as “very austere, very respectful of this economy of means, but very poetic. There was this tension between poetics and austerity, which is manifested, for example, in the beauty of the drawings,” according to Grossman. “I think he is an architect very much associated with the language of concrete and, later on, he experimented a lot with metal, but I think his work goes beyond this issue of matter and materiality. I think that for him concrete was an opportunity, it was a field of invention, it was a technological field that would bring infrastructure.”
However, the co-curator disagrees that concrete is the most substantial connection in Mendes da Rocha’s architecture. “The great substance that runs through the exhibition is really water,” she explains, “the water of his childhood, of his father, who was a naval architecture engineer, and he was very marked by the port experience, as he was born in Vitória.” The prevalence of road transport in Brazil has created “an occupation of territory that is very irrational,” Grossman argued. “So, he always talked about reversing the course of disaster through this reconciliation between cities and waters. For some, it is difficult to associate Paulo with ecology, but this issue between culture and nature is really very characteristic of his thinking and his buildings were, shall we say, a critical approach to the world.”
Vanessa Grossman concluded by highlighting the importance of understanding his work, “Anyone who comes here and doesn’t know Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s work will practically discover the history of Brazil, the history of a very committed architect, who was very anchored in his adoptive city, São Paulo, despite coming from a port city, which is Vitória.”
Star in the 2015 music video for the hit single “Headlights” by German musician, DJ and record producer Robin Schulz featuring American singer-songwriter Ilsey. Also a journalist.