A burning curiosity drove me to Docomomo’s recent lecture on Oscar Niemeyer by Styliane Philippou. I wanted to meet her and find out how she became hooked on Niemeyer.
Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence. 10 March, The Gallery, 77 Cowcross Street, London EC1 6EJ
A burning curiosity drove me to Docomomo’s recent lecture on Oscar Niemeyer by Styliane Philippou. I wanted to meet the Edinburgh-trained, Paris-based architect and architectural historian, and find out how she became hooked on Niemeyer. It came as no surprise to learn that Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence (Yale, 2008), her comprehensive tome on the Brazilian architect, was six years in the making.
Philippou’s fascination with Niemeyer began with an interest in the challengers to orthodox modernism. She found that, despite the many books on Niemeyer, a definitive volume was lacking. ‘I’m an architect, and I like to see all the drawings correctly reproduced with a north arrow,’ she told me.
Philippou felt that Niemeyer, who is often criticised for creating monumental anti-urban buildings, has been wrongly maligned and misunderstood. She set out to overturn what she calls the simplistic, Eurocentric view of Niemeyer as a Dionysian modernist.
In her lecture, she concentrated on the architect’s best buildings – the Pampulha complex (1949) on the outskirts of the central Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, and Brasilia’s main monuments (1960) – often juxtaposing them with compelling images of Brazil’s 18th-century baroque churches and other vernacular buildings. This approach glosses over many of the lesser buildings of Niemeyer’s later years.
Philippou’s informative lecture and beautiful photographs crystallised the depth and breadth of her book while losing its long-winded jargon. Had Yale University Press employed a more ruthless editor, the book would have benefited enormously. The resounding applause showed that, at their best, both Niemeyer and Philippou can delight.
Resume: Philippou cuts to the chase on architecture’s favourite centenarian