Oscar Niemeyer: The Boy from Brazil

Orlando Crowcroft looks over the influence of Brazilian legend Oscar Niemeyer, who died at the end of last year at the grand age of 104
Oscar Niemeyer: The Boy from Brazil
By Orlando Crowcroft
Sun 24 Feb 2013 05:09 PM

Architecture has given us many giants. Men and women who do far more than create the spaces in which we live or work, but help to define our history, culture, identity and being. Even amongst all of them, Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer — who died in December last year at 104 — was a titan.

While China, India and the Gulf states have ensured that designing a city from scratch is not as rare as it used to be, Niemeyer was a trailblazer in urban planning, designing Brazil’s capital city in collaboration with his mentor, Lucio Costa, in the 1950s. Now home to over three million people, Brasilia is still celebrated as a triumph.

Elsewhere, his name will forever be associated with the United Nations building in New York, and alongside the father of modernism, Le Corbusier, who he collaborated with on that project. An unabashed modernist who famously claimed to hate straight lines in architecture, even Niemeyer’s iconic residence in Rio de Janeiro has become a landmark of contemporary Brazilian architecture.

“As a student in the early 1960s, I pored over the drawings of each new project,” recalled Foster and Partners’ chairman and founder Lord Norman Foster, speaking after Niemeyer’s death in December. “Fifty years later his work still has the power to startle us. His energy and creativity were an inspiration. I was touched by his warmth and his great passion for life and for scientific discovery.”

Describing his 1947 work on the United Nations building, Nieyemer outlined his beliefs about the representation of function and purpose in design. The UN, which emerged out of a war-weary Europe and United States, needed to demonstrate a new period of collaboration and unity — a task, he admitted, that was daunting.

“When we make a building for the UN, we must have in mind what is the UN? It is an organisation to set the nations of the world in a common direction and gives to the world security,” Niemeyer said.

“I think it is difficult to get this into steel and stone. But if we make something representing the true spirit of our age, of comprehension and solidarity, it will by its own strength give the idea that that is the big political effort, too.”

It was a sentiment that Niemeyer was due to apply to an equally mammoth challenge just a few years later, when he and Costa were given the Brasilia commission by the then-president Juscelino Kubitschek. The city was intended to represent a new and dynamic Brazil, but Niemeyer was as much concerned with the overall concept as he was with the minutae of fashioning a livable city for millions of Brazilians.

“As an architect, my concern in Brasilia was to find a structural solution that would characterise the city’s architecture. So I did my very best in the structures, trying to make them different with their columns narrow, so narrow that the palaces would seem to barely touch the ground,” he said.

“I set them apart from the façades, creating an empty space through which, as I bent over my work table, I could see myself walking, imagining their forms and the different resulting points of view they would provoke.”

At the same time, Niemeyer was determined that form should remain paramount.

“My architecture followed the old examples — beauty prevailing over the limitations of the constructive logic. My work proceeded, indifferent to the unavoidable criticism set forth by those who take the trouble to examine the minimum details, so very true of what mediocrity is capable of. It was enough to think of Le Corbusier saying to me once while standing on the ramp of the (Brazilian National) Congress: ‘There is invention here’.”

Unfortunately for Niemeyer, a life-long Communist, Brazil’s brave new age was not to last long, and in 1965 the architect’s office was raided by the forces of the recently established military dictatorship. His projects began to be rejected and the offices of a magazine he edited were destroyed. Niemeyer made the tough decision to leave his homeland for France, where he would spend the next 20 years in exile, working on projects in Lebanon, Algeria, Italy and Britain.

The fall of the dictatorship in 1985 saw Niemeyer return to Brazil and in 1988, at the age of 81, he was awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture. Remaining true to his political convictions — Cuban leader Fidel Castro once said that he and Niemeyer were “the only two true Communists left” — he was president of the Brazilian Communist Party from 1992 to 1996. That year he designed the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro, which remains one of the city’s best-known landmarks.

Like so many other modernists, Niemeyer faced some criticism for prioritising form over function, but it was a charge that he rejected with typical flair in his memoirs, published in 2000 and appropriately named The Curves of Times.

“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing sensual curves,” he said. “The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein”.

Speaking after his death last month, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova, said in a moving tribute that Nieyemer “helped define the 20th century and laid the foundations for the 21st.

“For all this, he deserves the title of universal artist. As a leading artist of modern architecture, he gave the cities he loved iconic buildings, hundreds of monuments, recognisable among all, in Paris, Sao Paulo, Rio and of course Brasilia, a masterpiece of urban planning and modern architecture,” she said.

“Oscar Niemeyer used to say that he did not care for tributes and he remained active until the very end. He was passionate about work and convinced that architecture, before becoming fine arts, had to contribute concretely to living better together in the city and must embody the values of inclusion, solidarity and cooperation.”

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