One of the most remarkable aspects of the modernist movement in architecture was the idea
that buildings should pretty much
look the same where ever on earth they happen to be. The early figures
of Modernism were united in their bitter opposition
to any kind of ‘regionalism’, which they
saw as reactionary, folkloric and plain mediocre.
The Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer began
his career as an orthodox modernist.
He was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1907
– and developed a passion for architecture
in his early teens. As a young man he fell
in with a group that venerated the great European
Modernist architects, especially Le Corbusier
– who had insisted with particular vehemence
on making sure buildings made no concession
whatever to the culture in which they were
located. Niemeyer’s professional ambitions
were realised when, in 1936, Le Corbusier
came to Rio to design
the new Ministry of Education and Health and Niemeyer got a job on the project.
While working with him, Niemeyer retained the utmost respect
for Le Corbusier, but at the same time, he
couldn’t help but observe how blind his
guest was to the particularities of Brazilian
culture and climate. With what would become
his legendary charm, Niemeyer managed to persuade
Le Corbusier to abandon some of his more hard-edged
‘universalist’ ideas and to start to make some concessions to local conditions.
Under Niemeyer’s influence, the building’s windows acquired shades against the sun and,
even an enormous traditional
Portuguese piece of tile work, done up with
abstract motifs, for the public areas on the
ground floor. Emboldened by his success
Niemeyer felt ready to break free from European
Modernism. He is now celebrated for being
the first architect anywhere in the
world to practice a regional kind of Modernism:
in his case, a Brazilian-infused modernism.
His first wholly original work was completed
in 1943 (when he was 36), the church of Saint Francis of Assisi.
The church had no straight lines
on any plane, for Niemeyer
now judged these to be European and in many ways authoritarian.
Niemeyer was henceforth to include curves in all his
buildings, and saw them in a nationalistic
light as being particularly Brazilian in nature. He remarked;
“What attracts me is the free and sensual curve—the curve that I find in the mountains of my country,
in the sinuous course of its rivers and in
the bodies of beautiful Brazilian women.”
The latter point about women is telling. Niemeyer was deeply responsive to female beauty throughout his
life. He was famous around Rio for his affairs,
many with people dramatically younger than
he was. At 92, he acquired a girlfriend who
had just turned 25. As in the Ministry of
Health, the Pampulha Church had tiles across
it. They reminded viewers that Brazil could
be both modern and yet recall its heritage – that
a church might nod towards the forms of a
futuristic airplane hanger, and yet could
at the same time accommodate a depiction of
Niemeyer’s most audacious attempt to use
architecture to define Brazilian identity
came with his designs for the new capital,
Brasília. In 1956, Kubitschek asked Niemeyer
to help create a wholly planned city in the
centre of the country, free from the corruption
of the old capital in Rio. Niemeyer drew up
the National Congress, a cathedral, a cultural
complex, many ministries and commercial and
residential buildings. The atmosphere was
dignified, hopeful, and in touch with the
native environment. Apartment buildings were
lifted on stilts to allow vegetation to grow
beneath them, maintaining a connection with
the local ecology and tropical climate.
Of course, Niemeyer’s works depicted Brazil
not as it was, but as he believed and hoped
it might one day be.
Brasilia imagines the Brazil of the future;
it is a glass and reinforced concrete ideal
for the country to develop towards. In the
future, so the capitol argues, Brazil will
be a place where rationality is powerful;
where order and harmony reign; where elegance
and serenity are normal.
Niemeyer was prolific until his very last
years, teaching around the world, writing
and designing sculptures and furniture. He
died in 2012, when he was 104 years old. He
was given a hero’s funeral and thousands
joined the cortege. What his nation was honouring
was an architect who had given it a workable
yet ideal portrait of itself. He had enabled
Brazil to break free from a sterile European
modernism – and to create buildings that
better reflected the nation’s uniqueness.
Niemeyer remains an example to all architects
who aspire to put up buildings that remember
the distinctiveness of their locations – architects
who may like their computers or their phones to be universal
in design, but are as keen for their buildings
to be culturally specific.
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