Oscar Niemeyer, the last lion of architectural modernism and the most renowned cultural figure in Brazil, died Wednesday at age 104. Here, in a review essay originally published in The Atlantic magazine in 2008, literary and national editor Benjamin Schwarz appraises Niemeyer's life and work, focusing on the architect's most colossal, enduring, and controversial work -- the city of Brasilia.
Form follows feminine: Niemeyer's affinity for curves is apparent in this footbridge in the Rocinha slum in Rio de Janeiro. (Sergio Moraes/Reuters)
It was a heroic and inhuman scheme. From 1956 to 1960, Brazil -- in an effort to cleanse itself of its colonial past, to flee its burgeoning social afflictions, and to fulfill its long-prophesied emergence as a great power--conjured a new capital, Brasília, on an empty plateau in an endless savanna 3,500 feet above sea level. The city's planner, the architect Lúcio Costa, found the setting "excessively vast ... out of scale, like an ocean, with immense clouds moving over it." No invented city could accommodate itself to this wilderness. Instead, Costa declared, Brasília would create its own landscape: he devised a city on a scale as daunting as the setting itself. In conformity not with its environment but with those modernist utopian theories of the rational, sterile "Radiant City," Brasília was not to grow organically but to be born, Costa said, "as if she had been fully grown" -- he even refused to visit the site, because he didn't want reality to impinge on the purity of the original design. Brasília was the first place built to be approached by jet, and the city's roads -- inspired by Robert Moses's deadening expressways belting New York's outer boroughs -- were like runways. Here was a city without a traffic light, containing thoroughfares without crosswalks. The result was (or should have been) obvious, as Simone de Beauvoir reported after visiting Brasília the year it was inaugurated:
What possible interest could there be in wandering about? ... The street, that meeting ground of ... passers-by, of stores and houses, of vehicles and pedestrians ... does not exist in Brasília and never will.
Today, the city is quite correctly regarded as a colossally wrong turn in urban planning--but Brasília, paradoxically, contains some of the most graceful modernist government buildings ever produced. All were designed by Oscar Niemeyer, who helped select Costa's master plan and who was the creative influence behind the building and shape of the city. Both facts must be considered in any effort to reckon the legacy of Niemeyer -- the last great architect of the modernist ascendancy -- and his relationship to modernism, a relationship that both spurred and warped his creative achievement.
A crop of books published over the past few years illuminates both Brazil's extraordinary achievements in modern architecture from the 1930s to the 1960s (Lauro Cavalcanti's clear and intelligent When Brazil Was Modern and the ambitious if at times pretentious Brazil's Modern Architecture, edited by Elisabetta Andreoli and Adrian Forty) and specific aspects of the career of Niemeyer, an architect revered in his country as its greatest living cultural treasure (Oscar Niemeyer: Houses, by Alan Hess, and Modernist Paradise, by Michael Webb, an opulent explication of the only Niemeyer-designed residence built in the United States). These join such older works as Brazil Builds, the Museum of Modern Art's seminal introduction to Brazilian modernism; Henrique E. Mindlin's Modern Architecture in Brazil; Norma Evenson's Two Brazilian Capitals: Architecture and Urbanism in Rio and Brasília; David Underwood's Oscar Niemeyer and Brazilian Free-Form Modernism; and Niemeyer's self-indulgent but (intentionally and otherwise) revealing memoir, The Curves of Time.
None of these books approaches Styliane Philippou's forthcoming Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence, one of the richest historical, cultural, and aesthetic assessments of an architect's work I've read. To be sure, Philippou, a British architect and architectural historian, indulges in some academic gobbledygook (that marker of hip academese, "the Other," makes its appearance far too often), but in authoritatively assessing Niemeyer's work and its place in architectural and Brazilian cultural history, she has marshaled such diverse subjects as 18th-century colonial Portuguese architecture, bossa nova, the topography and cultural geography of Copacabana Beach, and the design-selection process for the UN headquarters. The book is also a marvel of presentation. Philippou fluidly explicates her narrative and arguments with detailed site diagrams and maps; drawings, plans, and elevations; photographic comparisons of buildings historically linked to Niemeyer's; and her own lavish, precise photography of Niemeyer's work, including both general views and details.
The Cathedral of Brasília by Oscar Niemeyer. Photo courtesy of XDonat/Wikimedia Commons
Although he was a disciple of Le Corbusier's and clearly embraced modernism, Niemeyer, with his love of curves and organic shapes, offered a jaunty alternative to the geometric severity of the International Style (a "monotonous and repetitive architecture ... so easy to create that it quickly spread from the United States to Japan," as he characterizes it in his own, often repetitive, memoir). Confirming Niemeyer's assertions, Philippou repeatedly shows how eroticism inflected Niemeyer's approach--"form follows feminine" is one of the architect's many, somewhat tiresome, pronouncements--and how that approach quite literally grew out of his girl-watching (something of a dirty old man, he's forever explaining his architecture by sketching women's breasts and backsides for mock-scandalized journalists). He was obviously also inspired by the undulating beaches and topography of his native Rio de Janeiro (his longtime studio, in the penthouse of an Art Deco landmark building, takes in famously sweeping views of Copacabana and Sugarloaf).
All of Niemeyer's early masterpieces--the Brazilian Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair and the Casino in Pampulha, buildings that married the precision and clarity of the International Style with sinuous, organic lines; the Boavista Bank building in Rio, whose undulating glass-brick walls covering its rear and lateral facades created "one of the most beautiful internal spaces of modern architecture," as Cavalcanti correctly avers; his house at Canoas, which roofed a slick glass pavilion with a seemingly weightless, free-form concrete slab resembling a lily pad, thus creating a shady overhang that allowed the outdoors and indoors to merge--fused modernism's astringent grace with a sauntering, often lyrical style. That approach would culminate in Niemeyer's three best "palaces" in Brasília: the presidential residence, the Foreign Ministry, and the Supreme Court. These seats of power were in fact inspired by houses (fazendas, those colonial Brazilian, low-slung plantation houses with their colonnaded verandas), which helps account for their unintimidating grandeur. With their poised and delicate colonnades and their almost buoyant, paper-thin platforms and roofs, these limpid buildings fairly float upon their sites. They're at once monumental and ethereal, as Philippou makes clear:
The Supreme Court's columns em-brace the glass box ... like pleats fluidly unfolding and refolding, carrying the eye along. Their marble cladding touches the earth at one infinitely small point ... The fluid, fan-like effect is best appreciated when walking along the verandas: the great white marble leaves open and close languorously, in slow, perpetual motion, seemingly the source of the cool breeze under the large roof overhangs.
These imperishable achievements, though, hardly make up for the rest of the city. In Brasília, too many of Niemeyer's other sculptural edifices (he designed all of the major government buildings, and much of the housing) are soullessly set in immense paved fields that offer few places to sit and little refuge from the blinding sun, save for the colossal shadows cast by the buildings themselves. To be sure, Brasília's reputation is in part the result of its history: although built by a progressive and more or less democratic government, it became the seat of an authoritarian regime four years after it was completed, and remained so for 21 years (to Zaha Hadid, Brasília means "all those wide streets for the army to drive through"). But it is an awful city -- even juror Ada Louise Huxtable's tribute accompanying Niemeyer's citation for the 1988 Pritzker Prize (the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for architecture) had to acknowledge Brasília's horrendous error. With Brasília, Niemeyer seemed to have embraced, or at least acceded to, the worst aspect of architectural modernism -- its antiseptic urban theory -- and in the post-Brasília period, when his work has too often been hokily sculptural or frighteningly overscaled (see his University of Constantine in Algeria, or his Maison de la Culture in Le Havre), he seems to have forsaken its best aspects: the grace and lucidity born of its restraint.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.