ARQ, n. 69 Habitaciones / Dwellings, Santiago, August, 2008, p. 12-17.



The Tall House
Theme and variation

Ruth Verde Zein *

* Professor, Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie, Sao Paulo, Brazil


The influence of modern architecture in Latin America generated trends, which, in the case of Brazil, acquired their own character and autonomy. The residential architecture of Mendes da Rocha embodies this vocabulary and notably translates it to the domestic urban environment in a series of generously open planned apartment buildings in structural concrete.

Key words: Mendes da Rocha, Architecture-Brasil, modern architecture, collective housing, open plan.

It is almost impossible to comment on 20th century architecture without mentioning the work of Le Corbusier, easily the most important architect of modernity especially in Latin America and Brazil. The modern architecture of Rio de Janeiro between 1930 and 1950 is a tribute to his contribution, as is, though less known, the brutalist architecture of Sao Paulo from 1950 to 1970.
The talented generation of Paulistan architects embarking on their careers at the beginning of the 50’s has also drawn from the prolific source of the Complete Works, made public in that time. Although the Paulistan brutalism they introduced has an undeniable corbusian influence, their works do not demonstrate such affinity with baroque excess and the individualistic expressivity of the master’s later works such as Ronchamp. The Paulistan tradition of engineer-architects with poly-technical training (different from the School of Rio, based in the fine arts) favored more certain lessons of structure and form present in various moments of corbusian work, preferring his prototypical proposals and not necessarily his projects in béton brut. Also a few of Le Corbusier’s central ideas resulted quite influential in the Paulistan environment and were assigned a transcendent, almost doctrinary, value. Two examples among many: the urban plan as a synthesis informing (or should inform) each design decision, and the pilotis, not only as a demonstration of the independence between structure and enclosure but as a desirable mechanism for insertion in the contemporary city.
For his generation and training, Paulo Mendes da Rocha (born in 1928 and licensed as architect in 1954) has been an attentive reader of corbusian work, of which he extracts certain guides and converts them into some of his creative marks. The influence of the masters is always a stimulating burden and its rejection, one of the hidden motors of creative anguish. However, this does not lessen the value of these creative act as affirms literary critic Harold Bloom, “the poetic influence does not turn them less original: with the same frequency it makes them more original”. The attitude of facing each architectural commission as an opportunity to experiment with urban ideas is very present in the work of Mendes da Rocha, as in Le Corbusier, developing, in the words of François Choay, “individual projects as laboratories for the architectural devices of a broader relevance. The house could as well be an allegory containing the dream of a new city in miniature”. More than his houses, this theme appears in his high-rise buildings, inspired by the generous dwelling of the Immeuble Villa or the compact units of the Citrohan, Monol, Minimum prototypes, Maisons en serie and others from the productive mind of the master. Although in the body of corbusian work the whole variations on the Dom-ino independent structure and Citrohan structural box are no more than fecund possibilities, in the brutalist architecture of Sao Paulo and especially in the work of Mendes da Rocha, they appear to have been combined into a hybrid solution. This proposal emphasizes constructional and technical questions present in a potential sense in Le Corbusier, but realized through a Paulistan variant and consolidating a peculiar type: the apartment-house of closed walls and open shadows above pilotis.
Mendes da Rocha explores this possibility in a good part of his residential work, on par with other formal schemes, but always varying the theme of density. If isolated, single-family houses tend to be square or rectangular L/L√2 in plan, but there are also elongated solutions taking to the limit the common sites in Brazilian cities with little front and lots of length. The idea of the introverted box appears recurrently, elevated like a tree house or earthy like a mythic cavern. When he uses schemes more complex than a single volume, it is as if he combines various boxes, superimposing or interconnecting them. As a group, his experiments are understood as variations on the four compositions of Le Corbusier, but they are executed following the solution provided in Garches: “très difficile – satisfaction de l’esprit”.
Despite having worked on more than fifty houses, Mendes da Rocha has few high-rise collective residences: the Guaimbê buildings (1962, co-author João de Gennaro), Juaperi (1973), Jaraguá (1984) and Aspen (1986). Among the few unbuilt projects appears a proposal for the builder Forma & Espaço (1973). Maybe because the first projects were all variations on the theme of the house, generous and autonomous, the last can be understood as a variation on minimal row houses. This does not involve a simple piling of one on top of the other, but celebrating the possibilities only available -or that appear– through vertical construction. The Guaimbê and Juaperi buildings have similar plans: elongated rectangles of proportions 1:4, 1:3 or 1:2.5 respectively (in Aspen, 1:3 including the stairway), oriented on an east-west axis. Organized in two bays, the north houses the compartments that need to be enclosed (bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, stairs and elevators) and to the south a living-gallery extending from the smaller façade. In each case, this scheme is partially diluted by fortuitous situations: moveable partition walls created by the few curved or broken non-structural walls. In fact, the architect was glad to not have to fragment the space in any way; his strategy is more reminiscent of Mies than Le Corbusier: the curving wall of the Tugendhat house, the spatial fluidity of the patio houses, the internal continuity of the Farnsworth House, all themes from Mendes da Rocha’s other residential projects. Despite having windows on all facades, this perception is minimalized in the building elevations and photos by the use of continual panels of exposed concrete on the large facades leaving narrow vertical repeating openings in the concrete fabric. Placing storage in the facade, retracting the windows and creating deep shadows he reinforces the continuous canvas of the lateral facades, which almost become dividing walls for Citrohan boxes juxtaposing themselves in a continuous sash - rédents style. Although similar, these buildings are in no way identical. Mendes da Rocha is a classical, reiterative architect who delights in varied, minimalist repetition, more akin to the music of Phillip Glass than the art of Donald Judd or Richard Serra. Investigation of such plans creates pleasure through the discovery of their differences and in imagining their origin. The position of the vertical circulation in plan, the only indication that this is not just a single-family home, can be a key: inserted or attached, central or on the borders. An interested viewer can enjoy the mastery of the interior design, where walls, work services, storage units and windows are aligned with an obsessive axial continuity or how the elongated proportion converses coyly with the square or rectangle L/L√2 of its preference. There are more examples, but for brevity, we will not include them, allowing the reader the pleasure of discovery.
The Forma & Espaço and Jaraguá buildings appear markedly different, yet in reality very similar, with both originating from the same structural idea always key to a Paulistan architect. They can be read as variations on the Domino structure. The Jaraguá building takes its form from six columns regularly distributed and slightly jutting out proportionally between two solid enclosures, also structural. In Forma & Espaço, the subdivision of the plan into four apartments is resolved by the repetition of the transversal wall-columns and the longitudinal subdivision, although not structural, blurs the logic of the proportions L/L√2 of each branch, symmetrically mirrored to each side of the central vertical circulation. The two accentuate the repetition through their juxtaposition, creating an urban environment; each work suggests a prototypical solution for the organization of an urban collective.

Like the Forma & Espaço building, the Jaraguá project can only truly be understood in section. Here the inevitable subdivision of space, which Mendes da Rocha initially loathes, cuts access to both facades. To compensate for this disadvantage, the architect organizes a vertical structure like with children building blocks, where the columns have capitels and support the slab like a beam, separated in superimposed groups. This way, between each structural bay a transversal void appears that can be closed in the same way as a horizontal ventilation shafts without cutting the longitudinal beam. This allows for alternating cross ventilation in each apartment even though the units themselves do not have direct access to both facades, presenting an effective, simple and quite ingenious solution. The section of the Jaraguá building also shows inventiveness: the strong columns and high beams support the structure and minimize extraneous reinforcement, allowing the slabs to be positioned above and below the crossbeams while creating views and ventilation supplied by the two glazed facades. Although the plans for Jaraguá and Forma & Espaço appear completely different, closer evaluation allows one to see that they are variations of the same idea cleverly adjusted for their respective circumstances. To accomplish this, one must dissect them, removing the interior partitions to reveal the maximum void excepting the work surfaces of the kitchen-laundry and bathrooms. As stated before, one can continue to discover more through inspection of the five buildings, searching for other relationships be they spatial, formal, proportional or structural. Again I invite the reader to take pleasure in such a task, perhaps complicating the game by including the simpler or more complex houses, but always innovative; it only takes a deeper look to continue with such discoveries.

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