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Oscar Niemeyer liked curves.
The Brazilian architect, who rose to prominence in the 1940s, and died this past week, pushed the limits of concrete. He took a material that had historically been used for slabs, beams and pillars and sculpted it into arches and curves of every kind. At a time when modernist architecture was characterized by ‘rational’ right angles, Niemeyer took his inspiration from Brazil’s beaches, rivers, ocean waves, and women. (He was always mentioning the women.)
Seen today, many of Niemeyer’s designs still feel like they come from the future, or at least the future that was promised by the space age. In tribute to the architect, Wired presents some of our favorites.
Can Brasilia really be just 50 years old?
When the new capital of Brazil was dedicated by President Juscelino Kubitschek on April 21, 1960, its grand avenues, laid out by Lucio Costa, and dramatic modernist buildings by architect Oscar Niemeyer seemed to symbolize one thing: the crisp newness of the modern world, unburdened by history or context.
In fact, Kubitschek was so eager to call attention to the city — built from scratch in a remote spot 600 miles inland from the old capital of Rio de Janeiro — that he held the dedication ceremony while most of Brasilia was still under a cloud of construction dust. The president was in a hurry not only to craft an up-to-date Brazilian identity but to mark a clean break with the nation’s complex past.
Los Angeles Times
It is probable that at 101 years old, Oscar Niemeyer, the guru of modernist architecture whose greatest project was the city of Brasilia, is old enough to withstand disappointment, even as large as the one he has just suffered. He thought he was on course to adorn the city’s skyline with one last flourish. But now, suddenly, he isn’t.
Brasilia, widely considered an architectural masterwork and an unparalleled urban catastrophe, will turn 50 next year and it had seemed natural that it should fall to Niemeyer, who is still working at the cusp of his second century, to come up with a suitable new monument to mark the occasion.
Thus was born his blueprint for the “Plaza of Sovereignty”, involving two structures bang in the middle of Brasilia’s main ceremonial avenue, the Monumental Axis. As drawn by Niemeyer it consisted of a 1,000ft curving spike resembling the fin of a spaceship, and a low building before it in the shape of a shallow new moon. It was classic Oscar, a bold gesture of bombast and supple curves in concrete and cement.
To call Niemeyer beloved in Brazil is to get nowhere near describing his stature. An exile in Europe for 21 years during his country’s military dictatorship and still today a self-described communist, he was honoured by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who declared 2008 the Year of Oscar Niemeyer to mark his centenary.
But no sooner had the master architect unveiled his plan, than the complaints started. On blogs, in newspapers and magazines, fellow architects and preservationists fretted that the Plaza would just not do.
It would block the sightlines of central Brasilia and might violate regulations about the preservation of open space between the buildings, many of which Niemeyer designed, including theBrasilia Cathedral and the Ministry of Justice.
Acampaign was launched to protect Niemeyer from himself. “What we normally see is an architect interfering in the work of another architect,” said Sylvia Fischer of the University of Brasilia. “In Niemeyer’s case, he is interfering negatively in his own work. It will be Oscar Niemeyer fighting Oscar Niemeyer.”
In the 1950s, President Juscelino Kubitschek ordered the construction of a new capital on open, unpopulated savannah at 3,500ft, fulfilling a constitutional requirement that the government leave Rio de Janeiro. The task of conjuring the new city fell to the French-born urban planner Lucio Cost, who turned to Niemeyer to provide the plans for myriad buildings, from ministries to housing blocks.
Though now populated by more than two million, Brasilia was condemned by many for being pretentious but inhuman, shortcomings described by Simone de Beauvoir who attended its inauguration in 1960. “What possible interest could there be in wandering about?” she asked. “The street, that meeting ground of ? passers-by, of stores and houses, of vehicles and pedestrians ? does not exist in Brasilia and never will.”
Theblueprint for the Plaza of Sovereignty was presented to the governor of Brasilia, Jose Roberto Arruda, two weeks ago. “The monument will have a triangle shape to show progress the country has achieved,” Niemeyer said then. “It is designed to perplex whoever looks at it.”
Yet by last week, word was coming from the governor’s office that there was no money to build the Plaza, nor had there ever been. And in a letter to the Correio Braziliense newspaper, Niemeyer said he was ready to give up on ever building the Plaza. But forgive an old man for feeling frustrated.
“In my last visit,” he wrote, “I could feel with clarity the need to create a plaza on a compatible scale with the capital of a country so admired such as our own.”
What to do with our aging architectural heroes? What if their genius deteriorates and they begin tinkering with their own masterpieces?
A powerful case in point is the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who celebrated his 100th birthday this month. In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s he established himself as one of Modernism’s greatest luminaries, infusing stark abstract forms with a beguiling tropical hedonism that reshaped Brazil’s identity in the popular imagination and mesmerized architects around the globe.
In Brasilía, a city that rose out of a jungle in the span of four years, he created at least a half dozen architectural masterpieces — a mind-boggling accomplishment by today’s standards. Today Mr. Niemeyer is held up as one of Brazil’s greatest national treasures, and he seems as spry as ever…In recognition of the heroic scale of his accomplishments, Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, recently proposed legislation that would confer special landmark status on all of his buildings.
But the greatest threat to Mr. Niemeyer’s remarkable legacy may not be the developer’s bulldozer or insensitive city planners, but Mr. Niemeyer himself.
It is not simply that his latest buildings have a careless, tossed-off quality. It’s that some of his most revered buildings — from the Brasilía Cathedral to the grand ceremonial axis of the city itself — have been marred by the architect’s own hand. And this poses an uncomfortable dilemma: At what point do we — that is, the public that idolizes him, his government and private clients — have an obligation to intervene? Or is posing the question an act of spectacularly bad taste?
To those who pay close attention, the decline in the quality of Niemeyer’s work — whether resulting from a creative lull or complacency brought on by fame or old age — has been evident since he completed his Museum of Contemporary Art in Niteroi in 1996. Resting lightly on a single column at the edge of a cliff, its white saucer-shaped form looks best against the glamorous backdrop of Guanabara Bay.
What’s missing, however, is the lightness of touch that could draw you deeper into the work. The concrete surfaces are crude and unfinished; the structure lacks the careful refinement that gave his early buildings a textured significance and signaled that the architect cared deeply about the people who would inhabit them.
It’s as if the museum were designed by a lesser talent who could mimic the graceful lines in Mr. Niemeyer’s sketches but lacked the skill and patience to see the design through.
But if the art museum is an inferior work that mostly suffers in comparison with his early masterpieces, his midcentury projects in central Brasilía are another matter: a trove of Modernist landmarks conceived on the grandest scale.
No photograph can prepare a visitor to the 1958 National Congress building for the delicacy with which it is set into the landscape. Surrounded by immaculate lawns, its form sunken slightly into the ground, it exerts a gravitational pull as you approach. A long, narrow ramp leads to a roof, where the public can stroll around the base of the bowl-like form of the chamber of deputies. That expression of the bond between a government and the people is as moving today as it was when the building was inaugurated half a century ago.
Even more refined is the nearby Itamaraty Palace, built to house the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Its soaring slender arches, rising from vast reflecting pools, are like a soothing oasis in a vast flat landscape. Inside, a circular staircase is conceived as a series of cantilevered concrete slabs. As you climb, you can practically feel gravity releasing its hold on your body, a physical sensation that reinforces the building’s visual lightness…
Completed in an era when millions of Americans were fleeing cities for the homogenous suburbs of the Eisenhower era, and Europe was still limping through its recovery from World War II, Brasilía seemed to assert that erotic desire and human tenderness had a place in modern society. Better still, the stunning speed of its construction suggested that this sensual utopia was only as far away as the next cocktail.
The force of that vision reverberated across the United States and Europe. Lincoln Center in Manhattan, Empire State Plaza in Albany, the Los Angeles Music Center — all owe a debt to Niemeyer. And today a young generation versed in computer enhancement has found inspiration in his fluid concrete curves…
Nobody can fault Mr. Niemeyer for his desire to keep working; that his enthusiasm is undimmed at the age of 100 is cause for awe. And it’s laudable that he approaches his past work without an exaggerated self-importance. Cities are not museum pieces; without constant change, they lose their cultural vitality.
Yet the value of these Modernist buildings as part of our shared cultural memory — the foundation of our identity — cannot be underestimated.
Brasilía’s ceremonial axis is not simply a relic from a discounted age or an emblem of a failed utopia. It is as crucial to the values of its time as the pyramids were to theirs. To mar that vision is a cultural tragedy, even if the creator’s hand is responsible.
New York Times