Oscar Niemeyer (1907–2012) was undoubtedly one of the most revered architects of our time but his preference for natural curves over the linear resulted in a conflict that can never be resolved, writes Joseph Rykwert
Not since the pyramid-builder Imhotep became a god some 6,000 years ago has any architect received posthumous plaudits such as those lavished on Oscar Niemeyer when he died last week. True, he was perhaps the only architect ever to have designed his country’s capital city and all its public buildings - presidential palace, parliament, high court, cathedral, ministries, national museum and library, as well as the bulk of the housing. He also participated in the United Nations’ New York project and produced innumerable other buildings all over the world. Oscar must be the world’s best-known Brazilian - in or out of the country - apart from Pelé and Lula da Silva.
He owed his German-sounding name to the maternal grandparents who fostered him. As a teenager, he began his working life in Rio with his printer father, but soon enrolled in the architectural school; as an unpaid intern he worked for one of his teachers, Lúcio Costa, one of the few Brazilian architects familiar with recent European developments. Costa invited Le Corbusier to Rio in 1936 to advise on the design of a new Ministry of Education and Health, and Niemeyer became Le Corbusier’s main collaborator during the visit; the executed building - arguably the first ‘modern-movement’ ministry - was much modified by him after Le Corbusier’s departure.
Working with Costa again, he designed the Brazilian pavilion for the New York World’s Fair of 1939. A few months later he providentially met Juscelino Kubitschek, then mayor of Belo Horizonte, who was planning the new suburb of Pampulha around the artificial lake, which was the town’s reservoir. Niemeyer designed a straightforward casino, a golf club, the sinuously spun-out Casa do Baile, and the parabolic-vaulted church of St Francis which, with its entrancing azulejos by Cândido Portinari, became the most published of all these buildings dotted around the lake. This was also the first project on which he collaborated with the landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx; the partnership continued until Burle Marx died in 1999. Pampulha was barely finished when the Museum of Modern Art in New York showed it in its ‘Brazil Builds’ exhibition, establishing Niemeyer as an international figure.
Kubitschek was charmed, captivated and, when (in 1956) he became president of the country, he was determined to fulfill an old constitutional promise that a new capital city would rise in its geometric centre; he took Niemeyer as his guide.
A competition was held and the cruciform plan by Lúcio Costa adopted. Brasilia was described as a hovering bird, its body reserved for public buildings, while housing was spread in the wings. All the buildings were designed by Niemeyer, working not as a private practitioner but on the salary of a civil servant, and at feverish speed so most were finished within Kubitschek’s term of office. When his successor was overthrown by a military coup in 1964, much of the city was occupied and the government had moved to the new capital. Some years later Kubitschek died in a motor accident – he is buried at the high point of the site, at the opposite end of the main avenue from the government centre, in a white marble, mastaba tomb also designed by Niemeyer. The granite sarcophagus is inscribed: ‘O Fundador’.
Niemeyer’s office was also working on large projects. The Edifício Copan in São Paulo with its sinuous plan - the largest floor area of any residential building in the world - was just one of many commercial buildings to occupy him. At the time of the coup however, he was in Israel, engaged on the buildings for the University of Haifa; on his return, he was harassed to such an extent (he had joined the Brazilian Communist Party in 1945, never repined and would became its president in 1992) that he went into voluntary exile to France, staying there until 1980 when the political situation at home relaxed.
While in France, Niemeyer designed the headquarters of the French Communist Party, the offices of the Mondadori publishing house outside Milan, and several academic buildings in Europe and North America. During this period, he developed an office-building type, in which a rectilineal metal-and-glass envelope was suspended inside a flat-arch, moulded concrete arcade - a type he would go on using until the end of his very productive life. His most prominent last works were his own Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba, the flat-domed National Museum in Brasilia, and the much-lauded ‘flower-like’ (or like a dish on a stalk, some say) Niterói Contemporary Art Museum outside Rio.
For all the innumerable prizes and plaudits, the really extraordinary - perhaps unique - achievement is to have maintained the wellspring of invention for more than 75 years. I feel a bit churlish not joining wholeheartedly in the adulation but Niemeyer himself suggested why I hesitate. In his memoir, he confessed he is ‘not attracted to the straight line… created by man… (but) to free-flowing, sensual curves…that I find in the mountains…the sinuousness of rivers…the body of a beloved woman… ’.
This is all very lyrical - but about nature. Buildings are made by people for people and so, inevitably, involve the straight lines he disdained; they avenge him in the mismatch you may observe in his buildings between free-flowing, quasi-natural concrete curves and the metal, wood and glass – those inflexible and man-made elements.
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