Oscar Niemeyer - Brazilian Modernist
In 1936 Niemeyer joined the team of architects who designed the first state-sponsored Modernist skyscraper in the world, the Ministry of Education and Public Health in Rio de Janeiro (1936-44), under the leadership of Costa and later of Niemeyer, and with Le Corbusier acting as a consultant in 1936.
The new headquarters for the ministry that had assumed the task of shaping the "new man, Brazilian and modern" constitutes the first complete application of Le Corbusier's "Five Points of a New Architecture."
But these were combined with local materials and techniques from historic colonial architecture, such as the hand-painted azulejos; allusions to the Brazilian landscape and Baroque monuments; sensuous curves; shading devices and bold colors related to the Moorish traditions of Portuguese architecture; the tropical gardens of Roberto Burle Marx, epitomizing the desire to transgress the rules of prosaic functionalism; and the integrated, specially commissioned works of Brazilian artists.
A symbol and manifesto of Brazilian modernity, the ministry building achieved the desired hybridity of nationalist rhetoric and was hailed by Philip L. Goodwin in the United States as "the most beautiful government building in the Western hemisphere."
It embraced all things revalorized and radicalized by the Brazilian Modernist artists of the 1920s, whose Pau-Brasil and Antropofagia movements had conceived a strategy to unite the native with the foreign, infecting "civilizing" imports with what was perceived as the tropical, irrational "primitive."
The anticolonialist Antropofagist strategy of contaminating European Modernism with the Dionysian espirito de brasilidade was also employed by Costa and Niemeyer in the Brazilian Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
But it was Niemeyer's pioneering leisure complex on the shores of an artificial lake at Pampulha (1940-43), a new suburb of Belo Horizonte, that led L'architecture d'Aujourd'hui to declare in 1946 that Niemeyer was moving away from "the triumph of the straight line" and "the monumental Cartesianism" of the Ministry building and the "Corbusian school," towards "the affirmation of his own originality" in "the triumph of the curve."
Curves of Transgression
Niemeyer speaks of his "tropicalization" of all he learned from Le Corbusier and never tires of repeating: "My architectural oeuvre began with Pampulha, which I designed in sensual and unexpected curves."
Commissioned by the then-mayor of Belo Horizonte, Juscelino Kubitschek, the complex included a small church (Brazil's first listed Modern monument), an ingeniously planned casino with a lavish interior, a delightful dance hall and restaurant with a meandering concrete canopy, a yacht club, golf club, and hundred-room hotel (unbuilt).
Spectacle and luxury, pleasure, beauty, and sensuality were emphatically affirmed as legitimate pursuits in Niemeyer's complex at Pampulha, his personal architectural manifesto.
A willfully rich palette of fine materials and techniques, purposefully employed detailing and applied ornament were combined with Burle Marx's intensified images of tropical nature and fully integrated artworks to create a unique body of work, motivated by a vision for a modern national architecture with a repertoire of voluptuous curves and tropical motifs imagined as eminently Brazilian.
If the Loosian figure of the English gentleman embodied "the truly modern style" of Apollonian Europe, Niemeyer found in the eroticized figure of the Brazilian woman of African descent, the mulata, the incarnation of the Dionysian espirito de brasilidade: "My work is not about 'form follows function,' but 'form follows beauty' or even better, 'form follows feminine.'"
Working with structural engineer Joaquim Cardozo at the Pampulha Church of São Francisco de Assis, Niemeyer used structural parabolic vaults as form- and space-defining elements. Shell structures and variously configured vertical supports appear frequently in his mature projects that populated Brazil's rapidly growing urban centers in the 1950s.
The freely undulating volume of his forty-story Edifício Copan (1951-66), with 5,000 residents, decidedly invaded the urban core of São Paulo, Latin America's premier industrial and financial center, contesting the dichotomy between the private, feminine world of home and pleasure, and the public, vertical and hard-edged, masculine world of work and power, and challenging the gender polarities of the American city.
As at the Copan, the dynamism of Niemeyer's Edifício Liberdade (1954-60) in Belo Horizonte was accentuated by continuous, horizontal, concrete brises-soleil, which function as sunshades on the glazed part of the facade but continue along the tile-clad wall, underscoring aesthetic concerns that transgress the original utilitarian intent of the device.
The Architectural Review of October 1954 reported that Niemeyer's new house in Rio de Janeiro was at "the center of discussion" among foreign visitors at the 1953 São Paulo Art Biennale, who failed to appreciate the simultaneous rhythms of its polymetric architecture.
Niemeyer's domestic masterpiece, the Casa des Canoas (1952-53), appears to consist of no more than a concrete, free-form canopy with a pool amid a tropical garden that merges seamlessly with a fantastic landscape.
At this house in 1956, the ebullient president Juscelino Kubitschek recruited Niemeyer's help for the realization of his most ambitious scheme: the building of Brasília, a city uncompromisingly modern, which would herald "the New Age of Brazil."
Towards a More Democratic Architecture
Inaugurated on April 21, 1960, the new federal capital was conceived as a symbol of national unity. The choice of Niemeyer represented the choice of the style in which 20th-century architects and politicians had sought to imagine the nation — Brazilian and modern.
On the country's central plateau, away from the coastal tropical paradise that embodied the European legacy, Niemeyer's architecture for the "real Brazil" of the hinterland entered into a dialogue with the landmarks of architectural history in order to affirm the autonomy of Brazilian architecture and "create... the past of tomorrow." The desire for monumentality informed Lúcio Costa's master plan as well as Niemeyer's civic architecture for "the acropolis of the new Brazil."
But rather than mass, solidity, and weight, Brasília's colonnaded ceremonial buildings proposed lightness, elegance, and grace, underscoring the individuality of their constituent parts — the white marble-clad columns — yet subordinating the individuality of equals to the synthesis of the whole, representing the democratic polis.
During the years that Niemeyer was forced into exile by Brazil's military dictatorship, which came to power in 1964, he exploited advanced Brazilian engineering and Europe's technology and skilled labor force to produce buildings that were both aesthetically challenging and structurally daring.
The precisely patterned, exposed-concrete arcades of the Mondadori headquarters in Segrate, near Milan (1968-75), resemble those of Brasília's Palácio do Itamaraty (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1962-70), but at Segrate, Niemeyer incorporated a random aspect into design. On each elevation, the 22 parabolic arches of variable width and curvature are united by a single parametric equation. Niemeyer's "modern version of the Greek temple" ranks among his greatest achievements.
Driven by a desire to invent ever new ways to address the relation between the individual building and the city, in France and later in Brazil following the return of democracy in the 1980s, Niemeyer gradually moved beyond the idea of an architecture that is merely beautiful towards an architecture that is more consciously democratic, prioritizing urban public space as fundamental for the enactment of the rights of citizenship.
In a classic Niemeyer inversion of conventional hierarchies of space and use, his late civic landmarks, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Niterói (1991-96) and the NovoMuseu (2001-02, later renamed the Museu Oscar Niemeyer) in Curitiba, are dominated by ramps that transgress functional requirements and invite the public to appropriate them as promenades.
Underlining the public nature of the buildings, these long, languorously unfolding ramps serve as an architectural metaphor for Brazil's legendary beach, a space onto which Niemeyer projects his ideal of a good life.
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Styliane Philippou is an architect and architectural historian. She has practiced in Athens, Edinburgh, London, and Paris, and has taught architectural design, history, and theory at the universities of Edinburgh and Plymouth, UK. The author of Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence, she has lectured internationally on aspects of Brazilian modernism.
Kenneth Powell is an architectural historian, critic, and consultant based in London. He has written extensively on 20th-century and contemporary British architecture, and is the author of books on the work of Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and other major British architects. He is an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and has served on the Council of the Architectural Association.
This article is excerpted from The Great Builders, edited by Kenneth Powell, copyright © 2011, with permission of the publisher, Thames & Hudson.