Thursday, December 6, 2012

Oscar Niemeyer

The great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer died yesterday at the age of 104.  A former protege of Le Corbusier, Niemeyer perhaps more than any other 20th century architect made International Modernism into a power style after World War II.  Until the end of the war, modern design was largely confined to commercial and domestic architecture.  You could use as much sheet glass and reinforced concrete as you wanted on a private home or a business, but city hall needed columns.  The combined forces of Hitler and Stalin killed off classical architecture, poisoning it as any kind of viable public architecture for generations to come.  Niemeyer shaped modern design to fill the vacuum in public architecture left by the destruction of classicism.  Niemeyer made great progress in solving the conundrum of how to make modern design -- the creation of the modernist project to collapse the distinction between form and meaning through reductivism -- articulate public meaning.
It turns out that political leaders of all types from British MPs to Chinese cadres loved this new style, especially as Niemeyer developed it into a magnificent ceremonial architecture, still with lingering memories of the old classical order (the ghosts of those columned peristyles persist in Niemeyer's buildings in Brasilia).  The new International Modern style said "Progress!" and "Science!" and "Technology!" The new style was as grand as the old, and seemed to look forward into a promised future rather than back into a glorious past.

Niemeyer was one of the original architects of the United Nations HQ in New York (together with Le Corbusier and Wallace Harrison).  The UN Building was the first use ever of International Modernism on a large scale to house a major public institution.  Governments and businesses everywhere immediately took notice when the buildings were completed.

The project that will forever be associated with Oscar Niemeyer is Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, and the largest and most ambitious project of International Modernism; an entire capital city built from scratch.

Juscelino Kubitschek became President of Brazil in 1956 and decided to fulfill an old ambition written into Brazil's 1891 constitution, to move the capital out of Rio de Janeiro to a place in the interior close to the center of the country.  Kubitschek wanted to build a new capital city in the middle of the Brazilian interior.  He wanted that new capital built in a new forward-looking modern design.  After a competition involving over 5000 entries, Lucio Costa was awarded the commission to design the new city's layout, and Oscar Niemeyer received the commission to design and build the city's major buildings.  For the first time ever, an entire capital city would be designed and built using the International Modernist style.  Brasilia would be Niemeyer's most famous and important accomplishment.  The city center was completed and ready to be occupied in 1960.

View of the center of Brasilia;  Costa and Niemeyer originally intended to have everyone from the most important cabinet ministers to janitors share neighborhoods in the new city.  Niemeyer was a true believing socialist all his life who wanted no segregation of the city by class.  Needless to say, Brasilia as built is just as segregated and hierarchical as any other city on earth,

The federal center of Brasilia with the National Congress buildings at the far end of a mall that looks to me like a derivation of L'Enfant's design for Washington DC.

Ministry buildings under construction in Brasilia in 1959

The National Congress buildings under construction in 1957

I must admit to very mixed feelings about Brasilia.  First off, I must confess that I've never been there.  I know the place only from pictures and second hand accounts.  Even so, to me the city now looks very dated.  Few things age more poorly than Visions of Tomorrow.  Niemeyer and Costa followed Le Corbusier's lead in city planning.  Everything would be planned around the automobile, just as in Le Corbusier's Voisin plan and in his idea of The Radiant City.  That idea of planning cities around cars is itself very dated.  Today, Brasilia is a notoriously hostile city to pedestrians as a result, and it's not that much more friendly to drivers with its broad boulevards and multi-lane highways constantly choked with traffic.  As beautiful as Brasilia can be, it is not very kind to the people who live there.  It also doesn't help that it is in so remote and isolated a place in the Brazilian interior, miles away from the nearest town of any consequence.

Dated as Brasilia is, some of its original state buildings designed by Niemeyer have held up remarkably well over time, and are still gratifying.

The National Congress buildings

The National Congress buildings with the Supremo Tribunal Federal to the right

The Supremo Tribunal Federal (Supreme Court)

The Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasilia:  Oscar Niemeyer was an atheist and a card-carrying Communist who had to flee the country after the 1964 military coup, and yet he designed some of the most original and beautiful religious architecture of the 20th century.

Interior of the Metropolitan Cathedral, Brasilia

The glass vaults of the Metropolitan Cathedral, Brasilia

One of Niemeyer's most beautiful buildings for Brasilia, the Palacio Alvorada, the official presidential residence

The reflecting pool of the Palacio Alvorada

The presidential chapel attached to the Palacio Alvorada, another one of Niemeyer's inventive church designs.

The grand entrance hall of the Palacio Alvorada;  I very much enjoy Niemeyer's flying ramps of thin reinforced concrete.

The state dining room of the Palacio Alvorada

The Obamas with President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil at the Palacio Alvorada


Brazil says farewell to Oscar Niemeyer.

1 comment:

Dom Rafa said...

I just found your blog after noticing one of my photos figuring out here (the ugly third one). Since I leave in Brasilia, I couldn't agree more about your statements on city planning. They expected a city with 500.00 hab. by 2000. We're already at 1.500.000 and growing. Traffic is not slower only because of the relatively small size of the city. The climate is strange (dust season and mud mud season, as we call here) and the "car oriented" plan is also a consequence of a partnership between the government and car industry. Mercedes, Ford, Volkswagen wanted the country to focus on cars, rather than other means of transportation. Reason why we have almost no railroad system down here...