Mendes da Rocha attended the Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie College of Architecture, graduating in 1954. Working almost exclusively in Brazil, Mendes da Rocha has been producing buildings since 1957, many of them built in concrete, a method some call "Brazilian Brutalism", arguably allowing buildings to be constructed cheaply and quickly. He has contributed many notable cultural buildings to São Paulo and is widely credited as enhancing and revitalizing the city.
Paulo Mendes da Rocha of Sao Paulo, Brazil, inspired by the principles and language of modernism, as well as through his bold use of simple materials, has over the past six decades produced buildings with a deep understanding of the poetics of space. He modifies the landscape and space with his architecture, striving to meet both social and aesthetic human needs. Adhering to a social vision commensurate with the new world, he reminds us that architecture is foremost a human endeavor inspired by nature’s omnipresence. The vast territory of his country has given this architect a rich lineage to harness and reconcile nature and architecture as congruent forces. His signature concrete materials and intelligent, yet remarkably straightforward construction methods create powerful and expressive, internationally-recognized buildings. There is no doubt that the raw materials he uses in achieving monumental results have had influences the world over.
Mendes da Rocha was Professor at the Architecture College of University of São Paulo, known as FAU-USP, until 1998. His work is influenced by Brazilian architect Vilanova Artigas, from the paulist Brazilian School. He was honored with the Mies van der Rohe Prize (2000), the Pritzker Prize (2006) and the Venice Biennale Golden Lion for lifetime achievement (2016). Few would argue that independence and modernism are clear-cut states of being, or that they are necessarily mutually reinforcing. The process of de-colonization often takes years, if not decades, and vestiges of dependency—in corporate exploitation, military installations, and trade—can linger long after a declaration of independence. Modernism, meanwhile, is usually anti-local and was, as Manuel Herz writes, “one of the very motifs that the empires used to colonize Africa during the nineteenth century.” Asking architects to brush aside that history and approach modernism in a vacuum, as some African governments did, took some gall. As such, the architecture of this era in these countries purports to be fiercely modern and independent, but is thick with contradiction. Take Nairobi’s Kenyatta International Conference Centre, an exquisite mashup of skyscraper, auditorium, and plaza by Norwegian architect Karl Henrik Nøstvik. Originally planned as the headquarters of the then-ruling Kenya African National Union, the center—given an opportunity to host the 1973 World Bank annual summit—saw its building program changed, tower height tripled, and identity linked forever to global capitalism rather than national independence.
The architecture on display hails from five countries—Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Kenya, and Zambia—and is organized by their former colonial overlord, England or France. These countries have had considerably different cultural and economic fortunes; however, they are all tropical and all possessed by a spirit of aspirational modernity. The first populist leaders in each country seized on an opportunity to channel this yearning into a national identity. Civic and educational buildings began springing up in and around cities, often as direct extensions of presidential vision. Ceremonial spaces rich with symbolism, like Ghana’s Independence Square in Accra, supplanted colonial enclaves; state industry and central banks sometimes came with hives of workers’ housing; university campuses and trade fair sites embraced complex geometries and dizzying concrete landscapes; and urban resorts, like the Hotel Ivoire, in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, with their lagoon, bars, and restaurants, signified the economic miracles that would preface collapse.
Meanwhile, the glazed high-rises, imports from Europe and North America, were ill-equipped to handle the equatorial sun. Concrete did better with shade and ventilation, particularly when louver panels were folded into façades, but Brutalist trappings were never far off.Italian architect Rinaldo Oliveri responded by setting out to conquer the tyranny of the rectangle. His La Pyramide in Abidjan, completed in 1973 and a highlight of the show, is a 12-story mixed-use, concrete-and-steel pyramid taking cues from traditional market shelters. It seeks to re-create the liveliness of the African marketplace at its base, with tapering floors shaded by broad awnings. Bold, yes. Successful? No. The ratio of rentable space to circulation space was all wrong and the building sits mostly empty at the center of town.But the nascent nations can hardly be faulted for commissioning foreign architects. Some design firms even kept a practice in the colonies as there wasn’t the professionalization of architecture at the time. Eventually African architects, like Ghana’s Samuel Opare Larbi, took the reins, coming up through new institutions of higher education and famed schools abroad such as the Architectural Association’s Department of Development and Tropical Studies (now the Development Planning Unit), in London.
While the chapter on the “architecture of independence” is closed for these five countries, its psychological and compositional influences bump against neo-classical tastes in the haphazard cities that remain today. So the question remains: Can modernist architecture in Africa truly be considered African or is it more European?