The Architect of the Future That Never Was

The Architect of the Future That Never Was

Architect Oscar Niemeyer, who died in Rio de Janeiro on Dec. 5 at age 104, was a mythical figure even when alive. In his home country of Brazil, he defined the approved look of a rapidly modernizing nation. And outside Brazil, at least for a decade or so, his buildings embodied what it meant to be modern.

Niemeyer’s major works include the government complex and cathedral in Brasilia, Sao Paulo’s Edificio Copan apartment complex, the headquarters of the French Communist Party, the University of Constantine, and a good portion of the United Nations’ headquarters in New York.

His style was unmistakable: white platonic solids, curves, and black glass, all set on podia, aloof from the world. Nobody did Niemeyer like Niemeyer. But outside Brazil, he was not always taken seriously. European architects, most famously Swiss modernist Max Bill, thought his work both frivolous and inhumane, while Americans were uneasy about his lifelong communism. At home, despite his unassailable position with the political elite, there were quiet, but persistent, complaints about the quality of his later work. And throughout the world, as fashions in urban planning have come to favor walkability, environmental sensitivity, and organic growth, Brasilia has often become a buzzword for the impractical, utopian ideas of the past: a white marble monument to central planning surrounded by slums. Is there anything worth salvaging from Niemeyer’s complex legacy?

I met Niemeyer in 2001 on a visit to Rio. A local friend put me in touch with him, and we secured an appointment at his Copacabana office. We were shown to a desk adorned with a large black-and-white photograph of two young women lying on their backs, naked. A tiny, prune-like man in a crisp shirt greeted us — Niemeyer. Chain-smoking cigars throughout the meeting, he was charm itself. He showed us a funny animated film in which he arrived from outer space in a flying saucer that, on landing, became the new Museu de Arte Contemporanea in Niteroi. We talked about his latest work, jazz, beer, women (the inspiration for all those curves), and Brasilia. Brazil’s capital was to be the centerpiece of my trip, and I’d planned a week there. A week? Niemeyer laughed. I was mad, he said. A day was quite enough.

The remark about Brasilia stayed with me because it revealed a strangely casual attitude toward the capital, the site of his greatest work. Brasilia’s first phase was built from 1957 to 1960 in a frenzy of nationalist modernization. One of the world’s largest-ever construction projects, Brasilia represented "50 years’ progress in five" according to then-President Juscelino Kubitschek, the capital’s chief advocate.

Niemeyer’s diffidence about Brasilia was odd. Moreover, it seemed to suggest how little he thought about his buildings once erected. All architects have this fault to some degree, but Niemeyer was an exaggerated case. How his buildings performed in reality — their condition, their maintenance — was of little concern. He was an artist, and his job was to create new forms, which he did, prolifically. Unsurprisingly, given this attitude, his works can be problematic for those who have to use them on a day-to-day basis. In Brasilia, the famous cathedral, all glass in a city with one of the world’s highest indices of sunshine, turns into a furnace, a literal hell, in summer (perhaps intentionally so — Niemeyer was an atheist). The ministry buildings align perfectly so that one face is blasted by the heat in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Some high-ranking officials are said to have two offices, one for each part of the day.

The shortcomings in the performance of these buildings drew early critics’ attention to other problems in the capital’s design. It was a city of freeways for a population of people who mostly did not yet have cars; a city of organized socialization in a society that loved spontaneity; a city that was already falling to pieces less than a decade after it was built. A mischievous 1967 article in the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects depicted a city of ruins, raw sewage pouring untreated from apartment blocks, the city’s museum inundated. It was a terrible sight, one that set the tone for at least two decades as Brasilia’s utopian promise evaporated. As Brazil’s economy labored in the late 1960s, foreigners visited the city not in search of a miracle, but the sublime spectacle of modernity ruined. A slew of highly skewed anthropological studies followed. In Brasilia: Plan and Reality (1968), an American academic, David Epstein, described a city of garbage-strewn slums, patrolled by feral dogs. By the late 1960s, architecture for the most part moved on. There’s barely a mention of Brasilia in the international architectural press from 1970 onward.

Even Niemeyer could admit to the city’s difficulties. In 2008, at age 100, he complained to the Guardian that the city had grown beyond his vision. "The way Brasilia has evolved, it has problems. It should have stopped growing some time ago. Traffic is becoming more difficult; the number of inhabitants has surpassed the target; limits are being exceeded."

Holding Niemeyer responsible for all the capital’s urban-planning failings is a bit unfair. Although often discussed as if he were the city’s primary designer, in the mold of Pierre L’Enfant with Washington or Baron Haussmann with modern Paris, Niemeyer’s relationship with Brasilia is actually far more ambiguous. He was employed from the start by Kubitschek to build a presidential palace and the government buildings, but (calmly ignoring the results of an international architectural competition) employed his friend Lucio Costa to do the street plan. It is Costa who was in effect responsible for most of the lived city.

Adapting Le Corbusier’s 1920s urbanism, Costa built a rigidly zoned city, with separate areas for work, residence, and play. Costa was extremely talented, and the city plan is beautiful by any standards (from space, it looks like a bird). But he made two mistakes: He assumed everyone would be middle class, so there is literally no room for the poor; and he assumed that the city, once finished, would not grow. Costa was an idealist and an aesthete, and much as he admired organic form, organic growth — city growth — was intolerable.

Niemeyer certainly shared Costa’s antipathy to uncontrolled development. His aims were purely aesthetic and limited to the Eixo Monumental (Monumental Axis), the central avenue where the most important government buildings are located. He aimed to create a sense of surrealist spectacle that would literally "shock and surprise" visitors out of their everyday lives. This he certainly achieved in the otherworldly Square of the Three Powers, an astonishingly inventive set piece that simultaneously invokes neoclassicism and Hollywood science fiction, while being entirely sui generis. There is nowhere on Earth like it.

Niemeyer’s communism had him fall foul of the authorities by the late 1960s. During the post-Kubitschek military dictatorship, he left for Paris, where he built the French Communist Party’s headquarters — partly, one suspects, out of revenge. After he returned to Rio in the 1980s following the fall of the dictatorship, Niemeyer’s career developed a studied casualness. Pre-Brasilia, Niemeyer was photographed earnestly poring over drawings, brow furrowed, hard at work. Post-Brasilia, he was the artist-playboy, dabbling in poetry, sketching the girls of Copacabana, magically designing buildings before lunch. It was a good life — and Niemeyer was supremely good at it — but it did not always produce good buildings. Outside the now pristine capital, Niemeyer’s work is frequently undermined by poor craftsmanship and materials or inadequate maintenance. (And boy does it need maintaining: Brazil’s humid coastal climate does terrible things to Niemeyer’s preferred material, concrete.) The 1996 Museu de Arte Contemporanea is a case in point. Lauded by the world’s architectural press, it looks superb at a distance. Up close, it’s a terrible bodge job, a first-grader’s approximation of a flying saucer.

Niemeyer took no notice of such criticisms. In any case, by then he was decisively back in fashion. His species of sculptural modernism turned out to be perfectly suited for cities in our contemporary globalized economy, anxious to differentiate themselves through new icons. What Frank Gehry did with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1996 to such acclaim, Niemeyer had in fact been doing for years in Brazil. His understanding of architecture as icon was peerless, and a new generation of icon-builders, Zaha Hadid especially, has acknowledged Niemeyer as a prime influence. New professional honors followed, along with new commissions outside Brazil, including a spectacular 2010 cultural center for Avilés, Spain.

Meanwhile, Niemeyer went on building in the capital until the end of his life. His last buildings to be realized, both in 2006, were the National Museum and a branch of the National Library, both ostensibly functional buildings, but both in reality giant sculptures, located — to the annoyance of many architects — right in the middle of the Monumental Axis. A huge white dome and a great slab on pilotis, they are as spectacular as anything Niemeyer ever built, but literally and figuratively empty, signifiers really only of themselves. In many ways they represent the closing of the first chapter in Brasilia’s history. As Niemeyer built, the city around him turned itself into a successful metropolis of 4 million. It is now a far larger, more complex, and frankly more interesting place than he ever imagined. Niemeyer’s planned city is still the symbolic heart of Brasilia, but it has become a sort of modernist Upper East Side: wealthy, old, and rather dull.

Meanwhile, the satellite city of Taguatinga, originally home of the construction workers who built Brasilia and for years a bastion of poverty on the edge of the well-planned capital, has become the economic motor of the new metropolis. That’s where the action is these days — with a thriving private sector, cultural institutions, and vibrant neighborhoods growing outside the original core.

Niemeyer’s Brasilia belongs increasingly to the past.