Paulo Mendes da Rocha Discusses Trump’s “Wall” and Architecture in Latin America

In an interview with the Architect’s Journal, Brazilian architect and awardee of the 2017 RIBA Royal Gold Medal Paulo Mendes da Rocha discusses the political role of architects in reaction to Trump’s policies. He answers questions about populism in architecture, architectural education, and the problems of architecture in Latin America and Brazil. Then, he, finally, debunks a myth about the so called “Brazilian Brutalism.”

Starting with the reaction to the new president of the US, Mendes da Rocha said that Trump’s “block of fear” or, metaphorically speaking, “the wall” is everyone’s problem and not just architects. However, he thinks that the experience and knowledge of architects, gained through their work, make them more influential, and so they should act accordingly:

“As architects, we have a particular experience through our work and can perhaps have a greater influence simply because of our knowledge of construction. We have special apprehension in the face of a storm, and we must manifest our political condition by raising our voices. We must speak up.”

He, also, believes that big architectural bodies and organization like RIBA and the Institute of Architects in Brazil should get involved in political issues and “influence change” to avoid repeating events from the past:

“The biggest disaster of the recent election is the repetition of things we have already seen. And today it would not simply be history repeating itself, it would be much worse.”
The architect concluded by issuing a call to his friends and colleagues in all fields of architecture to take a stand befitting of their experience and capacity for political action:
“We are capable of undertaking political action which has an impact and to reverse terrible conditions which are not inexorable. We can always improve things; in fact, that is what motivates us.”

He continued by giving an example from his own past:

“. . . when Brazil succumbed to military dictatorship, with assassinations, torture, and persecution among other things, I was one of the hunted. My architectural license was revoked. They said I was their enemy. I didn’t see myself as an enemy, but sometimes it is necessary for us to position ourselves as the enemy.”

When asked about populism and architecture, the Brazilian architect described populism to be “dangerous,” explaining:

“My impression is that what we call populism creates fantasies about how to solve problems. I would prefer that the government provided work for everyone rather than just making promises.”
He also criticized the “propaganda of the market” which makes people buy things they don’t need. He described it as “the principal instrument of fascism.”

Moving to the important architectural issues in Latin America, the architect expressed an interest in “masterplanning” in face of “the patterns established by colonialism.” He spoke of the importance of collaboration and partnership between Latin American countries in order to develop projects like “railroads connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic.” He argued that similar projects would be a cause of unity and peace between these countries and that new cities could be developed in relevance to local cultures. He further explained the problem of the big cities all over the world by saying:

“The reason a city like São Paulo has 20 million inhabitants is because there is a lack of smaller cities which offer employment. This is happening all over the world, in Africa as well. Spain with Morocco, France with Algeria, Holland with Sumatra and Borneo. We are confronting the mistakes that were made during the colonial era.”

He expressed his hope that countries would collaborate to solve this global problem instead of blocking each other and “building walls between nations.”
On the matter of architectural education, Mendes Da Rocha believes that it should start with young children and that architecture should be a popular subject: “It’s not up to me; it’s up to everybody.” He, also, thinks that the change should start from the schools.

Regarding the street protests in Brazil, Mendes Da Rocha confirmed the strong impact of these protests which touched widely discussed topics like “the city for all” and “housing for the poor.” However, the architect thinks that the claims to “affordable” water, sewers, and electricity, are incomprehensible, since “the quality of a house should be the same for everybody, like transport and education.”

Finally, when asked about the future if Brutalism in Brazil, Mendes Da Rocha denied the entire existence of the movement in Brazil: “Brutalism was born in England. In Brazil there never was a movement of Brutalism; it doesn’t exist.”

He described the critics’ vision that associated reinforced concrete buildings with brutalism to be old fashioned, explaining that brutalism is not only about the texture. “Architecture cannot survive only as a style. Architecture is about the correct response to a particular place at a given time,” he said. “Architecture must satisfy both necessity and desire, not just one or the other. It has to strive for these higher human ideals.”

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