The architect who sculpted
Issue | 21
When Oscar Niemeyer was a kid, he would draw in the air with his fingers. As soon as he could hold a pencil his mother gave him one, and he drew the same thing: floating, weightless shapes, forming and reforming. When, as a teenager, he discovered the brothels of Rio, his lines began to follow the curves of women, hip, breast, and thigh. Influencing him too, through every pore, were the elliptical white beaches of Brazil, its sinuous rivers, the rounded towers of its baroque churches, its heaped-up mountains and the curling waves of the ocean. Le Corbusier, the Swiss-born architect whose modernist ideas he absorbed and then subverted, told him he had Brazil’s mountains in his eyes. Not quite true, said Mr Niemeyer; he had everything he loved in them.
His whole universe being curved like this, it was little wonder that he seldom embraced the right angle, the straight line or the square. He wriggled away from those aspects of modernism as soon as he took up architecture, under the tutelage of Lúcio Costa, in 1935. Typically, his buildings—scattered all over Brazil’s principal cities, and reaching their apogee in the new capital, Brasília, built between 1956 and 1960—were curved or hollowed forms that seemed weightless, floating in the landscape or reflected in the water. The Alvorada Palace in Brasília, the Palace of the Dawn, appears to dance on points beside an ornamental lake; the church of St Francis of Assisi at Pampulha in Belo Horizonte, where he did his first work in 1942 for Juscelino Kubitschek, then mayor and later president, is a succession of lightly arching vaults; the art museum at Niterói, across the bay from Rio, grows out of the landscape on a stem like a flower. Even an apartment block in São Paulo, the Edifício Copan, could be turned into poetry, meandering languidly through the stern verticals of the city and pierced with sun-screens into leaf-like light and shade.
The architecture of Niemeyer:
Oscar Niemeyer was brilliant, energetic, ruthless, by all accounts charming – and extraordinarily long-lived. He died at 104, a bridge across time to the now-historic modern movement in architecture. He was the master of the curve, the architect who could command tonnes of concrete and steel to swoop and turn with a few strokes of his pencil. He brought movement to modern architecture, and invented a version that was expressive and seductive, clearly not functional, and clearly different from the Germanic glass box of the Bauhaus. According to Norman Foster, the city of Brasilia, for which Niemeyer designed the most significant monuments, “is not simply designed, it is choreographed”.
He was the first modern architect from a country outside Europe or North America to achieve global fame. More than anyone else, including his architectural colleagues such as Lúcio Costa, he shaped the modern image of his country, Brazil. The twin towers and upside-down dome of the National Congress in Brasilia, and its crown shaped cathedral telegraphed into black-and-white newspapers in faraway countries, were updated versions of the White House and Capitol in Washington: white monuments of a new democracy. It was an extraordinary achievement, to endow this new-made city with instant, and potent, mythology.
As an image-maker of genius, he came up with the common downside of sometimes sacrificing use to look. His Museum of Contemporary Art in Niterói, a flying saucer on a stalk outside Rio, has some of the worst spaces ever conceived – all sloping walls and curves and glass in the wrong places – for showing art. “It’s that dumb arse, Niemeyer,” says a character in one of Regina Rheda’s short stories about his huge Copan apartment building in São Paulo, “like everything he did, it’s good for taking pictures but lousy to live in.”
He attracted clichés, some self-generated, such as the over-repeated observation that his curves were inspired by his country’s mountains and women, promoting a lazy view of Brazil as the land of girls from Ipanema with perfect buttocks. In the last 20 years a revival of interest in Niemeyer’s work has given other architects license to think they can make their buildings swing like a samba, and usually they can’t.
But he was far more than an image-maker. He was capable of structural daring, with the fullness of his buildings’ curves balanced by the impossible lightness with which they sometimes touch the ground. They are magnificent and playful. They are spatially rich, and responsive to their locations. In Brasilia, where guards in archaic uniforms stand by his inverted parabolic arches, he pulled off an improbable combination of ceremony and futurism. In rural sites he built villas that let the landscape and vegetation flow through them. In São Paulo he built robust blocks that hold their own in a tough-minded business city. During his exile, after a military dictatorship took power in Brazil, he built convincing works in places including Paris, Milan, and Lebanon.
His choreography is not just of shapes, but of the movement of people through them. In his best works, you are asked not just to gawp at his inventions, but to interact with them, to take part in a play of architectural and human motion. In the Ibirapuera exhibition building in São Paulo, sinuous ramps take crowds up and down its central hall in a great architectural promenade., and one of his nicest small moments is a broad spiral staircase without balustrade or apparent means of support at the Itamaraty palace in Brasilia, which makes something unforgettable out of the act of going from one floor to another.
The rich and famous gave him work, so he refused to be embarrassed by his palace-and-casino-building. But he was prouder of the 300 schools he designed in Brazil, all different, to surprise and inspire the poor with beauty. His own house at Canoas, with trees above and rocky outcrops flowing through it, included—scandalously at the time—no separate entrance for servants, and its red roof and yellow walls were his homages to the shacks of the favelas. He even built churches full of the comforting light of the people’s heaven, though he himself didn’t believe in it for a minute.
In practice he doubted that architecture was important, or could change much. Brasília, Kubitschek’s great shout of progress, built on a site 700 miles from Rio “at the end of the world”, was intended (by Niemeyer and Costa, at least) as a socialist Utopia in which rich and poor would live in identical apartments. To his frustration, that never happened; bureaucrats lived in the middle of the city, the poor on the edges. Cynics joked that his design for the National Congress (pictured), with an inverted saucer for the Senate and a larger “begging bowl” for the lower house, symbolized mostly the greed of politicians. He often remarked that his best work—the Mondadori headquarters near Milan, or the Maison de la Culture in Le Havre—had been done outside his own country.
Architects on Niemeyer:
I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Oscar Niemeyer. He was an inspiration to me – and to a generation of architects. Few people get to meet their heroes and I am grateful to have had the chance to spend time with him in Rio last year.
For architects schooled in the mainstream modern movement, he stood accepted wisdom on its head. Inverting the familiar dictum that “form follows function”, Niemeyer demonstrated instead that, “When a form creates beauty it becomes functional and therefore fundamental in architecture.”
It is said that when the pioneering Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin visited Brasília, he likened the experience to landing on a different planet. Many people seeing Niemeyer’s city for the first time must have felt the same way. It was daring, sculptural, colourful and free − and like nothing else that had gone before. Few architects in recent history have been able to summon such a vibrant vocabulary and structure into such a brilliantly communicative and seductive tectonic language.
One cannot contemplate Brasília’s crown-like cathedral, for example, without being thrilled both by its formal dynamism and its structural economy, which combine to engender a sense almost of weightlessness from within, as the enclosure appears to dissolve entirely into the glass. And what architect can resist trying to work out how the tapering, bone-like concrete columns of the Alvorado Palace are able to touch the ground so lightly. Brasília is not simply designed, it is choreographed: each of its fluidly composed pieces seems to stand, like a dancer, on points frozen in a moment of absolute balance. But what I most enjoy in his work is that even the individual building is very much about the public promenade, the public dimension.
As a student in the early 1960s, I looked to Niemeyer’s work for stimulation, poring over the drawings of each new project. Fifty years later his designs still have the power to startle us. His Contemporary Art Museum at Niteroi is exemplary in this regard. Standing on its rocky promontory like some exotic plant form, it shatters convention by juxtaposing art with a panoramic view of Rio harbour. It is as if, in his mind, Niemeyer had dashed the conventional gallery box on the rocks below and challenged us to view art and nature as equals. I have walked the museum’s ramps. They are almost like a dance in space, inviting you to see the building from many different viewpoints before you actually enter. I found it absolutely magical.
During our meeting last year, we spoke at length about his work – and he offered some valuable lessons for my own. It seems absurd to describe a 104-year-old as youthful, but his energy and creativity were an inspiration. I was touched by his warmth and his great passion for life and for scientific discovery – he wanted to know about the cosmos and the world in which we live. In his words: “We are on board a fantastic ship!”
He told me that architecture is important, but that life is more important. And yet, in the end, his architecture is his ultimate legacy. Like the man himself, it is eternally youthful. He leaves us with a source of delight and inspiration for many generations to come.
Oscar Niemeyer was one of the last great modern masters, alongside Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. He was an artist and poet and concrete was his natural material, allowing him to interpret his designs and free-flowing ideas. The last Niemeyer building I visited was his Serpentine pavilion in Hyde Park which, although small, is a seminal building. It communicates optimism, simplicity and beautiful proportions; it makes one realize how over-complex modern buildings are today.
His influence was felt around the world, and nowhere more than in his native Brazil, where his buildings represent the perfect marriage between architecture and the nature and culture of the country and its people. Oscar’s National Congress building has become a totem that represents democratic Brazil. In a strikingly different manner, his sinuous and graceful Edifício Copan, a great curving residential block in the center of São Paulo, has inspired a generation of artists, writers, and film-makers.
Oscar had strong social beliefs and was involved in the leftwing politics of the time. Sadly, I never had the chance to meet this great master; it was always one of my ambitions. The architectural community has lost a creative and cultural man but his legacy will live on.
It’s a tremendous loss. Oscar was a gentleman and a truly great architect – a virtuoso talent. His visionary work has had the deepest influence, with the highest degree of originality and spatial sensibility. It encouraged me to pursue my own architecture of total fluidity. Many architects experiment with shape, but Oscar pushed his work to a much higher level – using the capacity of concrete to be poured into beautiful, fluid forms. His importance to architecture in the 20th century cannot be overestimated. Our profession has lost a great voice.