Unnamed Spaces

March 18, 2024

A roundtable discussion exploring the influences, evolution, and innovations of São Paulo-based architecture office GRUPOSP over the past twenty years. This interview has been excerpted from the book GRUPOSP (Editora Escola da Cidade and Edições Sesc SP, 2021).


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SEBRAE, Brasília. © Pedro Kok.

This interview became an opportunity for a conversation with multiple interlocutors. Responding to the interests of São Paulo-based architecture office GRUPOSP, who are always open to collaborations and partnerships, Marta Bogéa suggested to replace the typical unidirectional structure of interviewer-interviewee with a roundtable with other guests that would allow them to have a more fluid conversation using the projects from the office as a prompt.

In addition to Alvaro Puntoni and João Sodré of GRUPOSP and Marta Bogéa, this conversation included Mônica Junqueira de Camargo, well regarded by the group as a critical thinker about the production of Brazilian architecture, more specifically in São Paulo, with special attention being paid to contemporary work. The conversation also included Pedro Kok, who has had the opportunity to photograph and film the projects of the office and is now a close and recurring photographer-collaborator.

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GRUPOSP, São Paulo, 2020. © Pedro Kok.

Marta Bogéa (MB): I want to start by thanking Mônica and Pedro for the privilege of this meeting. I would like to ask Alvaro and João about the origins of the office in its current configuration.

Alvaro Puntoni (AP): FAU-USP [Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo / Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism] is what unites me and João, with a very sui generis circumstance. João wasn’t exactly my FAU-USP colleague. Of course, you are a “colleague” of FAU-USP in the broadest and most beautiful sense of the word, because whenever you teach, you are automatically a colleague of the student. But he was from another generation, just like Jonathan [Davies]. This idea of associating with other offices at that time seemed strategic. In the beginning, it was João, Jonathan, and me. We didn’t have clients or capital. The only capital was us. I already knew João as we had worked on competitions at SPBR.1 At the end of 2003, I left SPBR and João left with me. In 2004, we formed GRUPOSP. The name GRUPOSP came from a competition we did in Italy called “Living Box,” which had to include a pseudonym. We ended up adopting the name.2

João Sodré (JS): We did the first competition as GRUPOSP while Alvaro was doing his doctorate. I collaborated with him by redesigning some projects he was studying. In early 2004, there was a housing competition called “Habitasampa” for social rental apartments promoted by the city of São Paulo. As it had a bit to do with his research on housing modules, we decided to enter. That was the first time we applied the strategy of the same project for different locations. We repeated this approach many years later, in 2016, in the student housing competition for UNIFESP [Federal University of São Paulo]. In April 2004, there was also a competition for the annex to the Gold Museum in Sabará (Minas Gerais).3

Pedro Kok (PK): Since we are talking about timeline and coincidences, 2004 was the year I started college and the year of the start of the office. Alvaro was my teacher at FAU-USP in 2006, the year I began to be interested in photography. In 2010, João invited me to participate in a side project—people were interested in collaborations then—a documentary about Paulo Mendes da Rocha, and he needed videography of some of his works.4 At that moment, I began to have a dialogue with the architect, observing the works of Paulo, also through the eyes of João.

JS: The first video collaboration of our firm with Pedro was in 2013, when we presented a project for the open call of the X International Architecture Biennial of São Paulo, which aimed to show the use of the SEBRAE [Brazilian Micro and Small Business Support Service] Building after two years in operation.5 It was a very simple exhibition: the competition model, a photo by Nelson Kon, a text by Ana Luiza Nobre, and the video by Pedro, which was the only material that hadn’t been published yet.

PK: In the work that I do for GRUPOSP, João participates a lot in the conceptual phase, discussing what the video will be and how we will present it. When I made the film about SEBRAE, for example, we were together there for three days, capturing material in which I tried to understand, in those days, not the visually known Brasília of the palaces but that of the super blocks: the relationship of the super blocks with SEBRAE and the public space of the city.

AP: Regarding SEBRAE, as much as it is said that the building is monumental, it has nothing monumental. It is very common. How do you make a palace? Do you put a reflecting pool in front? In [Oscar Niemeyer’s] Itamaraty Palace, the water is under the sun, it evaporates, and serves no purpose. In SEBRAE, on the contrary, the water is fully functional. It is shaded, it evaporates, and it generates a microclimate that is adequate for its location, and, at the same time, has the beauty of the water, which reflects the architecture and the sky of Brasília. The reflecting pool is not for creating a monument. We use water a lot as an element of climatization and thermal comfort, which is so important in a climate like ours.

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SEBRAE, Brasília. © Pedro Kok.

PK: I remember clearly when I was photographing SEBRAE, seeing it with its background, with the use of a telephoto lens, going through the reflecting pool and looking at the parking lot. It is not the same configuration of FAU-USP, but it shares some similarities with Caramel Hall, with the benches, under the library, toward the parking lot.6

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Pedro Kok at SEBRAE, Brasília. © Pedro Kok.

MB: FAU-USP is a building that reinvents a geography creating a new floor, which is one of the elements that echo in these two projects. Today, after eight years, I realize that living a few years at the FAU-USP makes you remember it visually and physically. The building is formative, it teaches its power through experiencing it. It embodies a quality that has been laboriously improved and built upon in dialogue between generations of architects from São Paulo.

AP: Several times, while visiting the SEBRAE project, I found myself thinking, “Wow, this is the FAU-USP.” Not just because of obvious things, like the structural solution or the fact that the column contains the installations, but even spatially. It is very impressive because it felt like I was home. It is hard to escape the architecture of FAU-USP: architecture in its purest form, silent and didactic. It is a seminal project.

Mônica Junqueira (MJ): I realize that there is something very strong in this issue of geography, as Marta has already commented; this creation of a topography. Because, after all, it is created, it is not given. I think it has to do with a certain positive tradition, a tradition in the terms proposed by Antonio Candido who compares it to a relay race.7 You have to pass the baton; that is, you have to receive it in order to be able to pass it on. For him, tradition is a living thing, and it is in this sense that I see the transmission of ideas to build on them, it is not just a passage. The text I wrote about the house of Carapicuíba was about the idea of a necessary step forward. You cannot only store and reproduce; you must make things evolve. This is a very important aspect of your work.8

MB: This idea of the relay race proposed by Mônica and borrowed from Antonio Candido is so beautiful. It is not just catching the baton; you have to take it somewhere else. I think it is the cleverest way I have seen considered the idea of legacy. Not as a thing that is received and accommodated but a thing that is received and transformed. It is a legacy that is shared by each one who receives it in a new way.

MJ: I also see other references, perhaps of a more North American architecture, a more compact and sectorized house. For example, Marcel Breuer’s binuclear house built in MoMA’s garden for the 1949 exhibition The House in the Museum Garden.9 There is a whole line of architects who treat light as a design element. In your project the Morro do Querosene House, it applies not only to natural light but also to artificial light. You use the bathroom as a beacon of light. This is very beautiful and a thing very particular to you. I have not seen it used anywhere else.

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Querosene House, São Paulo. © Nelson Kon.

AP: The bathroom light is zenithal, and the idea is that at night it becomes the opposite, where the bathroom illuminates the house.

MJ: What encloses the room is a translucent surface. That is beautiful. If you look at the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the light is not uncontrolled. On the contrary, it is absolutely controlled. Each environment has its luminosity, whether it is natural or not.

AP: You can think of architecture as this play of light and shadow that Le Corbusier talked about. Architecture is ten thousand years old, because the invention of cities as we know them dates to that time. But there is a thing called “night,” which has only been around for a hundred years. In the past, you lit candles. Remember Stanley Kubrick using candle as artificial lighting in Barry Lyndon?10 Architecture not only takes place during the day. I would even say that architecture is more night than day, or both day and night. Both moments exist and both need to be considered.

MJ: Exactly. I remember visiting the Morro do Querosene House. The bathroom is a very important source of light and becomes a focal point, something that typically a bathroom is not. I think that this space gaining prominence is a great quality. Within the program, the bathroom has the same relationship as other spaces. There is no such hierarchy between what is most important, what is front and what is background. It is a thing that is related more by functionality, in the sense of coexistence, of the integration between those activities that are more visible and less visible. I find the way you work very beautiful and quite interesting.

MB: Mônica, regarding the Morro do Querosene House, you wrote a beautiful text describing in a very precise way how the books are a foundational element of the house.11 Can you talk about that approach?

MJ: I think it is very clear that the house came from the books, from this library. There is a desire to create a living space with the library that configures the structure of the house. The question of the library in houses in general, and for intellectuals in particular, is an interesting aspect. In some homes, the library is like an annex. However, here I found something very interesting. The library is more integrated, it is part of the experience. It is the idea of living between books.

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Querosene House, São Paulo. © Nelson Kon.

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Querosene House, São Paulo. © Nelson Kon.

AP: Do you know another house where this is also very remarkable? Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s own house in Butantã, where he defines the living room and bedrooms through a continuous shelf.12 You follow the books to enter the spaces.

MJ: Another house is the nearby Juarez Brandão Lopes House [by Rodrigo Lefèvre and Flavio Império].13 It is a very beautiful and very interesting house that is based precisely on the collection of books. It is a very experimental house, a little different. However, in the Morro do Querosene House, what I found interesting was precisely this integration of the library with the living space. It is part of the everyday life. You are talking or having dinner and you have a book at your fingertips. It is also the coexistence of children with these books. It is not a space of seclusion; it has these levels that draw a lot of attention. That is where I tried to analyze this house, beyond the structural issues, how it positions itself, how it talks to the city, the program.

AP: I think this discussion is interesting, the idea of the concentration of service spaces. I think it has a lot to do, Mônica, with an idea like image architecture, which Bruno Zevi would call “continent,” in which you only care about the envelope, the volume, which is what matters. Zevi argues that architecture also has the content, the question of precisely the space you build, where you live, what you do not perceive in the first moment, etc. Looking at it this way, in retrospect, there is what Mônica was talking about: shaping the service spaces. They are concentrated to somehow create a continent/content, where you have the over-expressive service spaces, and it somehow reverses our way of understanding it. The expression of this house is only through the service spaces, because if you consider these small spaces, which are the bedrooms with the bathrooms, the movement of the body in space, which is the vertical circulation, contained in a clear and defined block... they confirm the emptiness, where in fact we have what matters: the space for encounters. There is always that interest: The Morro do Querosene House, the headquarters of IPHAN [National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute], SEBRAE, the CAU/BR+IAB-DF, the house in Serra (Espírito Santo).

MJ: The issue of the program is important. The organization of the program, the sectorization. The program helps with this organization, which reflects the spatiality itself. It enters as a point of reference. For other architects, such as Niemeyer for example, the program is not determinative. He creates a form and then you see how the program adapts to that space. I have the feeling of a very strong presence of the program in your work, not as a limiter, but as an element of articulation of spaces, of way of life.

MB: It establishes a non-hierarchical relationship, a relationship of continuity.

AP: It is similar to the Jardim Paulistano House. The service spaces are concentrated in the center, like a stone, which is the structure. The rooms, these atomized spaces, are the opposite, the void, the negative result of the concentration of service spaces. You don’t have a continent that then determines the content, it is already born in an integral way, continent/content.

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Jardim Paulistano House, São Paulo. © Nelson Kon.

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Jardim Paulistano House, São Paulo. © Nelson Kon.

PK: I feel that in the projects of the office the framing is always given. The framing on camera, to me, is always very obvious. When photographing a work by GRUPOSP, I enter a space and I already know where the camera should be. Most of the time, my relationship with the office was with video work, not photography. But I don’t distinguish between that, because I consider my background as a cinematographer as an image in movement. I have already visited and documented these projects by GRUPOSP in some way.

MB: It is interesting what you say, Pedro, about the movement of the body in space and the thoughtful construction of new visuals.

PK: The video of the house in Jardim Paulistano in 2015 was a particular documentation of the work, because the framing, in that case, was not given. The photography of the work is of action, with some materiality, but it is not of space. I think João can talk about how the whole approach was made for the exhibition in Venice. When they came to me in 2018, they already wanted it to be a video, especially as a conversation between the works of the GRUPOSP and others considered emblematic and important for the office, such as the free span of MASP, the canopy of Ibirapuera, the Caramel Hall, the internal street of Sesc Pompeia, and the São Paulo Cultural Center, among others.

MB: Are you referring to the exhibition at the XVI Venice Architecture Biennale in 2018? This is an important question: How did the curators contact the office? Did you have any parameters from them?

JS: Curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects got in touch with us because they knew the school in Votorantim, which is quite incredible. At first, we were asked to submit a proposal that would respond to the theme of the exhibition, Freespace. We thought of a device of 3 x 3 x 15 meters, which would be built from steel rebar, recreating at 1:1 scale some spaces that were recurrent in some of our projects in the office, a kind of matrix. Container spaces, especially for their size and proportion. Our suggestion was that it could be placed in a Fondamenta or in the Giardini, so that it could serve as a shelter, as a public shaded area offered to the city. The project was not accepted. They came up with the idea of exhibiting the school, and we made a counterproposal. If it was to show some work, the SEBRAE Building and the public space of Brasília was perhaps more pertinent with the theme of the exhibition.

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Public School Jd. Tatiana, Votorantim, São Paulo. © Pedro Kok.

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Public School Jd. Tatiana, Votorantim, São Paulo. © Pedro Kok.

MB: Did they accept your proposal change? How did this communication come about?

AP: It was a nice moment because it is through letters and message exchanges. It is a written project.

JS: At the end there was this request to have a project exhibited at the Arsenale. We proposed a space that could allow free movement from the neighboring facilities. In short, our exhibition was a simulation of SEBRAE’s space, on a 1:20 scale. It consisted of two parallel steel plates, one straight and one curved, both painted white and 3-mm thick. It had a total dimension of 0.90 m x 3.60 m, hovering over the floor of the Arsenale. From the central aisle, the curvilinear plate announced the name of the exhibition: Unnamed Spaces. In the space between the plates is where the two videos were projected, one with works of the office and the other with reference projects from São Paulo. On the back of the rectilinear plate, almost next to the wall, there was a small text with the diagrams of ten works of the office, five built and five unbuilt.

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Unnamed Spaces, Venice Architecture Biennale, 2018. © Pedro Kok.

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Unnamed Spaces, Venice Architecture Biennale, 2018. © Pedro Kok.

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Unnamed Spaces, Venice Architecture Biennale, 2018. © Pedro Kok.

PK: It was difficult for me to understand this project because I did not want to give a meaning to it. I didn’t want it to be a narrative film that explained these works. In the end, the solution we adopted was to create two videos, eleven and sixteen minutes each, displayed simultaneously, not synchronized, without relating the images. In one of them, the images of GRUPOSP projects were shown; in the other video, the referent works previously mentioned were shown. I wanted an association of images between two distinct projects to happen at a certain point but not to be forced, except for my way of observing and framing those iconic spaces.

AP: Whenever we talk about our office outside Brazil, I think it is important to situate yourself, show where you come from, explain where you live, and tell how we work. You can’t come in and start showing a work as if I were a madman or a genius. Everything has a meaning, which you know very well what it is, but those who have never seen your work have no idea. This had to do with the search for a relationship between our work and the “spaces without name.”

JS: The spaces without name, from the text of Flavio Motta about Paulo Mendes da Rocha.

AP: Significant spaces, unnamed.14 In this text, Flavio Motta indicates the existence of spaces whose program indeterminacy makes it impossible to name them but that, due to their strong architectural character, end up being named according to their use, for example the free span of MASP, the Caramel Hall of FAU-USP, or the canopy of Ibirapuera Park.

JS: It was a bit about that, thinking about these spaces in our architecture and in the works that form our imagination as architects. It was an exhibition that spoke from São Paulo.

AP: There is a little of what Mônica said, that you can’t be an architect without picking up the previous baton. There is no creation from nothing. It seemed like a bit crazy to go to Venice to exhibit a work as if it were a demiurge. In reality, we are just trying to take the baton a little further.

MB: On the other hand, it is beautiful to present the works that are shaping the interest of the office itself and reveal how all this is reclaimed.

MJ: I think these references, this legacy, only makes things better. Our “moderns” had a big problem with the relationship that was established with their previous work. Perhaps it was an attempt to break with academicism, which were just references. You and your generation are free and able to recognize this legacy, this tradition.

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House in Itu, São Paulo. © Nelson Kon.

PK: I want to discuss a project that we talked about very little, which is the house in Itu.

AP: There was a question, look at the size of the terrain. The obligatory setback is 10 meters, the width of a typical site. The Morro do Querosene House fits in this obligatory setback. When we started the project, it seemed to us that it would be a mistake to imagine an isolated volume. We noticed that in this gated neighborhood all the houses are like this: a large plot, huge setbacks, a detached house, and a garden around the house. Then comes this baton that we carry: the idea of concentrating the service spaces in a structure, which was already the visual screen itself, which would allow us to generate an empty space, where the family lived their life as much as they were sheltered from the street. It seemed like it was an interesting path. We proposed this 45-meter-long structure that contains all the service spaces, the soft circulation devices. With the moderate unevenness of the terrain, a ramp would fit perfectly within the structure, which created this visual screen to generate the internal square. This was great because this couple wants to grow old in this place. Then we separated the program of the house into two volumes plugged into this structure, as if the residents of the house were neighbors of themselves.

MJ: A house...

JS: A weekend house.

AP: The day we went to visit the site for the first time, it was pouring and we couldn’t see the terrain properly. One thing that we were very afraid of was the square, and it was lucky that everything went well. When we are in the square, we only see the lake and the forest, and we do not see the neighbors.

JS: The vegetation grew a lot and it was very beautiful. Here there is a subtlety, a patio with some white ipês. The leaves fall in winter and allow the sun to warm this glazed bridge, which during the rest of the year will be protected by the leaves.

MB: It builds a warmer place. It creates a centrality in the house that is also exterior. This is the wisdom of the Arab tradition, the courtyard where daily life happens, enjoying this exterior and interior landscape at the same time.

JS: We have playful elements such as the same Portuguese mosaic floor inside and outside the pool. It is designed by Andrés Sandoval, an artist who had already elaborated the panel for the Simpatia Building.

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House in Itu, São Paulo. © Nelson Kon.

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House in Itu, São Paulo. © Nelson Kon.

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House in Itu, São Paulo. © Nelson Kon.

PK: But I think that what the house shows is a strangeness for anyone who comes in and comes across this space, because the rooms are apparently big and they are separated a distance that you are not used to in this size of rooms.

MB: As if the spaces were not close to each other, contaminated by others. It is different from the usual proximity of rooms in houses, where in general it is all very close together. The Morro do Querosene House, for example.

AP: It is, but houses like Querosene are more pavilion houses.

MB: We have been talking with Alvaro and João about these projects like distinct series. For artists, this is very normal. In the visual arts, for some artists, the series don’t have a limit; they come back to them identifying them in the title of the works: “such work, such series.” In architecture, we hardly see the recognition of series. This house in Itu seems to me to open another series, pointing to new aspects distinct from the experimentations in which you deconstruct the volume, with central voids as a key element of the intersections. There is something here in the experimentation of a rotation, a turn, the generation of another kind of movement, as is also visible in the model of the house in the Garden City. It is different from the Patio and Pavilion, also present in some of your texts. Here starts an area in which the interval, and no longer the central void, is the protagonist. Some rotations and another type of framing begin to appear.

MJ: I think the principle is a bit the same, it has a question of scale as it relates to the site.

MB: I think it has a rotation of the stairs, of the movement. For example, the clear longitudinal back and forth, present in the other pavilion houses, here occurs associated with other turns. We joke that the house in Itu has become a hybrid house, that these stairs begin to make a body turn that also points to other directions, no longer the priority, longitudinal directions. In my view, this does not stem only from the dimensions of the terrain.

PK: For me, this project was very remarkable.

MB: It is difficult to grasp it as a whole.

PK: Yes, it is difficult to grasp it as a whole.

MB: It is fragmented, it is a dissonant whole, which is not the repetition of the same module or the same element.

PK: It is fragmented, and it feels like MuBE [Museu Brasileiro da Escultura e Ecologia] because of the square. It is not a backyard, it is not an orchard, it is not a lawn; it is a square. I think from the beginning you place the square.

MJ: I think the courtyard becomes a square.

MB: Because of the size?

PK: It is not only for its size but because of the dimension of the volumes that are around it. Suddenly, it defines a village, or the image of a village.

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House in Itu, São Paulo. © Nelson Kon.

AP: This house looks bigger than it actually is, which is approximately 700 square meters.

MB: There is a curious thing about the volumes being distinct from each other. They are neighbors in a square rather than volumes of a singular body built around a courtyard.

MJ: As if it were, let’s say, a more urban setting.

MB: Here we had the opportunity to experiment with something else.

MJ: This idea of the square was very beautiful. As Pedro said I think this dimension and this diversity of volumetry makes it almost an urban space, it has an urban dimension.

PK: And exactly what is missing is this urbanity.

AP: This is a place that is not urban. The area was originally a farm, which became a gated community. Most of the houses are isolated volumes with huge setbacks and a garden around the house. It seemed like a misconception to us. Hence, the idea of concentrating as much as possible on the structure becoming the visual screen itself, which would allow to generate an empty space, such as a square where the family enjoyed life while being separated from the street, seemed interesting.

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House in Itu, São Paulo. © Nelson Kon.

1 Architecture office founded by Angelo Bucci and Alvaro Puntoni in 2003.
2 GRUPOSP was founded in 2004 by Alvaro Puntoni, João Sodré, and Jonathan Davies. Jonathan was part of the office until 2010.
3 Young Architects Award IAB (2005).
4 The documentary PMR 29’: vinte e nove minutos com Paulo Mendes da Rocha (2010), directed by Carolina Gimenez, Catherine Otondo, João Sodré, José Paulo Gouvêa, and Juliana Braga. The film is available online:
5 First prize in the SEBRAE Nacional Competition (2008). With the SEBRAE and Simpatia Buildings, the architects were awarded during the VIII BIAU in 2012. In that same year, they won the APCA Award for the best national project and the Joven Generacion Latinoamericana Award-XIII Bienal Internacional de Arquitectura de Buenos Aires.
6 FAU-USP was designed by architects João Batista Vilanova Artigas and Carlos Cascaldi and built between 1961 and 1969. The building is one of the most important references in modern Brazilian architecture. Its spatial fluidity and large internal square make it both a building and a public place.
7 Antonio Candido, Formação da literatura brasileira: momentos decisivos, 5 ed. (São Paulo: Edusp, 1975).
8 Casa de Carapicuíba, Angelo Bucci and Alvaro Puntoni, 2003.
9 The House in the Museum Garden exhibition organized at the MoMA in 1949.
10 Barry Lindon, Stanley Kubrick, 1975.
11 Mônica Junqueira de Camargo, “Viviendo entre libros,” 1:100 Selección de Obras (Buenos Aires, n. 27, 2010), 18–25.
12 House in Butantã, Paulo Mendes da Rocha and João de Gennaro, 1968.
13 Juarez Brandão Lopes House, Rodrigo Lefèvre and Flávio Império, 1968.
14 Flavio Motta, “Paulo Mendes da Rocha,” Acrópole, n. 343, 19–20, September 1967.