Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer located in New York City. He's contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Metropolis, Architectural Record, and other publications.
The architect’s ability to land big works in his home country before and after his exile speaks to Brazil’s enthusiasm for civic gigantism and Modernism.
Following Oscar Niemeyer’s death in December 2012, then-Federal Deputy for Rio de Janeiro, Jair Bolsonaro, spoke about his city’s famous architect inside the Brazilian Senate: “He lived in the most expensive square meter not just in Brazil but in the world! And when he felt depressed he would go to Paris and drink the most expensive whiskey!” The far-right Bolsonaro—who was inaugurated as Brazil’s president earlier this month—concluded, “God have mercy on the soul of this [misguided] communist!”
Such sentiments would not be foreign to the late architect, a self-identifying leftist who went into effective exile during Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1965 to 1985. He lived to be 104.
Many of Niemeyer’s earlier commissions came under the occasionally authoritarian Getulio Vargas in his multiple stints as president (elected or not) between 1930 and 1954. Surges of work occurred during the Juscelino Kubitschek presidency (1956-1961) and the following democratic administrations, including his Pampulha complex in Belo Horizonte, several towers in São Paulo, and a wide variety of commissions elsewhere, culminating in his largest project—designing the most prominent buildings in the new capital of Brasilia.
Niemeyer’s ability to land large-scale work in his home country before and after his lengthy Paris relocation speak not only to his durable preeminence but also Brazil’s waves of civic gigantism, its enthusiasm for Modernism, and the difficult political and economic currents it has constantly had to surmount. There are ironies involved in Niemeyer’s success: for an outspoken leftist he was most often reliant on elites for work, whether of the left or the less strident right. And it was unusual that so many were happy to hire him, including many who didn’t share his politics—a reflection of unusual open-mindedness over a remarkably sustained period.
Modernism in the United States most often constituted poles of the built environment: high-profile corporate and civic commissions at the top and social housing at the bottom with little in the middle. Brazil is different, with Modernism constituting the style of a vast amount of construction, including large numbers of homes essentially built by their residents. To achieve the summit like Niemeyer was not to design a few buildings that stand radically apart from traditionalism, but to build the best of a very common style.
The material of almost all of these efforts was concrete. The country’s first steel mill was the product of U.S.-Brazilian wartime collaboration, while most of the steel used in construction after the war was still imported and expensive. The use of concrete in Brazil also shaped building regulations. “The startling slenderness of Brazilian concrete was made possible by the Brazilian construction codes, which permitted about half the amount of concrete cover over the reinforcement to that required in the U.S.,” wrote Adrian Forty in his book, Concrete and Culture. That changed in 1979 when the updated codes established a 20-percent increase. Architects made hstellar use of this slimming opportunity, creating unusually lithe exoskeletons by worldwide standards. Its Carioca school, of which Niemeyer was a luminary, was characterized by a tendency to curve these sheets of concrete and spurn simple rectilinearity, making sinuous use of a material frequently identified with blocky heft (in contrast to its cousin, the bulkier Paulista school of architecture). Niemeyer, in his 1998 memoir, The Curves of Time, proclaimed his intention, “deliberately despising the exalted right angle and the rationalist architecture made by ruler and square, to boldly enter this world of curves and straight lines offered by concrete.”
Niemeyer didn’t build particularly much in his home city of Rio, but it does feature his excellent Lagoa hospital, Hotel Nacional, the Casa das Canoas (Niemeyer’s residence), and his late-career Niteroi Art Museum. (There is currently an exhibit of his drawings along with those of his grandson in the city.) Rio’s central urban form is denser than São Paulo and it was filled-in a bit earlier. In the 20th century its growth lagged behind that of São Paulo, Brazil’s real urban dynamo, which is filled with works by other Brazilian greats such as Lucio Costa, Affonso Reidy, Vilanova Artigas, and Lina Bo Bardi, among others. Niemeyer designed many projects there, including numerous skyscrapers in its center such as the Edifício Copan, the Edifício Montreal, the Edifício Califórnia, and the Edifício Triângulo.
São Paulo asked Niemeyer to design a series of buildings for the new Ibirapuera Park in time for the city’s quatercentennial in 1954. These included a Palace of Industry, Exposition Palace, City Hall, and other structures (of the seven buildings constructed only two were done by other architects). Today, the site hosts the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (Museum of Modern Art), the Museu Afro Brasil, the Pavilhão das Culturas Brasileiras (Pavillion of Brazilian Culture), and the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, home of the city’s art biennial (an Afro-Brazilian museum). Several of his buildings here are rectangular but this is not the source of their formal order; they are linked by a highly irregular canopy, and their appearance differentiated by differing patterns of pilotis and brise soleil.
Thirty-five years later, Niemeyer received another large São Paulo project, the Memorial da América Latina. It features the Auditório Simón Bolívar (auditorium), the Galeria Marta Traba de Arte Latino-Americana (an art gallery) the Biblioteca Latino-Americana Victor Civita (a library featuring works on Latin America), a home for the consultative Latin American Parliament (which departed for Panama City in 2007), the Salão de Atos Tiradentes (featuring large-scale art), and a Pavilhão da Criatividade (a creativity pavilion). These curvilinear buildings are unmistakably Niemeyer but more sparse in detail than his other works.
Brazil immediately following World War II—and again after its emergence from the dictatorship—contained many public officials eager for large-scale cultural construction. These projects exemplify a sporadic Brazilian impulse to build big, frequently in the form of multipurpose cultural spaces. They represented an effort in ways to reverse-engineer Brazil as a unitary successful nation state: grand projects could help to create a more consequential Brazil.
Fernando Lara, Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin and author of several books on Brazilian Modernism told CityLab of the trend, “I think Brazilian society, especially the Brazilian government elites have always had the sense we need to build at the scale of our country—huge complexes.” This size has often been a source of vast challenges, but it does generate large dreams. Niemeyer himself wrote in The Curves of Time:
“I remember feeling so angry in Paris one day when someone began to badmouth Brazil, its huge spending programs, its gigantic construction projects. What the country needed, they said, was a more realistic and thrifty policy. I could not help myself, replying that this was all quite natural, a kind of childhood disease, inevitable in developing countries. And I explained that Brazil was really a continent. A young country that justified everything. A force of nature.”
Ibirapuera Park features a number of considerable buildings integrated skillfully into a large park, which is easier said than done. Museums and public facilities are often located in parks; generally these practical uses degrade pastoral ones. Service entrances and blank walls generally face parkland, not the street, and it’s difficult to avoid this problem with even a single facility let alone many. Some of this happens here, and the surroundings are overly given over to parking. But these buildings are generally well connected to the surrounding park.
Here, most of Niemeyer’s buildings are rectilinear, but are united by a feature that is anything but, a massive canopy which puts any meager colonnade to shame. Lara commented, “What I love most is not the buildings but that canopy, that amoebic shade. We often talk among architects how hard it would be to convince any government that you wanted to build thousands of square feet just of canopy. What is it for? It’s gigantic! That’s the genius of its design.”
The 2,000-foot-long canopy does not demarcate any straightforward path: it bulges and creeps and curls and is penetrated by gaps carved out foliage. The areas underneath were filled with wide ranges of activity from ball games to ad hoc rollerskating courses. It was well used on this writer’s recent visit in the Brazilian winter, and serves as a crucial escape in warmer months.
Niemeyer’s buildings here are varied and tasteful, most featuring generally rectangular and relatively short buildings with upper story overhangs (with yet more shade beneath) and varieties of brise soleil. There’s little of the columnar grandeur of Brasilia here and something more modest and accessible. A windowed corner of the Modern Art Museum bulges effortlessly into a portion of the marquee. Curves are rarely far away: the geometric Biennial Pavilion features waving internal balconies and spiraling ramps and the Palácio das Exposições is a dome with portholes. An auditorium added by Niemeyer in 2005 features a flaming tongue as entryway canopy.
The complex has the retro-futurist air of a World’s Fair that was never pulled down. The grounds features a democratic range of art and recreation: abstract sculptures by Brazilian luminaries are intermingled with street-style murals and playground equipment modeled after locomotives.
The Latin American Memorial is a different story, from a different time, subsequent to the country’s 20 year rule by junta and Niemeyer’s long relocation to Paris.
The City of São Paulo and a number of other parties were involved in a scheme to develop a large plot of land near a subway and train station in an area of mixed warehouses, residences, and commerce. The project had loftier aims than mere transit oriented development. It was an effort to build a complex dedicated to Pan-Latinism, to heal the divisions of the Treaty of Tordesillas between Portuguese Brazil and the largely Spanish-speaking remainder of the continent. It was to contain several unique structures: the home for the consultative Latin American parliament and library but also a set of cultural spaces not dissimilar to Ibirapuera. Niemeyer wrote: “This cultural center was to convey an appeal, a message of faith and solidarity for all Latin American people. It would invite them to come together, share experiences, and fight more effectively on behalf of this highly neglected and endangered continent.”
The Memorial spans two sides of a large avenue connecting diagonal plots with a kinetic pedestrian bridge: the key moment of its design was removing a central support in order to lighten its appearance. Several of the buildings are striking: the excellent interior of the library consists of two vaults open to large colored windows at each end.
Tiradentes Hall, which features a spectacular mural, Portinari’s Martyrdom of Tiradentes (the 18th century Brazilian revolutionary) is a marvelous space. The Memorial features stained glass by Marianne Peretti, bas reliefs by Maria Bonomi and Poty Lazzarotto, paintings by Candido Portinari, embroidery by Tomi Ohtake and much more in a Who’s Who of Brazilian art. At its center is a large hand sculpture, an obvious nod to Corbusier’s open hand in Chandigarh but with a somber overlay: South America rendered in blood which drips onto the surface beneath, symbolic of suffering and oppression on that continent.
If Niemeyer found the best art, he may not have found the best architects. “In the ‘50s he had the most ambitious architects working for him; he did not in the ‘80s,” said Lara. The fine details of his work in Ibirapuera seem to have given way to a starker, shinier palate with a comparatively dull black glass.
Another trouble is that if the complex was a gesture of connection to Latin America it didn’t try particularly hard to connect to its surrounding neighborhood. It’s almost entirely fenced off and isn’t even easily accessible from the adjacent train station. It’s also remarkably barren of trees or shade. Much of this may be accounted for by his age. Niemeyer in his late 70s seems to have simply delegated more work to his assistants. Lara notes that Niemeyer, ironically, had become a brand. “Politicians of all ideological spectrums wanted to have a Niemeyer; they wanted the brand and they wanted to bypass the law for government commissions. Construction companies were very happy because Niemeyer was very expensive, they could charge whatever they wanted.”
Expansive building programs are encouraging; it’s what follows that’s often been the trouble in Brazil. Lara commented, “You have this megalomania of building large and then the difficulty of keeping things afloat afterwards. You can build things but then there is the problem of how you maintain them.” The far older National Museum in Rio was gutted by fire due to the absence of fire prevention systems that would have been routine in most countries. Lara noted. “The Museum of Modern Art in Rio is now selling a Jackson Pollock just to keep operating for a few years.” He continued, “It’s about designing the institutions more than designing the buildings—the institutions are not up to standards.”
The great hopes of the Brazilian ‘60s and ‘80s have met the harsh realities of a society still dramatically divided by dramatic income disparities and corruption—and lately suffering new concerns about the resilience of its democracy with the election of the rhetorically authoritarian Bolsanaro. One of the new president’s earlier acts was to dissolve the Brazilian Ministry of Culture. (Technically, it has been absorbed into a new Ministry of Citizenship).
Even with institutions that are comparatively well-run, there’s the question of the actual range of utility they are providing to local populations. Ibirapuera is a showcase, surrounded by affluent neighborhoods and containing uses of disproportionate interest to the upper classes. Lara pointed to Lina Bo Bardi’s nearby SESC Pompeia and the encompassing SESC institutions as a more democratic example of cultural programming. “People who live in the neighborhood use classes, the pools, the spaces,” she said. It is a rare example of an institution that is well-managed and also caters to a genuine variety of Paulistas.
The city and state of São Paulo feature a robust network of SESC (Serviço Social do Comércio, “Social Service of Commerce”) centers, which feature a considerable range of performances, classes, libraries, and services, serving a wide range of incomes. These include Lina Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompeia not far from the Latin American Memorial. Such projects are frequently the work of state and city governments, occasionally national.
While Brazil’s near future does not look promising, inspiration can still be drawn from the democratic spirit of Niemeyer’s works. As he proclaimed in his autobiography: “I have always rejected the mediocre idea of those who insist on a ‘simple architecture of the people.’ When we built [a schools project] we had the pleasure of seeing how children from the lower classes enjoyed attending them, as though they were somehow given the hope that they would someday be able to use that which is normally reserved for the wealthy.”