Vale Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer, one of the great architects of the 20th Century died in December 2012 just weeks before his 105th birthday

His full name was Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho and he was born in Rio de Janeiro in December 1907 and took his name from a German Brazilian grandmother.  He graduated in architecture in 1934 and chose leading local architect and planner Lucio Costa as his mentor.  Costa included Niemeyer in the design team for the newly commissioned headquarters building for the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janiero, he ended up playing a dominant design role and being greatly influenced by Le Corbusier who had been invited by Costa to act as an advisor to the project.  Completed in 1943 when Niemeyer was 36 years old, this building was the first to develop the elements of what was to become recognized as Brazilian modernism.

It employed local materials and techniques like the colorful azulejos tiles linked to the Portuguese tradition, and made conscientious use of adjustable brise soleil.  Together with bold colors and tropical gardens designed by Roberto Burle Marx and specially commissioned works by Brazilian artists, this building is considered as one of the most influential of the 20th century.

In 1940 Niemeyer first met Juscelino Kubitschek when he was mayor of Belo Horizonte, capital of the state of Minas Gerais.  Kubitschek, who was to have a great influence on Niemeyer's career, was developing a new suburb to the north of the city at Pampulha and commissioned Neimeyer to design a casino, a restaurant-night club, a yacht club and a church, all around an artificial lake; the church is considered the masterpiece of this complex. 

In 1947 Niemeyer participated in the international panel working on the design of the new United Nations Headquarters in New York.  It must have been a strange experience with more than a few strong personalities on the panel, including Le Corbusier, the greatest architectural 'prima donna' of them all after Frank Lloyd Wright.  Niemeyer and Corbusier are credited with having effectively designed the building, but the execution was given to American architects so who knows what might have been. The building design process doesn't stop at the initial design stage, but continues being refined and expand-ed while the detail design and construction documents are being prepared. It was an opportunity lost not to leave it with Niemeyer!

Niemeyer only designed one other building in the United States, a house on the West Coast, and always had difficulty visiting the USA because of his lifelong membership of the Communist Party.  Even when he was invited to be Dean of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard in 1953 to succeed Gropius, he was refused entry.  His politics was clearly not a middle class, heart on sleeve one, he was a boy during the Russian Revolution in 1917, became a young idealist during the Second World War and joined the party in 1945. He visited the Soviet Union on a number off occasions and was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1963. He was friendly with South American leaders like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez; and Castro once declaimed,'Niemeyer and I are the last communists on this planet.'

His most important building in the Fifties was the Museum of Modern Art in Caracas, an inverted pyramid shaped building on a cliff overlooking the city, and this building foreshadowed his later increasingly monumental designs.  His early client Kubitschek was elected President of Brazil in 1956 (till 1961) and announced that he intended to build a new capital to be called Brasilia in the interior of the country. The city was planned and developed with Lucio Costa as the principal urban planner and Oscar Niemeyer as the principal architect, and in April 1960, Brasilia was formally inaugurated as Brazil's national capital.  By 2010 it had a population of 2.5 million (double the size of Canberra) and was Brazil's fourth largest city. 

The idea was that this new national capital away from the coast would act as the economic stimulus to open up the rich interior of the country but although the infrastructure and the monuments were built in an incredibly quick 41 months, and Brasilia is still the national capital and seat of government, the development of the rest of the city has lagged, particularly the residential areas, and there are manyfavelas,or shanty towns.

What is it about capital cities?  From Washington with its classical plan by l'Enfant, to Sir Edwin Lutyens' plan and great buildings in New Delhi,
le Corbusier's Chandigarh in the Punjab, and Canberra of course, with its Walter Burley Griffin plan swirling around the lake with its water jet, they all seem to take themselves so seriously that true city and urban values often get lost somewhere along the line.  However, compared with Brasilia these capitals seem almost normal.  Costa's utopian plan for Brasilia was truly on a monumental scale. and in his book 'The Design Of Cities' Ed Bacon describes Brasilia as 'probably the only city that employs an expressway as the central feature of it's residentail areas.  This represents an unabashed expression of the importance of the automobile in contemporary life.'  Someone once joked that the problem was that the scale on the plan was wrong and it was accidentally built twice as large as intended!  Apparently the distances and open spaces are vast and preclude walking, and the place is totally car oriented.  I've never been there, and Bacon is critical of all the critics who have never visited, touche',  but I've never read a good word about its plan or of any mitigating urban virtues. 

Writing about Brasilia in 1980 Robert Hughes said in his forthright way:

'This is what you get when perfectly decent, intelligent, and talented men start thinking in terms of space rather than place; and single rather than multiple meanings. It's what you get when you design for political aspirations rather than real human needs. You get miles of jerry-built platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens. This, one may fervently hope, is the last experiment of its kind. The utopian buck stops here.'

This seems to be the universal impression.  It has always seemed to me too, that most good architects never do their best buildings in planned capital cities; perhaps they are over awed at the importance and responsibility of it all?  So leaving Costa's overblown city plan out of it, how well did architect Niemeyer fare? 

Think what a great opportunity it was for an architect.  Niemeyer designed and oversaw the construction of pretty well all the major public buildings including the Palace of the President, the National Congress of Brazil, the National Museum and the Cathedral of Brazil (and others) within 41 months.  I'm finding it difficult to describe the buildings and don't rate them nearly as highly as his earlier buildings.  Perhaps it was the speed with which it all happened but they mostly seem to be more like enormous abstract sculptures rather than real buildings, always with stretched-to-the-limit concrete technology. But then the museum in Caracas had shown that his designs were already moving in that direction. The best of the bunch is the cathedral with its hyperboloid structure; why do atheists design the best churches, it's like the devil having the best tunes?

Then there was a military coup in 1964 just three years after Brasilia was opened, and Niemeyer was forced into exile because of his connections with the communist party.  He opened an office in Paris and didn't return to Brazil until 1985; imagine over 20 years in exile from your own country and what that must have meant for a designer at the height of his powers.  However, during his time in Paris he designed a Headquarters for the French Communist Party in the Place du Colonel Fabien. I've seen it and it's a good building not at all Brasilia in style and sits well in that very urban city.

In his later years (aged 89) he designed the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum (1996), which has been singled out by Nicolai Ourousoff, architecture critic of the New York Times, as being of significantly lower quality.  In discussing this building Ourousoff suggested that:

 "the greatest threat to Mr. Niemeyer's remarkable legacy may not be the developer's bulldozer or insensitive city planners, but Mr. Niemeyer himself."

 It's a truism that architects get better as they get older but Niemeyer was still working long after most have retired, whether involuntarily because of lack of work (like me!) or by choice.  Frank Lloyd Wright died at 92 and he was pretty vigorous till the end; the Guggenheim Museum was completed 6 months after his death in 1959.

None of this matters much.  Niemeyer's early buildings alone are a remarkable legacy that has strongly influenced South American architecture in particular, and the Brasilia monuments are an interesting diversion to say the least. Despite his left wing ideology, like all architects he ended up working for rich people and institutions that have the money and can commission buildings; without commissions architects can't do anything! 

Oscar Niemeyer's buildings are a fine modernist legacy and an inspiration to us all. He overcame exile and political discrimination but kept all that on one side of his brain and kept his vision of a modernist architecture that would improve the world firmly as an ideal on the other.

I never met him but he was one of the pantheon of architectural gods I inherited from Harry Seidler after he came to Australia in 1948 to build a house for his mother.  On the way here he spent three months in Niemeyer's office in Rio, and when I became Seidler's first apprentice in 195o, we studied his colour slides of Niemeyer's Ministry of Education building in Rio and the buildings at Pampulha constantly for the lessons they could teach.  Seidler was influenced by Niemeyer's introduction of abstract forms and almost baroque curves into modernist buildings, something absent from most modern architecture at that time; and some of all that rubbed off on me too

In his old age he became a folk hero in his own country.  On a visit to Brazil (probably in the late Nineties) Niemeyer suggested that Seidler might like to accompany him to inspect one of his buildings that was under construction.  But while they were in the building word got around the neighborhood that Niemeyer was on the site, and by the time they left the building a small crowd had gathered and they respectfully clapped their national hero.  Harry was secretly a bit envious I think, but we're a bit suspicious of heroes here, aren't we, unless they're footballers. 

Don Gazzard FRAIA
January 2013