PRINT May 2013


Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer, National Museum, 1999, Brasília. Photo: Leonardo Finotti.


LONG BEFORE I LAST VISITED Oscar Niemeyer, ten years ago, he had established his studio in a building on Avenida Atlântica, at the southern end of the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. Here he designed his projects on a small drawing table, enjoying a plunging view onto the beach and the bathers just across the road. The space also included a small studiolo without any windows, its walls lined with shelves sagging under the weight of books and souvenirs. The lowest held a Marcel Gautherot photograph of nude women lying on the beach, an undulation of breasts and hips. Directly above was an edition of the selected works of Joseph Stalin, with a cover bearing a likeness of its mustached author. The chance superposition of the facial hair of the Bolshevik leader over the pubic hair of the bathers struck me as a perfect allegory for two of the three passions that animated Niemeyer his entire life: women and Communism. The third was obviously architecture, one he approached sometimes in response to political prompts, and always insisting on the inspiration his curvaceous buildings drew from female bodies.

Niemeyer practiced architecture with a freedom that grew as the forms and spaces he conceived through drawing became reality, built thanks to the participation of remarkable engineers such as Joaquim Cardoso, with whom he realized his major works, from the Pampulha complex in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, to the monumental center of Brasília. Thus supported, if I can call it that, by technical expertise, Niemeyer’s designs contributed to the affirmation of Brazil on the worldwide stage, famously marked by the 1943 exhibition “Brazil Builds” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He became the first designer from a nation in the Southern Hemisphere to transform the course of architecture in Europe and North America, with two buildings realized in close partnership with fellow architect Lúcio Costa, his elder of five years: the Brazilian pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio. Although Le Corbusier had been consulted on the latter project during the trip he made to Brazil in 1936, the traces of his input had been subtly transfigured by the time the structure was completed, in the mid-’40s. The latter building marked the beginning of Niemeyer’s long exchange with Le Corbusier; their paths crossed again in 1947 in New York, during the collaboration on the United Nations Headquarters. It was with great class that the Brazilian, for whom the project was decisive, allowed the Parisian to take credit for the design (realized in the end by Wallace K. Harrison). Even though Niemeyer’s works in Brazil after the country returned to democracy in 1985 were numerous and at times voluminous, they do not have the significance of these paradigmatic projects and the others he designed or built beforehand, which I will here group into three main cycles, devoted to the formation of a sculptural language, then to its deployment in service of state commissions, and finally to its diversification in response to the opportunities offered in the exile he chose for himself following the 1964 coup d’état.

The first period revealed Niemeyer to the world. Its key work is the Pampulha complex, for which Niemeyer designed a landscape punctuated by buildings in which he explored the use of thin concrete shells to make figures that were all planes and curves, reminiscent of the female form, structures that were made possible only by the creative contribution of the engineer Cardoso. Two other projects from this founding period, their difference in scale extreme, serve to illustrate the range of Niemeyer’s impact and the number of influences he was absorbing: the Copan Building in São Paulo (which he designed beginning in 1951) and Niemeyer’s personal home in Canoas, near Rio (1952). A large undulating form striated by horizontal brise-soleil, the Copan Building completely renewed the typology of the skyscraper. Not only is it a curvilinear volume, with a predominance of horizontals rather than verticals, but its open ground level posed a totally new approach to the relationship between the high-rise building and its site, resulting in a remarkable connection to the surrounding neighborhood’s streets. In Canoas, a small valley where the ocean is visible in the distance, Niemeyer designed a glass house dominated by the dual horizontals of the ground (pierced by a rock) and a sinuous roof—the tropical replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, as he admitted to me during a visit to the site in 1998, but also in all likelihood of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, with a similarly dominating position vis-à-vis the landscape. It is therefore remarkable that certain figures of European and North American modernity, such as Max Bill, Ernesto Nathan Rogers, and Walter Gropius, condemned the absence of “sound technical solutions to architectural problems” in Niemeyer’s work, accusations against which he defended himself brilliantly in his essays of the mid-1950s.

Niemeyer continued to reinvent typologies in the second phase of his career, which focused on the buildings realized in Brasília, primarily between 1956 and 1960. These must be analyzed properly, both in response to their critics and in their own right. While Le Corbusier had developed a modern governmental center in his design for Chandigarh in the early ’50s, it was in service to a single state among the many making up the Republic of India. Niemeyer’s was the first designed for an entire nation, yet this was no totalizing system. The beauty of Brasília results from the tension between the rigorous urban composition, Costa’s Plano Piloto, and the individual buildings, which are engaged in a kind of detached conversation through the articulation of their porticos: The Palácio do Planalto, the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Palácio da Alvorada each deploy a different interpretation of a kind of prototypical ancient temple. Serving as a background to these palaces for a progressive republic, with which this Communist freely identified himself, the ministries introduce a double rhythm of parallel bars and reticulated facades, while other programs, such as the university, with its long serpentine sequence of classrooms, represent ingenious solutions to functional requirements.

After the military coup, when the new government had abandoned his project for the Brasília airport and was persecuting his Communist friends, Niemeyer entered a period of self-imposed exile in Paris, during which his production notably diversified while retaining a spirit of invention as he addressed new programs. On the scale of urban complexes, he realized the Tripoli fairground in Lebanon, commissioned in 1963, and the University of Haifa, Israel, built in the ’60s, which he would later repudiate for political reasons. Hired by the Algerian government of President Houari Boumediene, he built several projects in the late ’60s, including the University of Constantine, where he further developed the typology of the great horizontal monolith he had explored in Tripoli and Haifa. His brilliant mosque project along the Algiers waterfront, unexpected from a self-confessed atheist, would remain on paper. In the early ’70s, in his adopted city, Niemeyer realized the French Communist Party Headquarters, a spectacular symbol of aggiornamento: Stone buildings along a popular boulevard are covered with a glass-paned banner symbolizing the modernity to which the party aspired.

After his return to Brazil in 1985, Niemeyer became a living national treasure, celebrated by all. But he would not find the conditions that had allowed his work to bloom before 1960, notably the partnership he had enjoyed with Cardoso, who was as much a poet as an engineer, and became in a way the victim of his success and of the unrivaled ease with which he could churn out complex designs in a matter of days. The work of his last three decades was marked by a certitude bordering on complaisance; Brazilian institutions competed to give him commissions, which he designed more and more rapidly. But even these projects, in which he often seems to be parodying himself, retain somewhat the charm and boldness of his limpid and personal architectural sensibility. If we consider a canonical work to be one that remains open, constantly lending itself to new interpretations, Niemeyer undoubtedly founded one of the canons of modernity.

Jean-Louis Cohen is the Sheldon H. Solow professor for the history of architecture at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.