The revolutionary age of Modern architecture slipped further away from us last week with the passing of Oscar Niemeyer, who was 104. In the beginning, Modernism had been about experiment and possibility. Niemeyer renewed that spirit in 1940 when he (and other Brazilians) pushed the international architectural movement in a controversial new direction.
By 1940, the International Style was already fitting architecture for a narrow straitjacket of rational right angles. Niemeyer up-ended that neat formula with a series of astonishing and controversial designs that re-established the role of the curve in Modern architecture. With the parabolic vaults of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi and the free-form marquees of an outdoor dance pavilion at Pampulha, a new suburb of Belo Horizonte, Niemeyer threw form open to nature, landscape, dreams, and culture.
What made these buildings shocking was that Niemeyer had been an insider, a prince of the realm. He had learned Modernism when he was still in his twenties at the feet of Le Corbusier. Working with Corbu and a team of equally talented young Brazilians (Lucio Costa, Roberto Burle Marx, Affonso Eduardo Reidy) on the design of the new Ministry of Education and Health building (1936-1943) in Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer absorbed the fundamentals of the Swiss master, a mix of scientific rationalism and artistic expression.
Niemeyer took these curvilinear forms even further in a tour de force design for his own 1953 house in Rio de Janeiro. He would not recant the curve, he would not fall in line, and he became an official apostate.
“Your house is very beautiful,” remonstrated Walter Gropius, “but it is not multipliable.” The European leaders of Modern architecture were horrified that he had undermined the scientific rationality they put their faith in.
But Niemeyer was more interested in Modernism for its license to explore new forms of architecture and life. Visiting him at his Copacabana beach office, I met a true Brasilian, a true Carioca—native-born to Rio de Janeiro. He was a Modernist who loved pleasure. Squeezed between two larger buildings on the wide Copacabana sidewalk fronting the famous beach, it hardly seemed the office of an international architecture office. The wide sidewalks paved with undulating black and white cobbles was jammed with beach goers. The narrow nine-story building was almost quaintly Moderne, and on the top floor the office’s two curving bay windows jutted out to embrace the view of the Atlantic. The oddly surreal shape of Sugarloaf at one end of the panorama, the curving line of the surf, the crowds of sun worshippers — this was the balmy atmosphere that Oscar Niemeyer had breathed his entire life. Of course it would shape the way he saw architecture.
Niemeyer, then in his mid-eighties, was friendly and generous to this architect from the United States (despite the fact that the U.S. had refused him a visa in 1964 to supervise his third building there, the Joseph and Anne Strick house in Santa Monica, because he was a Communist.) He spoke English, but preferred to have a staff member translate as he told and drew his story, once more, about architecture. Architecture was clearly his life, but architecture included all of life: the pleasure of friends and conversation, the beauty of women, the rhythms of Samba (he designed the special civic promenade for Rio’s Carnaval parade in 1983), the conviction of politics, his extended family. He spoke of his love of modern engineering and materials (particularly concrete) to create breathtaking structures that sheltered from the sun and rain, but also had the potential to be natural sculptures. He kept coming back to the point of view of the individual human eye in taking in the landscape.
This natural love of living formed the foundation for his architecture and his revolutionary ideas. He was both sensuous and cosmopolitan. Growing up in Rio, he knew that life was not just about rationality; it was about emotion, sensual touch, and beauty. Like the Surrealists and other Modern artists, he used impulse and intuition; there is a dream-like quality in Niemeyer’s forms. Those dream forms also blend easily with Brazilian nature: the wildly dramatic landscape of Rio de Janeiro’s granite domes; the luxurious meanders of the Amazon seen from a plane; the intense colors and shapes and the luxurious size of the country’s plants. These inspirations also blended with Niemeyer’s love of Brazil’s colonial architecture —another aspect of his work that did not sit well with his International Style critics. With his mentor Lucio Costa, Niemeyer actively preserved the Baroque Colonial towns of eighteenth century Brazil. It is not a far leap from the coils and serpentine licks of those Baroque churches to the free-form curves and whips of Niemeyer’s spiral ramps and wave-like factories.
Cássio Abreu / Flickr and Henrique de Brito / Flickr
Apostasy was a natural role for Niemeyer, and it did not ultimately marginalize him. He was still designing and building around the world shortly before his death. Like many famous architects, he had a large ego (colleague Roberto Burle Marx called him "a hot house flower"), but it expressed self-confidence, not a fragile defensiveness. He would not react to criticism; when they were both competing for the United Nations building commission in 1947, his one-time mentor Le Corbusier came to Niemeyer when it was clear that Niemeyer’s entry was going to win and suggested that they blend their entries. Niemeyer consented.
He was a committed Modernist but with his own intuitions — there are rich contradictions in this kind of architect. Many of those contradictions played out in his largest commission — indeed, the commission of the century — the design of Brasilia beginning in 1956, an entire new capitol city for Brazil.
In ways Brasilia was a self-portrait of the architect as a vision of his nation’s future. The slender Modernist columns of the executive Planalto Palace, barely touching the earth, lift the eye to the future. Their weightless white curves evoke the castle-like clouds floating over the vast and rich Planalto prairie that at the time was the future of Brazil. Niemeyer (who disliked air travel) spent hours driving from Rio to the Brasilia site, engrossed in the ethereal shapes of those clouds.
The ministry buildings, on the other hand, are a series of rational glass boxes, lined up like dominoes, one after the other — a vision of communal government power and bureaucracy. Niemeyer was, after all, a Communist.
Between these two poles, the superblock apartments are, in many ways, a reasonable Modernist manifestation of Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse towers (Paris, 1924), tempered by humanity. They are only seven-stories tall, low enough to relate resident to ground, landscaped with parks by Burle Marx.
But the man’s overconfidence is seen in that which was left out, and which forced itself into the picture later: the helter-skelter satellite cities that housed the thousands of workers that were not neatly taken into account in the original city plan.
Niemeyer’s Brasilia, curves and all, is in many ways the zenith of twentieth century Modernism. But then there was no place for it to go. By the 1960s, international Modernism confronted a rising tide of questions that undermined the certainties conceived and fought for a half century before. From his office overlooking Copacabana Beach, however, Niemeyer continued to build in Brazil, Europe, and Africa with forms that became even bolder, simpler, more colorful, and more surreal.
Modernism for Niemeyer the Brasileiro was no ascetic hair-shirt philosophy. It was the use of modern means to embody the joyful rhythms and leisure of life.