The architect of the roof

I believe that when you look at something with new eyes, you sometimes find yourself in front of a small wonder. My first encounter with Lelé can be described just like that. A small wonder.

This wonder happened to me today when I visited the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam for the Louis Kahn exposition. When I reached the second floor, I was in for a surprise.

João Filgueiras Lima, better known as Lelé, became an architect almost by accident. During his early life, he was determined to be a musician ready for a bohemian life. When working as a clerical assistant at age 18, one of his colleagues encouraged him to take the entrance exam to study for architecture. And so he did. He passed the first test with the lowest possible score. During the second test one of his teachers noticed him and instructed him on the spot. Lelé ended up passing the exam. In a way this story is a beautiful example of one of the principles by Louis Kahn presented in the other exposition: a school is like a tree underneath which the teacher teaches the student without both teacher and student noticing that they are teacher and student (but then better formulated).

After his graduation, Oscar Niemeyer set him out to construct one of the first buildings in Brasília: the Instituto Central de Ciências. “This was my real training, the day-to-day contact with the building site and with the practical side of things. Others may have had less ambitious projects as their training ground. Mine was Brasília”. After his project with Niemeyer he experimented with concrete and constructed – truth must be said, and so did some other visitors – some of the most hideous and plump buildings I ever saw. But Lelé kept on searching. He was almost obsessed with the flow of air through buildings. He was inspired by the curves of Niemeyer and their way in which “they facilitated the aerodynamics of the wind, while for Niemeyer the sheds are mostly designed for illumination.”

After a range of public projects, Lelé got involved with the construction of Sarah hospitals, a network of rehabilitation hospitals. Where he not only integrated light into the rooms, but also air with beautiful roofs.

Basically, his starting point was simple. In this sketch Lelé showed what a hospital room shouldn’t look like:

Lelé - This is not a room

Instead it should look like this: sunny and with lots of air:

Lelé - this is a room

The Sarah hospital in Rio de Janeiro is an example of his art brought to perfection. Here Lelé even constructed the beds. This animations really sweeps through the building:

The buildings’ main feature is the auditorium of which the dome can be opened not only to enter the light, but also fresh air
Sarah hospital Rio de Janeiro

Next to several hospitals, Lelé constructed some beautiful Audit tribunals (tribunal de contas), for example this one for Ciuaba:

Tribunal de Contas (Ciuaba)

And thus Lelé, the architect who “learned construction by doing” became one of the greatest architects of Brasil. And for me: an inspiration.

Lelé in front of the dome of Sarah hospital Rio de Janeiro

Quotes are taken from the exposition “Lelé – architect of health and happiness”.