The Passing of a Modernist Master: A Tribute to Oscar Niemeyer
The Passing of a Modernist Master: A Tribute to Oscar Niemeyer
Oscar Niemeyer, the prolific architect who gave form to Brazil’s twentieth-century sociopolitical optimism, died this Wednesday at a Rio de Janeiro hospital. He was 104. When news of his passing was confirmed yesterday evening, the world seemed almost ready to hear it. Obituaries had been written, Niemeyer’s extraordinary life ripe for reflection now for some time. Yet his death, justifiably, still aroused a profound sense of disbelief. The last surviving architect in a line of legendary master builders — including the giant personalities of Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — Niemeyer was, in more recent times, a living reminder of a bygone era, of a modern epoch charged with hope and moved to action.
A native of Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer attended the National School of Fine Arts, where he drew the attention of its dean Lucio Costa, a spirited practitioner bent on bringing modernism to Brazil, in part, through architecture. Two years after graduating, Niemeyer was hired by Costa to serve as a project draftsman in the design of the Ministry of Education and Health headquarters, a prominent 1936 commission that led to Niemeyer’s first collaboration with the then-foremost innovator in the field: Le Corbusier.
Working under Costa and Le Corbusier, Niemeyer exhibited an early self-confidence, proposing changes that were successfully adopted in the final proposal. The resulting building is a masterful work of civic design: a rectilinear mass sequined with brise-soleil sunshades and propped upon a forest of stone pilottis, forming a sheltered space through which pedestrians can freely pass. The structure is rational from a distance yet, at the human scale, enriched with poetic flourishes, including vibrant, large-scale mosaics and sculptural staircases. These expressive details would reappear in Niemeyer’s independent commissions, which reflect the architect’s fundamental questioning of modernism’s aesthetic tenets.
Through Costa, Niemeyer was later introduced to Juscelino Kubitschek, a prominent politician whose patronage would truly launch the young architect’s career. As mayor of Belo Horizonte in the 1940’s, Kubitschek hired Niemeyer to design a complex of buildings, including a church, casino, and yacht club, just outside the city. For the Pampulha Complex, as it was called, Niemeyer followed his divergent intuitions about modernism with full force, subverting the supremacy of the right angle by experimenting with curves rendered in concrete: Gamboling parabolic lines boldly outline the space of the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, while snaking concrete ribbons weave in and out of the Casa de Baile dance hall.
The curving line would become the device to truly liberate Niemeyer’s modernism from its European tethers. “What attracts me are free and sensual curves,” Niemeyer wrote in his 1998 memoir. To the architect, these organic curves, found in “mountains, in the waves of the sea, in the body of the women we love,” gave form to an essentially Brazilian aesthetic identity. Determined to forge a brand of modernism specific to his country, Niemeyer embraced rounded, asymmetrical forms in his designs. The arches, folds, and free-flowing lines developed at the Pampulha Complex also allude to the dramatic features of the Baroque, a style imported to Brazil by seventeenth-century Catholic missionaries. Thus Niemeyer’s indigenous modernism dialogued with a complexly layered Brazilian history.
Kubitschek, meanwhile, welcomed Niemeyer’s bold experimentation. Elected President of Brazil in 1956, Kubitschek motioned to relocate the nation’s capital from coastal Rio to the geographical center of the country: Brasilia. The newly synthesized city was to be a prototype of the modern Brazilian metropolis, a catalyst for social, political, and economic change, and Niemeyer and his former mentor Lucio Costa were to oversee its creation. Kubitschek’s catchphrase was “50 years in five,” and Brasilia was built in four.
Swaths of unpeopled forests were cleared to make room for Costa’s immense, airplane-shaped city plan, which generated the rationally aligned site for Niemeyer’s gestic architecture. Scattered down the “body” of the plane are some of Niemeyer’s most iconic works: a radiating, crown-shaped cathedral, the surrealist still life of the National Congress building, the glass Planalto Palace, cradled gingerly in a series of finlike concrete supports. Vast open-air plazas, greened expanses, and serene, geometric pools of water surround these civic structures, which are presented like treasured museum pieces designed to dazzle the senses.
Despite having over a hundred projects to his name — some completed just last year, such as the Aviles cultural complex named after the architect himself — Niemeyer is perhaps still best known for his grandiose contributions to Brasilia. More than an architectural tourist destination, Brasilia is something of a pilgrimage site, a city shaped almost entirely by modernist ideology, set up to fully disclose the triumphs and failures of the architect and his affiliated movement. Yet the unusual premise behind the city left it without any real gauge of success: While some continue to praise Brasilia’s distinctive sense of place, its still-undiminished novelty (“There’s nothing just like it,” said Niemeyer in a 2006 interview with O Globo newspaper), the city has also been viewed as a “utopian horror,” as described by art critic Robert Hughes, a failed humanist experiment, and proof of modernism’s imprudence.
Niemeyer’s gentle dismissal of such criticism, his unwavering faith in his designs, could be likened to the egoistic resolve of many contemporary architects, content to peddle their self-confident spectacles with little regard for their propriety. His distinctive brand of modernism, in fact, owes some of its more recent plaudit to the mounting popularity of parametric design, which similarly premiates formal experimentation. However, the poetic expression of Niemeyer’s architecture is charged with a wholly different impulse, one that is now at greater risk of being forgotten with the architect’s passing. Modernism, for Niemeyer, was defined not by its eager embrace of new technologies; it was the undercurrent of civic responsibility — the desire to improve life for the masses — that seemed to resonate most with the architect, who faced exile for admitting his communist affiliations.
Though Brasilia can easily be interpreted as a failure (and which “utopias” have not failed?), few can deny that Niemeyer’s buildings embody the political ambitions that conceived the new capital, the aspirations for a unified and better Brazil for all. With admirable restraint, Niemeyer’s architecture strives to reveal the subjective fluidity and emotional accessibility of form, an aesthetic impulse that has gained a new reputation today. What is easy to overlook, however, is that Niemeyer’s buildings are also animated in another way: in glass, steel, and concrete, they capture the spirit of a bygone architectural movement, one that fearlessly pursued its grandest dreams and stood unafraid to fail.