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05.23.2014
Comment> Niemeyer, After All
Carlos Brillembourg relates his 1990 meeting with Oscar Niemeyer.
Courtesy Carlos Brillembourg

The appointment with Oscar Niemeyer on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. was confirmed on Tuesday and I decided to fly early Wednesday morning to Brasilia. The day in Brasilia was spent moving constantly from one place to the next with some architecture students from the University arranged by Marcia Kubitschek (governor of Brasilia at this time and a personal friend of mine from her New York days). My only break was a peaceful and intimate lunch with Marcia at home in the gated community reserved for ambassadors. After a late night flight back to Rio on Thursday morning, a bit exhausted, I walked around the center of old Rio and in the afternoon headed to Copacabana beach for my appointment. Oscar greeted me at the door and introduced his nephew and assistant and led me to the double bay window looking east across to the islands just off the bay coast. From the tenth floor, the street and beach were part of the vast panorama. We sat on the window seat with Oscar perched at the corner softly sizing me up as he spoke in Portuguese and me in Spanish. His soft and deliberate voice included some hard looks and emphasis from time to time. What was I doing and thinking in architecture and politics? For him there wasn’t any difference—they are intertwined. After these preliminaries he took me into his small office, asked me to sit down across from a desk against the wall with a chair on either side. Where the table met the wall a Weston photograph of two naked women was hung: one lying up and the other down without legs or heads. This was a conversation piece and as he lighted a little cigar he said that this is the landscape, the source, and the raison d’etre of his life and work. I enjoyed the smell of the fine tobacco and we talked about my work. I showed him just one building recently completed on the littoral side of greater Caracas. He commented on the round balconies on each end. He asked if the red brick was load bearing or rather a skin hung on a reinforced concrete structure.

He had recently completed the Memorial for Latin America campus in Sao Paulo and these buildings were on his mind when discussing architecture and, at the same time, the world disaster of capitalism and how the Brazilian state was uselessly corrupt. I asked about certain buildings and he answered succinctly about some ideas of structure and space. Suddenly he got up and took out a sheet of tracing paper. He asked his nephew to tape it on the wall and began to draw standing with a magic marker a linear synthesis of the conversation we just had.

The sketch (above) includes eleven images and addresses seven or eight buildings in plan, section, and axonometric views. Each sketch is a narrative and answers some questions raised in our discussion. This sheet of tracing paper shows his thinking but also his creative process at this point in his life. It is reductive shorthand—a Matisse-like line against the void.

On the upper left we find Niemeyer’s section drawing of the Museum of Modern Art Caracas, 1954–55, in Bello Monte, which was to have been built on the edge of a promontory and to have formed part of a new urbanization developed by Innocente Palacios, his client. The building has only one foundation. Niemeyer claimed that this would not disturb the hill on which it would sit and from this one point grows an inverted pyramid, making a glorious roof garden for sculpture and plants. Even unbuilt, it remains the key project in his career from the early Corbu inspired and extraordinary work in Bello Horizonte towards the generic and schematic envelope building so prevalent today. His Museo do Arte Contemporanea built in 1991 in is a smaller circular version of this idea.

The drawings near the center are of the theater building in the campus of The Memorial de Latino America in Sao Paolo. The focus is the singular horizontal, rather than vertical support. The drawings reveal just one mega beam holding the shell of the curved roof for the theater pavilion. Just below is a generic pavilion differentiated by the use of a typical exterior, a structural frame from which to hang the interior elevated spaces. This leitmotif of separating the structure from the interior space is prevalent in many of his projects. Moreover, the independence of structure and space gives us the sensation when seen from the outside that the space is a container held in the air. One of Niemeyer’s last buildings for the municipal government of Bello Horizonte hangs the public rooms from the super structure, or you might say that the container of the use/space is groundless. On the center right is an elevation and section where he drew a box-like structural frame sitting on short pyramidal foundations. The elevation is organically inflected, almost as if cast by a dinosaur bone. Below this is an arched elevation transforming the Miesian, or Brasilia-type model to one that is discontinuous—a module of arched frames that are non-repetitive—related to the Milan project or perhaps to the Algeria project. The bottom right is a site plan with a curved building in the center and he underlines the lower left side indicating the problem of a rectangular building and its four facades. An arrow points to the lower left drawing an organic fetus-like building with the entrance expressed by a slight fold. Could we take this polemic one step further? Luis Barragan said to Louis I. Kahn when he was working on the Salk Institute that a building has five facades. The fifth faces the sky.

When Niemeyer came to New York for the 1939 world’s fair, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia awarded him the key to the city, honoring Brazil’s pavilion (Lucio Costa and Paul Lester Wiener did the interiors.) Next time Niemeyer came to New York, in 1949, was to participate in the UN design competition, organized by Wallace Harrison. The world’s institution was to be built on the Rockefeller’s land. But because of Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of the far-left, before Eisenhower’s election, Niemeyer was becoming persona non grata in the USA. His membership in the communist party became a problem for the CIA and, as a result, Niemeyer refused to ever step foot in the country again or to speak English. When exiled by a military coup in Brazil, he chose to go to Paris. His work in Paris began with the commission for the communist party headquarters. He became an international figure, with projects in France, Algiers, Italy, Libya, and Nicaragua. His furniture design is interesting, comfortable but awkward, looking perhaps intentionally so against normal “design” criteria.

His communism was deeply rooted and he celebrated the birth and death dates of Stalin. Ironically, at the very end of his life, he gave the Venezuelan military regime a gift of a memorial project in the shape of an inclined missile. Even in his “senile” period Oscar Niemeyer fought against nature through the poiesis of architecture.

To his last breath he fought for architecture.

Carlos Brillembourg

Carlos Brillembourg is the principal of Carlos Brillembourg Architects and a contributing editor to BOMB magazine.