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PRINT May 2013

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Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer, Canoas House, 1952, Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Leonardo Finotti.

JOSIAH McELHENY

There is no form without politics, just as there is no form without context; one finds the politics in the way form is embedded in its context.
—Martin Beck

SINCE THE END OF THE GERMAN REVOLUTION IN 1923—the failure of which led Walter Gropius and many of the artists and architects of the former Berlin “Art Soviet” to renounce their dreams of an activist leftist aesthetic—it has been commonplace for modernist architects to carefully distance themselves from political identification. Perhaps this deliberate severing of modern architecture from its origins as a visionary imagining of an antiauthoritarian state is what facilitated its subsequent triumph as the international language of corporate and institutional power.

The fact that Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer was a lifelong and vocal leftist makes him an unusual figure within the canon of twentieth-century modernists. His life and work suggest the possibility of an alternative trajectory or counterfactual modernist history: If architecture had continued to explicitly align itself with a leftist viewpoint, what would it have looked like and how might it have functioned differently? Would it be more elegant or more just? Would it be more chaotic or even more authoritarian?

Niemeyer was a contradictory figure, an atheist who delighted in designing churches and a Communist who spoke often of sensual beauty. Within his aesthetic vocabulary, the use of the grid and of rectilinear forms stands in contrast to an enthusiasm for exuberant and expressionist lines in space. (Many of the buildings he designed exhibit wild, untamed curves and suspended, improbable geometries, evidence of his belief that the sculptural form of buildings, ramps, and plazas can create uplift and emotion, even religious feeling.) Early in his life he was a protégé of Le Corbusier and benefited from the attending access to power, but he did not subscribe to the ideology of the “master,” which took purity and efficiency as ends in themselves. There are also well-documented inconsistencies in his negotiation of architecture and politics, such as when he accepted the commisssion to design the General Army Headquarters from the same right-wing military dictatorship that had just exiled him. And while he consistently lamented the extreme class inequality in Brazil, he also designed houses, office buildings, and other private structures for the upper class.

It is therefore notable that Niemeyer’s fame is mostly built on civic projects: government buildings and museums intended to symbolize the desire for a more egalitarian society. Brasília, the new capital he designed for his country, is often experienced as being both alien and alienating, but while acknowledging its failures in interviews later in his life, Niemeyer also pointed out the city’s surprising resilience. Indeed, even today Brasília evokes a feeling of a future still to come—perhaps because it was an attempt to carve out a new idea of civic identity, however problematic. The many iconic images of his landscapes and interiors, from his Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion (located inside the presciently multipurpose Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo) to the French Communist Party Headquarters in Paris, conjure feelings (and fears) about social potential; these buildings and environments may now be emblems of the failure of those hopes, but they continue to represent a commitment to an aesthetic based on an inclusive political imagination.

When he was invited to join the deadlocked group of architects designing the United Nations Headquarters in 1947, Niemeyer’s most important contribution was the siting of the Secretariat Building. While unable to persuade Le Corbusier to accept his proposal for a large, open public plaza in front of the building, he succeeded in placing it at the water’s edge, an aesthetic and political choice that presents the icon—and those inhabiting it—looking east, out of the city, to the rest of the world. Today, this gesture provides to those living within the metropolis an endlessly wonderful visual interaction in which sky, weather, and water play out against the building’s extremely elegant proportions. It also speaks to us as a continuing reminder of the urgent possibility of enacting communal values.

Josiah McElheny is an artist based in New York.