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The Sensual Vision of Oscar Niemeyer

Lessons from Modernism: Environmental Design Considerations in 20th Century Architecture, 1925–1970

an exhibition at the Cooper Union, New York City, January 29–March 16, 2013
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Leonardo Finotti
The Brazilian National Congress building and its reflecting pools, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, Brasília, 1957–1964

1.

When Oscar Niemeyer died on December 5, 2012, ten days before his 105th birthday, he was universally regarded as the very last of the twentieth century’s major architectural masters, an astonishing survivor whose most famous accomplishment, Brasília, was the climactic episode of utopian High Modern urbanism. That logistical miracle and social adventure took just three and a half years from conception to completion, yet fell far short of its transformative intentions. It was the most audacious planning scheme in a century that saw the creation of several other impressive capital cities prompted by the waning of colonialism and the ascent of nationalism, including Walter Burley Griffin’s Canberra in Australia (1912–1920), Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker’s administrative nexus of the British Raj at New Delhi (1913–1931), and Le Corbusier’s regional seat for the Indian Punjab at Chandigarh (1952–1959).

Brasília, laid out by Niemeyer’s mentor Lúcio Costa in 1957 and built principally by Niemeyer from 1958 to 1960, would have been enough to secure the architect’s place in history. Yet posthumous recapitulations of his epochal career remind us that during the two decades that preceded this colossal undertaking—especially the early 1940s, when South America remained free from involvement in World War II and thus was able to build with abandon—Niemeyer stood at the very peak of architectural innovation and invention. In those dark times he almost single-handedly upheld life-affirming values counter to the industrialized mayhem being visited on so much of mankind.

Niemeyer’s work has rightly been likened to Brazilian music: the swaying lines and swelling contours of his biomorphic 1940s designs evoke the samba, the sensuous and insinuating dance that encapsulates that country’s vibrant multiracial mix and subliminal sexuality. The cooler syncopations of bossa nova were echoed in the measured visual rhythms of the architect’s more self-consciously elegant Brasília phase of the late 1950s and early 1960s. His work was then contemporaneous with the emergence of the “new beat” that caused a global sensation just as fantastic images of his dream-come-true city were splashed across the international press (exuding a visual charisma similarly conveyed by the striking color photos in Philip Jodidio’s introductory Oscar Niemeyer).

Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1907 into a prominent upper-middle-class family of German descent; his father was a typographer and one grandfather a supreme court justice. In 1929 he entered the National School of Fine Arts in Rio and studied architecture under Costa, who, along with his partner, the Russian émigré Gregori Warchavchik, was a founding father of Brazilian modernism. Their seminal work, which helped establish their country as a force in world design, is authoritatively presented in Hugo Segawa’s thorough new survey, Architecture of Brazil, 1900–1990.

Upon receiving his architecture degree in 1934, Niemeyer joined the Costa firm. Two years later Costa won the commission for a new Ministry of Education and Health headquarters in Rio and invited Le Corbusier, who had lectured to great acclaim in the city in 1929, to serve as design adviser. Forward-thinking Brazilian architects eagerly embraced Le Corbusier’s precepts, particularly his use of reinforced concrete, which is cheaper, more adaptable to tropical settings, and offers greater sculptural plasticity than conventional steel-frame construction. During his first visit to Brazil, Le Corbusier urged his young coprofessionals to take freely from his work, but when Niemeyer showed that he was a bit too adept at improving on those prototypes, the Swiss-French master, ever wary of potential rivals, lashed out.

One big problem in adapting Le Corbusier’s slab-like tower schemes to warmer regions was providing climate control at a time when mechanical air-conditioning was still in its infancy. In his unbuilt Plan Obus of 1933 for Algiers, Le Corbusier specified louver-like brises-soleils—sun-breakers—for the scheme’s exposed façades, but he had still not executed any by the time Niemeyer beat him to the punch at the Rio ministry. The young architect also raised the slab’s ground-level piloti columns to a more monumental height of thirty feet, which resulted in a work that by common consent out-Corbusiered Le Corbusier.

From the outset Niemeyer favored a design element found only occasionally in his idol’s pre–1930 oeuvre: the curve. As he wrote:

I am not attracted to [right] angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein.

Niemeyer found his ideal horticultural counterpart in the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx (1909–1994), who created strong biomorphic ground patterns in large monochromatic beds of plants (analogous to the free-form compositions of Jean Arp, Alexander Calder, Joan Miró, and other Surrealist artists of the 1930s). A gifted botanist, Burle Marx domesticated many native plant species, more than thirty of which now bear his name. He fully integrated the natural and the manmade with indoor–outdoor water features and other illusionistic devices. Thanks to his work, Niemeyer’s buildings achieved an aura of Edenic wonder unmatched in modern times.

Costa and Niemeyer collaborated on the Brazilian Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the indisputable architectural hit of the exposition (which also featured Alvar Aalto’s now legendary Finnish Pavilion). This exotic modernist efflorescence dazzled visitors with its languorously attenuated ramps, delightfully ambiguous transitions between exterior and interior, and a pond designed by Burle Marx to display the gigantic Amazonian water lily Victoria regia (which had inspired Joseph Paxton’s ridged glazing at London’s Crystal Palace of 1850–1851). Niemeyer’s remarkable early designs were likewise highlights of the Museum of Modern Art’s avidly received 1943 survey “Brazil Builds,” an upbeat escapist interlude during America’s architecturally deprived war years.

2.

The commission that fully displayed Niemeyer’s individual genius for the first time was his stunning complex of small buildings at Pampulha, a prosperous new suburb of Belo Horizonte, capital of Brazil’s mineral-rich Minas Gerais state. Here in 1940 Juscelino Kubitschek—a physician-turned-leftist-politician known as the city’s “hurricane mayor” because of his whirlwind initiatives—began his two decades as Niemeyer’s greatest champion. Kubitschek’s urge to build big—which he continued as governor of Minas Gerais (1950–1955) and finally as president of Brazil (1956–1961)—makes François Mitterrand’s grands projets of 1981–1998 seem somewhat underreaching. (In 1964, after the coup by the right-wing dictator General Castelo Branco, Niemeyer went into exile for seventeen years.)

In hiring Niemeyer to design a series of recreational public buildings around a new man-made lake at Pampulha, Kubitschek caught the architect at the very peak of his powers. Positioned at spacious intervals around the amoeba-like shoreline are the Casino, House of Dance, Yacht Club, Golf Club, and Church of Saint Francis of Assisi. In particular, the Casino of 1940–1943 (converted to an art gallery when Brazil outlawed gambling in 1946) is a spatial marvel. Set on a gently sloping waterside bank, this two-story structure comprises a square ground-floor entry defined by an equilateral grid of thin pilotis (much like those in Corbusier’s Villa Savoye of 1928–1931 in Poissy, France) with window walls that dematerialize the concrete-framed exterior.

Atop this simple plinth is a second rectangular level containing the gaming room and, within an ovoid appendage that billows out toward the lake, a restaurant tiered with multiple concentric levels to maximize seeing and being seen. To increase the efficiency of the Casino’s several leisure functions—dining, dancing, and gambling—Niemeyer devised an ingenious tripartite circulation system with separate stairways, ramps, and catwalks so that patrons, entertainers, and service staff could pursue their appointed activities without colliding.

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Dmitri Kessel/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Oscar Niemeyer in his Canoas House, with his wife and grandson in the background, Rio de Janeiro, 1959

We are now aware that the interiors of early modernist buildings were less austere and colorless than has been imagined, but the Pampulha Casino was more hedonistic than most European pleasure domes of the interwar period. Here, amid brightly hued, alluringly fragrant gardens laid out by Burle Marx, Niemeyer combined walls paneled in onyx, exotic native woods, and rose-tinted mirror; floors of parquet and polished travertine; slender stainless-steel-clad columns; hangings and upholstery of organza, satin, taffeta, and tulle; and a circular, translucent etched-glass dance floor lit from below—all of which together conjured what Cole Porter memorably called “a night of tropical splendor.”

As if to give habitués of this nocturnal adult playground remission from its many occasions of sin, the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi of 1940–1942 stood nearby to offer absolution—or would have, had not conservative Catholic officials, offended by the chapel’s freewheeling form and frank sensuality, refused to consecrate it until 1959, by which time Niemeyer had become a national culture hero. His church features a lateral line-up of four parabolic arches formed from thin concrete shells (faced with a tile mural of scenes from the life of the saint by Cândido Portinari); the arches suggest the rolling contours of a mountain range, or perhaps a recumbent female nude. The similarly vaulted nave, which telescopes into the arch of the high altar like the stem of the letter T, reiterates the traditional format of Baroque churches in Minas Gerais, as does this little gem’s extravagant sculptural quality.

In 1946, a year after the United Nations was founded, John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated $8 million for the purchase of a sixteen-acre parcel bordering the East River in midtown Manhattan as the organization’s permanent home. The honor of designing the new headquarters was deemed too great for any one member nation, so an international Board of Design, which included Le Corbusier and Niemeyer, was established under the direction of Wallace K. Harrison, the Rockefeller family’s longtime architectural factotum. This complicated saga is revealed in illuminating behind-the-scenes detail in A Workshop for Peace: Designing the United Nations Headquarters by George A. Dudley, an architectural assistant of Harrison’s charged with documenting the proceedings, a veritable master class in the pitfalls of design-by-committee.1

Though the forty-year-old Niemeyer was the youngest among the design team, his schematic outline—essentially the UN complex as we now know it, dominated by the slender slab of the Secretariat Building set parallel to the river—caused a sensation among his collaborators. As Dudley recorded:

It literally took our breath away to see the simple plane of the site kept wide open from First Avenue to the [East] River, only three structures on it, standing free, a fourth lying low behind them along the river’s edge….
The comparison between Le Corbusier’s heavy block and Niemeyer’s startling, elegantly articulated composition seemed to me to be in everyone’s mind. As different as night and day, the heaviness of the block seemed to close the whole site, while in Niemeyer’s refreshing scheme the site was open, a grand space with a clean base for the modest masses standing in it.

Le Corbusier disagreed: in his notebook he labeled a thumbnail sketch of his own proposal “beau” and Niemeyer’s “médiôcre” [sic], though in fact it was quite the opposite. As the oldest, most eminent member of the panel, Le Corbusier pulled rank and at one meeting “blew his top and shouted, ‘He’s just a young man; that scheme isn’t from a mature architect.’” Though Le Corbusier could not get his own proposal accepted, he cowed Niemeyer into altering his configuration, eliminating the open areas between buildings Niemeyer called for, and thereby grievously diminished its spatial qualities. The execution of the ensemble was handed over to Harrison and his partner, Max Abramovitz, whose lackluster detailing further diluted Niemeyer’s exhilarating initial vision. Though the participants had agreed that the UN Headquarters would be credited as a group effort, Le Corbusier tried to claim sole authorship, and evidently altered and backdated his sketches to support that fraudulent impression. Yet even in its compromised final state, this eloquent and hopeful midcentury landmark remains most identifiably the conceptual work of Niemeyer.

  1. 1

    Architectural History Foundation/ MIT Press, 1994. 

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