Bold designs, simple materials

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha has been awarded the 2006 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Mr. Mendes da Rocha - renowned for designing bold, open structures that blend with their surroundings - will receive a $100,000 grant and bronze medallion on May 30 at a ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey.

Mendes da Rocha is the second Brazilian to receive architecture's highest honor. Oscar Niemeyer was honored in 1988. Some past winners include Frank Gehry of the United States (1989), Rafael Moneo of Spain (1996), Renzo Piano of Italy (1998), and Thom Mayne of the US (2005).

"The jury salutes Mendes da Rocha's outstanding use of style and space," said Thomas Pritzker in a statement. He is president of The Hyatt Foundation, which gives the award. "His dedication to innovation is evident in all of his work."

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"Mendes da Rocha brings a joyful lilt of Brazil to his work, never afraid of innovation or taking risks," said Lord Palumbo, chairman of the seven-member Pritzker Prize Jury, in a statement. The award was announced Sunday.

Mendes da Rocha's career spans six decades and includes his role as architect, professor at the University of São Paulo, and president of the Brazilian Institute of Architects. He has designed a variety of structures, mostly in Brazil, including homes, museums, sports arenas, apartment buildings, and public areas.

The jury noted Mendes da Rocha wasn't afraid of taking risks - conjuring audacious, modern designs often from just a few simple materials, such as concrete and steel, and sometimes overcoming limitations in the construction resources available. Some of his buildings were erected in Brazil in the 1950s, when construction technology was not as sophisticated as it was elsewhere. Another theme is his use of water, often in the form of reflecting pools.

Among his most widely known structures is the Brazilian Sculpture Museum, built partly underground in lush gardens in São Paulo. The design treats the museum as a whole entity. A large beam of concrete traverses the exterior portion of the site. Slabs of concrete form underground spaces and also the exterior plaza, which has pools and an esplanade.

His design for the Patriarch Plaza, a public square in the heart of São Paulo, is also among his most celebrated works. He breathed new life into the area by covering it with an enormous concrete canopy suspended from a portico that serves as shade for pedestrians. It seems to float over the square.

"Construction is a transformation of space," Mendes da Rocha said. "When you build, you need to imagine the universe is something entirely new that didn't exist before."

He is a native of Brazil, and currently lives in São Paulo. His mother was the daughter of Italian immigrants, and his father was a Brazilian engineer. Mendes da Rocha got his professional start in the 1950s. Shortly after graduating from college, he won a national competition to design part of the Paulistano Athletic Club in São Paulo. This led to public recognition and accolades.

"I had to follow my own style," he maintained. From then on, a host of projects came his way - houses, schools, museums, office buildings, and urban projects. He worked with simple materials, such as concrete, steel, and glass.

He designed his own home in São Paulo in the 1960s.

"I built it on pillars on a slope, so it would generate a dialogue with the gardens," he said. "One of my choices was to maximize my use of prefabricated and mass- produced reinforced concrete components."

His current projects include developing a master plan for part of the University of Vigo in northwestern Spain. He is working on the Technological City, "integrating new buildings designed by various Spanish architects into a connecting landscape scheme," he said.

In addition to his architectural and urban projects, he also has designed furniture. His "Paulistano" chairs are a prime example. He has developed two styles and a chaise lounge. All three combine modern production techniques, but, he said, "they are also functional and, above all, comfortable."

Despite the accolades, Mendes da Rocha said perhaps the best compliment is when someone sees his work and says, "This is what we wanted. This is what was missing.

"As long as I live I'm going to work," he continued. "I keep myself alive. In Brazil, we're all young."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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