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The Beauty and Inhumanity of Oscar Niemeyer’s Architecture

Don’t believe it when you read that Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect who died this week only days before he would have turned 105, was the one who took the chill off modernist design with his flamboyantly curving, white thin-shell concrete buildings. That’s the sort of nonsense that gets peddled in obituaries and haigiographies, particularly when a charismatic charmer distorts the historical record to inflate his own contribution, takes credit for the innovations of others, and outlives—by decades!—his competitors. Niemeyer holds an important place in the history of modern architecture, but it’s not the one to which he and his glorifiers lay claim.

Consider one of his earliest projects. In 1936, when Niemeyer was 29 years old, he worked as a draftsman on Brazil's new Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro, together with a group of younger architects and Le Corbusier, the French master of rationalist, technological modernism who was twenty years Niemeyer’s senior. Though the Ministry has a couple of Niemeyeresque touches (compact form, colorful ornamental ceramic panels by a local artist), the overall aesthetic of the concrete office block is very much the product of Le Corbusier. (Indeed, it’s an amusing if not so unusual instance of the elder architect’s self-plagiarism, more than resembling Le Corbusier’s1933 proposal for an office tower in Algiers.)

So the myth of Niemeyer’s outsized contribution to the founding of a humane modern architecture doesn't withstand scrutiny: the young Brazilian was toddling still in Le Corbusier’s shadow while many other architects, from many other countries, already had forged or already were in the process of forging multiple non-technologically-obsessed, vibrantly lyrical strains of modernism. Frank Lloyd Wright, in thrall to materials, nature, and the peculiarities of triangular and circular geometries, hadfinished the first part of his magisterial Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin in 1939. Alvar Aalto, under the influence of surrealist painter Hans Arp and photographer Lázló Moholy-Nagy, was inserting biomorphic moments large and small in his Villa Maeria and Viipuri Library in Finland. Berthold Lubetkin, the UK-based Russian émigré, in 1934 finished his spectacular and much loved Penguin Pool at the London Zoo, an elegantly intertwined composition of sinuous thin-shelled concrete ramps—Niemeyer before Niemeyer.

Penguin Pool at the London Zoo

If we cannot ascribe to Niemeyer the creation of a more humane and sensuous modernism, what can we celebrate in his work as we mark his passing? Quite simply, some really great architecture. (A lot of not great architecture too, as well as some appalling urban ideas, realized in built form in his design for the new capital city of Brasília.) Buildings like Niemeyer’s Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Pampulha and his Alvorada Palace in Brasília are among modernism’s most ethereal monuments.

Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Pampulha

The little church in Pampulha, a three-dimensional scribble etched out of four abutting parabolic concrete arches, synthesizes structure, form, expression, and ornament in a composition so playful that the local Catholic dioceses refused to consecrate the sanctuary for many years, objecting to its lack of gravitas. In Pampulha’s church, casino, restaurant-cum-dance hall, and yacht club, Niemeyer developed an architectural bossa nova in blazing white thin shell concrete, all lilting lines and lazily waving curves. He captured in architectural form the easy spirit of Latin elegance for which Brazilian culture subsequently became famous.

Alvorada Palace

In the Alvorada Palace, the President’s home, and the less successful Supreme Court in Brasília, Niemeyer took an architectural trope that had been canonical since the days of the Roman Empire, the arched colonnade, and turned it—literally—upside down. Then he whittled those upended white arches down to their linear essence, broke the rhythm of their march off-center, and carefully placed at its entrance a sculpture of wind-blown, outscale nudes. Riffing off a historically august, familiar composition, Niemeyer created something utterly charming and surprisingly odd.

The man understood gravity. He appreciated how deeply the human eye, body, and mind need to see in a building gravity’s principles in action, and he realized that he could satisfy that primal need while igniting delight by overturning our assumptions about the necessary trajectory of gravitational forces. The Alvorada Palace and Supreme Court’s flipped colonnades make arcades that undermine themselves. And, in another unexpected turn, the buildings sit on plinths levitated off the ground, appearing to hover above the flat plane of the Brazilian highlands as if to symbolically encapsulate the slightly alien quality of Brasília as a whole—a city for 500,000 that was, surreally, constructed in less than five years.

Supreme Court in Brasília

Niemeyer claims that he developed his distinctive aesthetic because he loved “beauty”—by which he meant, presumably, his own architecture—which he appreciated in Brazil’s white beaches, huge mountains, baroque churches, and suntanned women. Maybe. But Brazil’s landscapes and women had always been there, and Niemeyer only started designing recognizably Niemeyer-esque architecture in the 1940s and 1950s, in his buildings for Pampulha and Brasília. What happened?

Two experiences shoved Niemeyer out of Le Corbusier’s shadow. With the commission for Pampulha, a suburban retreat for the Brazilian elite for which Niemeyer designed (in addition to the St. Francis church) a casino, restaurant-cum-dance hall, and a yacht club, he started to collaborate with the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. Marx, who is best known for his later Copacabana Beach in downtown Rio, was as much horticulturalist and painter as landscape designer. He refused to make garden design subservient to architecture, and developed a unique aesthetic synthesizing modernist abstraction with biomorphic forms grounded in the distinctive shapes of Brazil’s luxuriously tropical native plants. Burle Marx and Niemeyer collaborated on both the Pampulha and Brasília projects; surely the necessity of integrating landscape with architecture inspired Niemeyer to loosen up his vocabulary.

Haru by Roberto Burle Marx

Burle Marx was also a painter, and he and Niemeyer shared an interest in visual art, especially surrealism. Together they pushed their way toward a surrealist-influenced aesthetic of the built and constructed environment. Both men appreciated the paintings and collages of Hans Arp, and Niemeyer also admired the work of surrealists like Max Jacob and Jean Carzou, who painted contorted, scaleless, brightly colored objects floating in etherized horizons. Niemeyer, explaining how he came up with the forms for the governmental buildings in Brasília, recounted his many long trips on largely unpaved roads through the virtually unsettled Brazilian interior, describing how struck he was by the savanna’s strange, monumental emptiness, its brilliant blue sky, and the fantastically morphing imagery in the moving clouds. His fascination with surrealism’s otherworldliness was surely reinforced by the very idea of building, in four years, a capital city in what was literally the middle of nowhere.

So Niemeyer decided to blaze an ever more theatrical trail through modernism. In the saucer and domes of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies at Brasília -- which, together with the administrative building, became one of the iconic images of modern architecture, in the Alvorada Palace, and in other projects, Niemeyer escorts you into his private theater of landscape, indeed he sweeps you unawares into a leading role. You, the viewer, complete these pictorial compositions.

Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasilia

This is Niemeyer’s actual contribution: he may be the only designer who created a successfully surrealist architecture, certainly on any large scale. That is a distinctive accomplishment, but not a wholly positive one. Niemeyer’s is an architecture of striking exterior forms, some muscular, some dynamic, some soaring. His formalist approach to design enjoys enormous popularity today, among celebrated practitioners like Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava, but it’s a way of making buildings that leaves a lot out of the architecture out of architecture. Many of Niemeyer’s buildings are little more than fancy containers, containing nothing. The way you move through and use his buildings seems an afterthought. And Niemeyer’s buildings make no attempt to relate to other elements of the urban environment. They’re cool-looking objects. That’s all.

City under construction

Although Brasília’s capitol complex is powerful, distinctive, and mostly successful, the city’s urban plan, on which Niemeyer collaborated with Lucio Costa, is decidedly not. If creating a new federal governmental complex out of the notion that “the task of the architect is to dream” and the task of architecture to offer dreams so that people will be “able to survive the miseries of daily existence” isn’t politically suspect enough, the vision and reality of Brasília clearly betrays Niemeyer’s confused and unglorious politics—an ardent communist who seemed to have little problem with dictatorships, as long as they donned the mantle of leftism. Niemeyer’s claim to have created a Latin-inflected architecture has served—purposefully or not—to deflect attention from his decidedly questionable ideological, political, and architectural goals.  His and Costa’s plan for the city of Brasília offers no viable neighborhoods, few pedestrian-scaled streets. Neither Niemeyer nor Costa nor anyone else ever considered what would happen to the thousands of laborers who were brought in to build this civitas ex novo—no affordable housing was built for the builders of Brasília, because Niemeyer insisted that that this would be a classless city. Consistent with Niemeyer’s aesthetic that the dialogue was between his building and a single, lonely, delirious viewer, Brasilia’s public spaces are vast, overscaled, usually empty, anddifficult to access on foot.

Niemeyer’s house at Canoas, Rio. 

Niemeyer was at his best in his rare, smaller-scale work, mostly executed before he became famous. These include the buildings at Pampulha and his own house at Canoas in Rio. In these projects, the more that nature intrudes into Niemeyer’s work, the better it is. At his Canoas house, which floats silently in the jungle, looking out over Rio’s coast, hallucinatory surrealism, nature, and private dreams all come together in a primal eruption, like the boulder that erupts from the courtyard into the main living space of the house. Niemeyer didn’t set modernism on any new course, but no matter. His best works are something to celebrate.