Architect Niemeyer rarely lost sight of buildings' users

John Conti
| Friday, Jan. 4, 2013

When Oscar Niemeyer died in Rio de Janeiro last month at the age of 104, most people not involved with architecture had never heard of him, and probably many who had were surprised to find out that he was still around.

He was one of the giants of modern architecture in the mid-20th century and most famous for having designed the government buildings in Brasilia, the town carved out of an empty plain in central Brazil in the 1950s and '60s to create a totally new capital for that country.

Niemeyer was, in a sense, one of the poets of architectural modernism. While he embraced the ideology of the early modernists — a self-confident optimism that they could somehow engineer-away society's ills with their rational, rectilinear planning — he couldn't escape his own life-long fascination with a freer architecture full of curves.

It showed in his sculptural buildings, which sometimes extended their dominant curves into the landscapes around them.

He liked his buildings to include elements of surprise and inventiveness, and he was not shy about instilling a bit of amazement in those who experienced his architecture.

He came to endorse plasticity and lightness in structure as his career progressed. Never interested in mere functionalism, he was once known to say, in opposition to the modernist mantra that “form follows function,” that “form follows beauty.” While he often used the arbitrarily bold abstractions of modernism in his buildings, he also claimed to design by thinking of the people inside his buildings. “When I design a church, I try to put myself in the place of the people who will be inside to pray,” he said.

For all that, though, he was frequently criticized for some of the shortcomings of Brasilia. Much of the government center consists of long, regular rows of huge rectangular buildings designed to house — and they, quite frankly, look like they house — immense government bureaucracies. Looming over vast empty plazas and bordered by modern high-speed highways, they have been viewed as crystalline incarnations of 20th-Century urban alienation.

These buildings for the government's various ministries, though, contrast sharply with his other government center buildings for the national congress and especially with the Cathedral of Brasilia. Included in the long mall of prominent government buildings, the Cathedral consists of a circular sheaf of concrete beams that slope inward, appearing to be gathered at about two-thirds of their height, where they then splay out dramatically. The space between the beams is filled with glass — most of it is clear, but some is colored to show abstract, river-like, meandering ribbons of blue encircling the structure.

Though he is certainly most famous for Brasilia, the lyrical Niemeyer is usually found elsewhere — especially in some of his houses and his churches. His own house, built outside of Rio in 1953 is almost all free-form curves, with no right-angled rooms and only a few straight lines. Glass-walled, and with seemingly floating roofs, it interconnects the inside and the tropical landscape outside.

Many of his works showed how international modernism could be fused with Latin American cultural traditions — modernistic churches, for example, heavily decorated with colorful mosaics. He successfully merged what one critic refers to as “the universal and the local,” showing the way to adapting modernism for local landscape, climate and culture.

Niemeyer's work in the United States was limited. He designed a well-regarded house on the West Coast, but, during his prime, in the Cold War years, he wasn't able to get a visa to travel here because of his long-time association with the Communist Party in Brazil. Nevertheless, he was hugely influential in the committee of architects who designed the United Nations headquarters in New York City in the late 1940s, and he acollaborated on the design for the Brazilian Pavilion for the 1939 World's Fair in New York.

Niemeyer continued working into his 90s. He is appreciated today for the inventiveness and boldness of his best designs, and his work is viewed as an inspiration for students. He is seen by some as an architect who bridges the gap between the icons of old European modernism — such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — and the so-called “star architects” of today. Like today's “stars,” he was never afraid to “show off” with his dramatically sculptural architecture. But, he almost always infused his designs with a commitment to a building's purpose and location that is sometimes missing in bold architecture today.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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