The unrivalled master of Modernist Baroque defined a nation and leaves a legacy of global significance
When I heard the sad news about Oscar Niemeyer I had a sudden flashback to the one occasion on which I had a conversation with him. It was seven years ago and we were both in remarkable buildings which he had designed, only they were roughly 600 kilometres apart. He was sitting in the garden of the house at Canoas (1952) just outside Rio de Janeiro. I was standing next a lectern on the stage of the ballroom with glass floor in the casino in Pampulha (1943) just outside Belo Horizonte. It was a video link, of course, and as I do not speak Portuguese we conversed in French about the Chapel of San Francisco in Pampulha (1943) which I had just seen for the first time and which had just been well restored. Our conversation took us through several subjects including the inspiration provided by nature.
The event in which I was participating included three days of lectures and reflections upon modern architecture in Brazil. Niemeyer had wanted to attend for he said that it was in Pampulha over 60 years before that he had found his true way. But he hated planes and could not face a long journey by car. So we spoke with him one by one from that stage and he replied from the garden. He appeared on the screen altogether larger than life, with that monumental face and that jutting chin. But the image was silvery and pale as if he were a ghost already speaking from the past.
To say that Oscar Niemeyer was a living legend would be an understatement. His life spanned over a century of world history and his career took him back and forth between the ‘third world’ and the more advanced industrial nations. Niemeyer leaves behind him roughly 600 projects in places as far apart as Rio de Janeiro and Algeria, Pampulha and Paris, and several of these can be counted as masterpieces. One thinks in this connection, precisely, of the casino at Pampulha and the house in Canoas which both combined the rigour of modern structure with fluidity of space and form, and sensitivity to nature. In addition there are vast numbers of works of high standard, and a few real duds towards the end.
Niemeyer embodied the very notion of the artist architect who conjured up forms with the rapid lines of his pen. But one should be wary of the caricature which the wizard himself encouraged when hypnotising his visitors with charming and self-protective rhetoric. Beyond the bravado lay a penetrating mind which elaborated an entire architectural language for dealing with a wide range of social tasks. Rather than repeating the clichés it is best to experience the extraordinary spaces and sequences of his buildings, including their orchestration of site and view. Architecture touches all the senses and communicates in silence. Niemeyer’s true testament lies in the constructed thoughts of the works themselves.
Niemeyer belonged to what is sometimes called the ‘second generation’ of modern architects, meaning that he inherited and transformed the discoveries of pioneers such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe to deal with the realities of rapid modernisation in his own country, Brazil. He worked alongside Lúcio Costa and Le Corbusier on the project for the Ministry of Education in Rio de Janeiro in 1936, one of the first skyscrapers to be fitted out with sun-shading louvres, and a building which seems as fresh today as the day it was built.
He subsequently developed an architecture which worked at all scales from that of the individual house to that of the monumental ensemble: his contributions to the new national capital of Brasília designed in the 1950s (basic plan by Lúcio Costa) such as the Presidential ‘Palácio da Alvorada’ (‘Palace of Dawn’), show that he could handle questions of monumentality and state representation with great elegance. The exteriors with their inverted arches on tiptoe have been accused of mannerism, but it is on the interior that this building comes alive, with its ample public spaces, dignified promenade architecturale, and luxurious roof terrace affording a social stage with an expansive view to the horizon.
While modern and progressive in tone, Niemeyer’s architecture absorbed lessons from the past and from nature. His biomorphic forms were inspired in part by Picasso and Arp, but also by the Baroque inheritance in Brazi. He developed a style which abstracted the shapes of the meandering rivers and contours of the tropical landscape, and those of the female figure. His architecture combined sensual curves, rich materials, and movement through layers of space. His buildings resemble filters through which air may pass while heat and glare are excluded by screens. He developed contrasts between technological abstraction and eruptive tropical vegetation. Niemeyer often played off pure prisms such as rectangular towers or blocks against lateral expansion at the level of the ground plane.
He took over the principle of Le Corbusier’s ‘free plan’ and extended it in dynamic curves and ramps celebrating both pedestrian and motor circulation. His buildings responded to topography but were themselves artificial landscapes of a kind, and this he was an aesthetic cousin of Roberto Burle Marx, the landscape architect with whom he often collaborated. In effect, landscape was a metaphor embodying myths concerning the roots of society and the beginnings of architecture. Niemeyer’s shapes were suave and sophisticated, made of concrete, marble and steel, but some of the underlying dreams were primitivist in tone.
In Niemeyer’s ‘utopia’, man was supposedly to achieve harmony with nature through the liberation of space and the use of new technology − a position which expressed almost unconsciously Brazilian national myths of universal progress on one hand, and conceptions of identity on the other. A Communist who built houses for the rich, a cathedral, social housing, museums, and buildings for numerous state bureaucracies, Niemeyer was anything but ideologically consistent. The worlds for which he built have passed away but his buildings remain in all their intriguing richness. Towards the end he was sometimes guilty of an empty formalism and self-caricature, as flying saucers and pointless curves began to take over. His late works were uneven, while the press obediently trotted out his own clichés about the law of the meander and shapely Brazilian women.
It is time to put the legends aside and to look afresh at the works themselves, especially the earlier ones, without such distractions. The history of Niemeyer remains to be written and his creations have hardly begun to reveal their secrets. His vast oeuvre testifies to his fecund spatial and social imagination, and his capacity to work at all scales. His constructed buildings and drawn projects supply a three-dimensional treatise of architectural lessons and principles. More than a collection of buildings, Niemeyer leaves behind him a creative universe which is liable to influence others for a long time to come.