PRINT May 2013


Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer, Copan Building, 1966, São Paulo. Photo: Leonardo Finotti.


IN SOME WAYS it’s difficult for me to speak about Oscar Niemeyer, because we were so close. But it is also difficult to discuss his work because Oscar fundamentally changed what it meant to be an architect. He gave our field new prestige, elevating its role both for my generation and within world culture, transforming international modernism itself—an achievement that goes back to his involvement with the Ministry of Education and Health headquarters in Rio de Janeiro in the late 1930s and early ’40s. Brazilian architect Lúcio Costa had been appointed to design the building, and he invited Le Corbusier to act as a consultant; Oscar was originally to assist Le Corbusier, but he eventually made many important changes to the design—for example reinventing Le Corbusier’s famous brise-soleil facade elements by transforming them into adjustable shading devices. The result seemed somehow uniquely Brazilian—the building was larger than anything Le Corbusier had built at the time, scaled for the modern metropolis of Rio. This global exchange would, of course, continue; Oscar played a crucial role in planning the United Nations Headquarters in New York, again in dialogue with Le Corbusier, while Le Corbusier toured Brasília to see Oscar’s work there on a subsequent visit to Brazil.

All of this was deeply impressive to young architecture students like myself. This wasn’t about a new academic or scholarly view of architecture. We didn’t need a school or a professor to explain the importance of these events to us—it was clear from the way in which a still very young Oscar appeared in the international news, and from the public scope of his conversations, that architecture, and particularly the problem of constructing the contemporary city, was going to be one of the crucial issues of our time. What’s more, Oscar’s prominence seemed connected to the newness of the Americas. He gave us the idea that there might be a perspective distinct to our hemisphere, which would of course influence Brazil’s own modernization but would also impact the development of cities around the globe. There was an entire group of architects who witnessed his work as it progressed—including Francisco Bolonha, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, the Roberto brothers, Atílio Corrêa Lima, and João Batista Vilanova Artigas—and although we had a clear sense that his work was impossible to copy, it was our dialogue with Oscar that taught us about a kind of architecture and a kind of city that did not yet exist, and which we would set out to build.

The architecture of São Paulo is often opposed to that of Rio, but this binary is largely false. It’s true that a very strong architectural pedagogy emerged from São Paulo; at its core was Artigas’s work at the School of Architecture and Urbanism at the University there, which espoused a rigorous approach anchored in engineering and construction. It certainly differed from Oscar’s circle in Rio, which revolved around his own highly inventive universe of curves and flowing forms. But these two methods were counterpoised, dialectical in nature, rather than in conflict; it would have been impossible for one to exist without the other. After all, Oscar’s works also possess the structural rigor of a clear initial concept. His cathedral in Brasília, for example, is an inverted Brunelleschi dome—designed according to the same principle as its Renaissance forebear, here implemented in such an inventive way as to yield a totally novel geometry.

Oscar’s approach to structure, however, was not necessarily his most important legacy. Some of the most profound lessons in his work came from his design of public urban spaces. The famous Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo addresses the question of how to occupy a broad open space with several buildings that have a diversity of functions—museums and the like—in such a way as to tie the whole site together, into a place that fundamentally exists for the enjoyment of the public. The park’s lasting success is evident in the fact that its Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, which Oscar designed, still hosts one of the most important biennials in the world. But to me, the structure that stands out most for its approach to public space is the Copan Building in São Paulo. This is a city that has been plagued by real estate speculation, where buildings are erected without any sense of planning or overall urban structure. Worst of all, commercial interests tend to produce buildings that occupy distinct categories in relation to social class—a building for the wealthy, a building for the poor. But in designing his project for the heart of São Paulo, Oscar created a new strategy for inhabiting the city. To begin, he combined apartments of widely varying sizes, which many different occupants could afford. But even more important, he allowed city dwellers literally to pass through the building at ground level. He designed an open passage for pedestrians, combined with a variety of programs—cinema, stores, cafés—that achieve a total merging of “public” and “private.” Indeed, for Oscar the concept of space was always public. Space is about connecting to the city, about interaction: If something is private, it is not space. But of course this radical vision can only be successful if one has the ability to design it and then build it. And to do that Oscar needed to consider issues that were political, sociological, anthropological, philosophical, mechanical, material—he knew architecture is a particular form of knowledge that encompasses this whole universe of disciplines. His great contribution to our field is the idea that in order to be an architect, you need to know everything.

Paulo Mendes da Rocha is an architect based in São Paulo.

As told to Natalya Solopova, with Helena Afanassieff.

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.