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Remembering Oscar Niemeyer

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Dr. N. Subramanian
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PostPosted: Fri Dec 07, 2012 8:34 pm    Post subject: Remembering Oscar Niemeyer Reply with quote

Remembering Oscar Niemeyer: The Architect Who Gave Modernism a Little Samba Flair

Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer looks at drawings for a project of two cities in Senegal, Africa, in his office in Rio de Janeiro, 1992.

Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho (December 15, 1907 – December 5, 2012), known as Oscar Niemeyer , was a Brazilian architect who is considered to be one of the key figures in the development of modern architecture. Niemeyer was best known for his design of civic buildings for Brasília, a planned city which became Brazil's capital in 1960, as well as his collaboration with other architects on the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. His exploration of the aesthetic possibilities of reinforced concrete was highly influential on the architecture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Niemeyer was most famous for his use of abstract forms and curves that characterize most of his works, and wrote in his memoirs:
“      I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. 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"

Tancredo Neves Administrative City by Oscar Niemeyer
Born in Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer was schooled at the city's Escola Nacional de Belas Artes, and after graduating worked at his father's typography house, as well as as a draftsman for local architectural firms. In the 1930s, he interned with Lúcio Costa, one of Brazil’s first modernists, and Le Corbusier on the design of the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Health in Rio, which was the first major modernist public building in Brazil. The ministry became a sign to the world that Brazil wanted to make itself a place of cutting-edge architecture, and very quickly Niemeyer began to establish his own style, more flowing and curvaceous than Le Corbusier’s or Costa’s, and so in sync with the image of Brazil that, looking back at his work, it is now difficult to say how much Niemeyer emerged out of an inherently Brazilian attitude toward design and how much his architecture itself created that attitude. Niemeyer's first major project was the design of a series of buildings for Pampulha, a planned suburb north of Belo Horizonte. His work, especially on the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, received critical acclaim, and drew Niemeyer international attention. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Niemeyer became one of Brazil's most prolific architects, designing a range of buildings both within the country and overseas. This included the design of the Edifício Copan (a large residential building in São Paulo), and a collaboration with Le Corbusier (and others) on the design of the United Nations Headquarters, which engendered invitations to teach at Yale University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Aeriel view of Oscar Niemeyer's Museum of Contemporary Art, Rio de Janeiro

In 1956, Niemeyer was invited by Brazil's new president, Juscelino Kubitschek, to design the civic buildings for Brazil's new capital, which was to be built in the centre of the country, far from any existing cities. His designs for the National Congress of Brazil, the Cathedral of Brasília, the Cultural Complex of the Republic, the Palácio da Alvorada, the Palácio do Planalto, and the Supreme Federal Court, all completed by 1960, were largely experimental in nature, and were linked by common design elements.

This work led to his appointment as inaugural head of architecture at the University of Brasília, as well as honorary membership of the American Institute of Architects. Due to his largely leftist ideology, and involvement with the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), Niemeyer left the country after the 1964 military coup, and subsequently opened an office in Paris, where he ended up designing the headquarters of the French communist party. (He was denied a visa by the United States during the same period and was never able to fulfill a large American commission for a business center in Miami.) Niemeyer, of course, had the last laugh. He outlasted the military junta by more than a generation and returned to Brazil in the 1980s ready for his final act, which turned out to be another three decades of buildings that never failed to show a passion for sensuous form.

A view of Ravello's Auditorium

In 1985, and was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1988. A socialist and atheist from an early age, Niemeyer had spent time in both Cuba and the Soviet Union during his exile, and on his return served as the PCB's president from 1992 to 1996. Niemeyer continued working at the end of the 20th and early 21st century, notably designing the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (1996) and the Novo Museu (2002). He died in Rio de Janeiro on December 5, 2012, at the age of 104, 10 days short of his 105th birthday, his architectural career continuing quite literally to the end—he was still giving direction to employees about ongoing projects from his hospital bed in Rio in his final days. His commitment to the notion that modernism could make life richer, freer, more spirited, and more meaningful also remained fully intact.

Ministry of Education and Health

You could call Niemeyer the last of the true believers, but he was more than that: an extraordinary blend of passion, arrogance, and naivety, seasoned, I suspect, with more than a little craftiness. Other than his mentor, Le Corbusier, whose name was inextricably connected to modern architecture in France, I cannot think of a modern architect whose career was so profoundly tied in the public mind to the life and culture of his country. Niemeyer was not just an architect who came from Brazil; he was Brazil, as much as Pele or the samba. His swirling forms and his curving lines replaced modernism’s harshness with softness and ease. Niemeyer didn’t compromise modernism’s utopian ideals, but when filtered through his sensibility, the stern, unforgiving rigor of so much European modernism became as smooth as Brazilian jazz. His work is sensuous, almost hedonistic.

Edifício Copan, São Paulo

National Congress of Brazil, Brasília

Ministries Esplanade with several of Niemeyer's buildings: the National Congress, the Cathedral, the National Museum and the National Library, Brasilia, D.F., 2006

He designed numerous houses that are masterworks of midcentury modernism, with a magical combination of lushness and spareness, and some spectacular high-rise housing and museums. He also played a major role in the design of the United Nations’ headquarters. But nothing in his career equaled Brasilia, the new capital city in the undeveloped center of Brazil whose layout was created by Costa but whose iconic architecture was all designed by Niemeyer. Created in the center of Brazil between 1956 and 1960, Brasilia is profoundly flawed, profoundly beautiful, and profoundly moving—a testament to an entire nation’s belief that the 20th century might truly create a utopian city and that modern architecture could serve as the symbol of Brazil to the world.

Cathedral of Brasília, hyperboloid structure

That Brasilia is anything but a utopia is, of course, not news. With its wide boulevards and buildings set down in open space like pieces of abstract sculpture, it is hard to imagine a place less attuned to what we now consider the key elements of a workable city. But if you go to Brasilia, you know you will not find a place to walk; it is far better to put aside for a moment the knowledge that cities ought to be made of streets, and take Niemeyer’s exquisite, sumptuous structures for what they are: objects of beauty in which people can be, and often are, inspired to believe in the power of architecture.  

A view of the Oscar Niemeyer Museum, the largest museum in Latin America, in Curitiba, the capital city of the state of Parana, Brazil

Now, of course, Brasilia is a vision of the past far more than of the future, and in some ways it feels as archaic, as disconnected from the world in which we live as the classical colonnades of Washington. But Niemeyer lived long enough to see Brasilia admired, fall out of favor, and be admired again as a triumph of mid-20th-century design, which is how it ought to be seen—not as a model for how the world should live or how cities should be built, but as a thing unto itself, a fully realized product of a set of deeply held beliefs that, at least for a period, were shared by an entire national government.

Niemeyer’s architecture of exuberance was all the more striking because his politics were so far away from the lush, indulgent world that his buildings suggest. He was a lifelong communist, with a serious commitment to left-wing politics far greater than that of any of his peers among the world’s major modernist architects, who often tend to be sanctimonious about design and pragmatic about politics. You could almost say that, for Niemeyer, it was the other way around: he kept his somber idealism for the political realm, his pleasure for architecture alone.

he Niterói Contemporary Art Museum

Óscar Niemeyer International Cultural Centre Asturias, Spain

Also see:

Visit http://www.niemeyer.org.br/ and see all his amazing creations worldwide.

Last edited by Dr. N. Subramanian on Tue Feb 12, 2013 3:27 pm; edited 1 time in total
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PostPosted: Sat Dec 08, 2012 7:48 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Dear Sir,
    On seeing your post, I thought I would add that only yesterday, The Hindu newspaper also carried an article on Mr. Oscar Niemeyer. The link to the online copy of the article is http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-picasso-of-concrete/article4171645.ece

Yours sincerely,
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Dr. N. Subramanian
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PostPosted: Sat Dec 08, 2012 5:35 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks Er Arunkumar. Though I read 'The Hindu' online, somehow I missed it.

I like the Title of the nice article that appeared in 'The Hindu'- "The Picasso of concrete"- which also contains 11 slides of the structures created by him. Is there any architect in India, who has created similar structures?

sakumar79 wrote:
Dear Sir,
    On seeing your post, I thought I would add that only yesterday, The Hindu newspaper also carried an article on Mr. Oscar Niemeyer. The link to the online copy of the article is http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-picasso-of-concrete/article4171645.ece

Yours sincerely,
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