Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer, great Brazilian architect, died on 5 December.

Oscar Niemeyer died on 5 December, at the age of 104. Whatever you think of his work and politics, he had an amazing run. He was working until 100, and gave perfectly lucid interviews then. His first marriage lasted 76 years; he remarried at 99. He lost his only daughter when she was 82.

Niteroi museum, 1996 (N aged 89)

I go along with a conventional view that he designed some lovely buildings, but was as useless a town planner as the rest of the masters of the International Style. His curvy temples usually float at the end of vast, shapeless plazas. (The Niteroi museum escapes this, as it´s on a small promontory in the city.) Apart from offering a visual approach to the Monument, what are these for? Not, thank God, parades of uniformed fanatics – they aren´t Nuremberg rectangular. Dense, free-form crowds of the revolutionary People? In Brasilia, the People can´t get there.

Where Niemeyer broke from Le Corbusier and Gropius was over straight lines. His rationale was very Brazilian:

I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein.

This heterodoxy freed Niemeyer to design well in reinforced concrete, though sadly little in wood. However, he did not escape the basic contradiction of the International Style. Its puritan aesthetic was largely devised in defiance of common sense, as Thomas Wolfe brilliantly showed in his essay From Bauhaus to Our House – flat roofs and flush windows, in rainy Northern Europe. Lacking the real understanding of the needs of ordinary people for living space shown in Gaudi´s brilliant Casa Mila block of luxury flats in Barcelona, they couldn´t build good cheap housing for workers. Their efforts at mass housing were far inferior to those of half-educated 18th and 19th century speculative builders in London and New York. What these committed left-wingers were able to build successfully were somewhat dehumanised monuments for capitalists, priests and oligarchs: factories, palaces, churches, and above all museums.

The disconnect is also visible in Niemeyer´s politics, eccentric to the point of perversity. He was a lifelong member of the small Brazilian Communist Party, and became its (presumably honorary) president in 1992. The isolation of this ineffectual élite group from Brazilian society is illustrated by Jorge Amado´s remark in his memoirs that communism taught him to be punctual.

Niemeyer was a great temple-builder. He would have been quite at home in Xerxes´ Persepolis, Ptolemy´s Alexandria, Peter´s St. Petersburg, or Suger´s Paris. The trouble was, he thought he was building Célesteville.

Babar´s Célesteville, Jean de Brunhoff, 1931

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

17 thoughts on “Oscar Niemeyer”

    1. The Casa Mila is perfect, unlike the extraordinary Sagrada Familia which Gaudi never finished. The first floor was a huge flat for the client. The other floors were divided into six comfortable bourgeois flats round large air wells. Even the servants´ areas (kitchen, linen-room, maid´s bedroom) are civilised amd well-lit. The star turn is the roof, a stormy sea of tiles with chimneys emerging like idols of some Martian religion. You can visit the attic roofspace. The impossible roof curves were generated by hundreds of catenary arches, built very simply out of single thin bricks, presumably aligned on standard formwork.

      1. The attic blew my mind, and the roof is really wonderful. Tile laid down as if it were plastic. I had seen it in pictures of course but to trace my hand across the curves was a different thing entirely. And the roof of the Palau Güell, according to Robert Hughes, is supposed to be even better.

        There’s a first rate adobe building mail list with a good chunk of the talented builders worldwide on it and the catenary curves of Gaudí make an appearance from time to time wrt to Nubian vaults, and such. Seeing those chains in the attic really made the conversation, er, concrete for me for the first time.


    2. Gaudi was an iconoclast who designed pretty one-off art pieces–in a weird way hardly an architect, more of a sculptor at a massive scale. Yes, he made some interesting buildings that are almost jewelry-like, but I don’t think this alone should determine our definition of good architecture.

      Niemeyer, on the other hand, epitomized the heroic High Modernist architect. He thought deeply about space, about the human uses of that space, about urbanism. To my mind, despite his flaws, this makes Niemeyer the superior architect. But he was very much of his time–he subscribed to all of the dogma of what James Scott calls Authoritarian High Modernism. He didn’t know any better. He couldn’t have, given his milieu.

      (For what it’s worth, I’m an architect.)

      1. ¨ … hardly an architect, more of a sculptor at a massive scale.¨ Works for the Casa Mila roof, but not the attic beneath. And how about the Parc Güell project as a complete urban development? FWIW, Gaudi´s building shows much deeper thought about living space than Niemeyer. I´d reverse the comment: ir´s Niemeyer who was basically ¨a sculptor at a massive scale.¨

        1. I see your point, but Gaudi was nonetheless an iconoclast. In the world of architecture, he is inspiring but not influential (in the Anxiety of Influence sense.) Architects do not examine or copy his details. Though I as much as anyone can appreciate the beauty of his buildings, they were fundamentally one-off art pieces. It’s difficult for a practicing architect to take any sort of program, mission, or detail away from them.

          Niemeyer, on the other hand, influenced an entire generation of architects and continues to be influential to this day. Large global offices such as KPF, Gensler, Norman Foster, et al continue to look at his details and works. The same is not necessarily true of Gaudi. I’d argue that Gaudi is more of a lay person’s architect, much like Gehry (most architects have a love-hate relationship with Gehry.) But he is not an architect’s architect.

  1. “Lacking the real understanding of the needs of ordinary people” seems to be the primary failing of celebrity architects in general. They don’t build houses or offices that are nice to live or work in; they build monuments to which people are confined. And the worst (Le Corbusier) produce monuments that aren’t even very pleasant to look at.

    1. Look at the works of Peter Zumthor, of Alvar Aalto, of Glenn Murcutt. In the world of architecture, these guys are celebrities who also design for people.

      Le Corbusier changed architecture forever, and his best buildings are not necessarily the ones he’s (in)famous for. I would encourage you to make the trek to his Chapel in Ronchamp, France, particularly on a snowy day. It will make you cry, it’s so beautiful. Or really examine the Heidi Weber Pavilion that he built in Zurich. A masterpiece.

      Part of the problem for architecture is that those outside of the profession assume that its only important value is how pleasant it is to look at. This is why bombastic formalists like Frank Gehry are elevated to absurd status, while far better architects like Zumthor or Murcutt are unknown outside of architecture.

  2. Lacking the real understanding of the needs of ordinary people for living space

    It is hard to design spaces larger than the scale of, say, a single parcel. IMHO we tend to over-think it. Keep it simple: lay out the streets and basic infrastructure, set some limits on form and space for tree roots and vegetation (+ minimum amount of park space and public space but not where it goes), and step back.


  3. Your photo illustration might be the single best refutation (illustration of the wasteland it creates) of Modernism I have seen.

    1. I disagree, at least for the Niteroi museum. The piazza (with a pool underneath the museum mushroom) is actually quite small and usually full of people. From what I´ve read, the criticism applies more to Brasilia.

    2. Also, the odd angle of the “mushroom” serves a climatic function of actually shading the space as the sun is at its highest angle. It’s quite a functional design.

      Agree about Brasilia (though the modernist wasteland planning was more the fault of Lucio Costa.) Both Niemeyer and Le Corbusier should have avoided city planning and stuck to designing buildings.

  4. For anyone interested in the poisonous intersection of politics, urbanism, and architecture in the 20th century, Yale political scientist James C. Scott’s book “Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed” is an absolute must read. It changed my understanding of Le Corbusier and Niemeyer–who, in my profession of architecture, are considered heroes almost by default.

  5. In the 1960s I was a very young man considering going into architecture as a career. I didn’t. I love architecture, but I hated the stuff being built at that time and had no idea it would ever get better. In retrospect I believe the architecture of the 1960s, with few exceptions, was the worst architecture in the history of the world. There’s still a lot of terrible stuff being built, but more good stuff. And no, I do not include Frank Gehry under the definition of good stuff.

  6. What about the Mies van der Rohe. Badly insulated, but pretty and nice to live in (and not originally designed for the super-rich).

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