Published  27/03/2008

That Man from Rio: Celebrating Oscar Niemeyer's Centennial

That Man from Rio: Celebrating Oscar Niemeyer's Centennial

Considered to be Brazil's most important architect, Oscar Niemeyer (b.1907) is also a major figure in the development of modern architecture internationally. He has become a symbol for his country for many reasons: he designed the national capital, Brasília, founded in 1960 and listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site; he drew Brazil onto the global scene with his ideas and designs; and he lived through, witnessed and, of course, contributed to, a century of change in the relationship between human beings and the space surrounding them. A still very active Niemeyer celebrated his hundredth birthday in December 2007, and Brazil's government has declared 2008 'The Oscar Niemeyer Year' in Brazil, with many events planned throughout the country.

Part of the grand celebration, the exhibition 'Oscar Niemeyer Arquiteto Brasileiro Cidadão' (Oscar Niemeyer: Brazilian and Real Citizen Architect) opened in December at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea (MAC) de Niterói in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, in one of Niemeyer's most impressive buildings.1 Conceived by curator Marcus Lontra Costa, the show emphasises the peculiar aesthetic tension that gives Niemeyer's work its strength, with groupings of photographs and graphic conceptions of the architect's works, along with works from some of his main collaborators and from artists influenced by him.

The main core of Niemeyer's vision is evident in two of his often-repeated statements. In the first, Niemeyer expresses his love of the curve and how it could free architectural space: 'It is not the right angle that attracts me, nor the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. What attracts me is the free and sensual curve - the curve that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuous course of its rivers, in the body of the beloved woman'. In the other quotation, the architect reveals his belief in human potential: 'It is not the architecture that is important, but rather the life, the man'. Niemeyer's metaphors may seem, on the surface, simple, but in truth are complex, sometimes contradictory and, in the end, surprising in the structures that Niemeyer built. The curves in the architect's works are not as free as coursing rivers or the body of a lover. They are geometric with symmetrical elements.

Despite the poetry of his artistic philosophy, Niemeyer's main claim to fame rests in his pioneering use of reinforced concrete, a rather conventional material. With reinforced concrete, Niemeyer developed one of his trademarks, the long free span that can be seen in, for instance, his Palácio Itamaraty, Brazil's Foreign Affairs Ministry Palace built in 1960 in Brasília; Brazil's national capital, Brasília itself; the Mondadori Editions Building built in 1968 in Milan; and Université Mentouri Constantine built in 1969 in Constantine, Algeria. These and other projects are represented in the exhibition.2

Niemeyer's span is a straight line. His buildings are composed of rectangles, semi-circles, harmonic curves, ellipses, hyperbolas and abstract forms that impart a sensation of equilibrium. Even the elements inspired by real forms, like the columns of Palácio do Planalto, Brazil's Government Palace, which were inspired by jangada (traditional, rustic boats used in Brazil's northeast region) sails, are geometric. Niemeyer feels geometric forms as natural and simple enough to suggest a sort of semiotic universalism. It is not surprising, then, that Niemeyer's detractors have labelled him a 'sculptor of monuments'.

Resolving this apparent contradiction is Niemeyer's concept of utopia. Unlike Thomas More's vision of a place and state beyond the reach of human effort, Niemeyer's is like that of the modern Hegelian view of 'good order in the future', human beings able to control the natural world. As a modernist architect, Niemeyer wanted to create a spatial utopia, a space without a space, a space that functions as a stage for human actions, not as a place for spectacle. As a Marxist creator of forms, he wanted to recreate the world for the equalization of the men, without the elements of class differentiation of the traditional bourgeois architecture. In Niemeyer's structures, geometric lines, symmetry and all-white and/or all-grey walls and floors lead to a denaturalisation of the architectural space. The idea of denaturalisation is based on a revolt from traditional bourgeois architecture, produced through centuries of repetition during which the style became a standard. Of course, as a Marxist, Niemeyer would aim to create a new standard. In his words, 'To create a project consists of a metaphysical exercise. It is difficult to do a freer architecture, especially because the architect has obligations that move him away from the imagination. But I always think of [French poet Charles] Baudelaire, who said that the main characteristic of beauty is shock, it is to create surprise. That is the architect's obligation'.

The key to understanding Niemeyer's statement, and his work, is the word 'metaphysical'. His choice of the word suggests that the architect's raw material is not only an idea, but a Platonic ideal, or 'Idea'. Niemeyer's designs make explicit a personal but abstract concept of perfection, his attempt to arrive at the truth of something as he understood it. The second part of Niemeyer's statement seems to contradict this notion; that the same architect should operate on a more pragmatic plane, constructing his work based on an acceptance of the tangible world. The most successful of Niemeyer's architectural designs, then, are ones that gracefully balance the tension between his concept of the Ideal and tangible reality. For Niemeyer, the architect can bridge the Ideal world and the physical world, or the world of the senses, through shock, by inserting one world into the other without completely defining either.

The building that houses the MAC de Niterói is a good example of how Niemeyer reconciled his objectives and felt obligations. Originally conceived in 1991 and established in 1996 in a natural platform carved in mountain over the sea in Niterói, the museum is crowned by an enormous cupola over a circled building shaped like an inverted cone trunk. The slope of the trunk follows, exactly, the same angle as Pão de Açúcar mountain on the horizon and is sustained by a central cylindrical platform, composing the shape of a 16-metre-high concrete 'flower', as Niemeyer himself called it. The centennial exhibit is displayed inside the 'flower', with three different sets of works. The first set of works, shown in the central room on the second floor, consists of photos and graphic conceptions of some of the most recent among Niemeyer's projects: for example, a water park in Potsdam, Germany, 2005, not constructed; the Brazilian Embassy in Cuba, 2005, not yet constructed; and a space for the 2003 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion designed for Serpentine Gallery in London.3

In the first set of works, Niemeyer's obsession with a 'new space' is clear. In the German water park, for example, a group of retractile steel and glass cupolas over the swimming pools give a view to the water outside. He designed each unit to connect to the others by a circuit of balconies under a plan roof. Although this project will not be built, it demonstrates Niemeyer's determination to give human beings centre-stage in a relationship with a natural element, in this case water.

Around MAC's central room, a circled corridor surrounded by great panoramic sloping windows will delight visitors with glimpses of a glorious natural setting. Over the corridor gallery, in the walls and on the floor, the next set appears, consisting of structures and designs by artists who worked with Niemeyer, including Candido Portinari (1903-1962), who created the images on the ceiling tiles of Igreja da Pampulha in Minas Gerais, one of the earliest and notable of Niemeyer's works; painter and sculptor Athos Bulcão (b.1918), who created the ceiling tiles of various government buildings in Brasília; and sculptors Bruno Giorgi (1905-1993) and Alfredo Ceschiatti (1918-1989).4

The third part of the exhibition is placed on MAC's third floor and has a historical set with Niemeyer's greatest projects, and others by nine artists, all from the museum's permanent collection.5 Concluded in 1943, Conjunto da Pampulha marks the opening of Niemeyer's individual careerand is so seminal to Niemeyer's trajectory that the exhibition dedicates a special place for it in the historical trajectory contained on this floor, '1940-1943 - Pampulha, o berço' ('Pampulha, the cradle'), showing details of the construction.

Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho was born 15th December 1907 in Rio de Janeiro, then the Brazilian capital. After some detours, he graduated in 1934 from Escola Nacional de Belas Artes as an architect. Soon after his graduation, he became employed in the Lucio Costa and Carlos Leão studio, where he met an innovative group of professionals. In 1937, Brazil's Education and Health Ministry invited the studio to design the Ministry's new building. At the time, the administration of Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas, leading a nationalist trend of modernisation, set a goal for Brazil to be on par with other industrialized nations. The design and construction of the building were performed and overseen by Costa, Leão and architects Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Ernani Vasconcellos, Jorge Moreira and French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Niemeyer worked on the project as an assistant, and the experience, particularly contact with Le Corbusier, was pivotal for his career.

In 1940, invited by then-mayor of Belo Horizonte, Juscelino Kubitschek, Niemeyer took on the design and construction of a new neighbourhood, Conjunto da Pampulha, in one of Brazil's major cities. At this early juncture, denaturalisation appears as an idea for him. For instance, Niemeyer created a church for the city, but instead of a traditional temple with a nave defined by parallel walls, he used reinforced concrete for a sinuous roof in the shape of a parabola. The effect was shocking in the sense promoted by Baudelaire: the Catholic Church refused to bless the building, and some time passed until the local dioceses agreed to do that.

The second set on the third floor, labelled '1943-1953 - Forma livre e organicidade' (Free shapes and organicity') has Conjunto Ibirapuera from 1951, a group of buildings in the largest urban park in São Paulo, Brazil's largest city. Created in 1954 for the 400th anniversary of São Paulo, the Conjunto included Armando Arruda Pereira Pavilion, later named Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, where the Bienal Internacional de Arte de São Paulo has been held and in which Niemeyer used an internal free span to create three large continuous floors. Another project from this period is Niemeyer's home in Rio de Janeiro, Casa das Canoas. Built in 1952, the residence consists of a roof in an abstract shape over a group of mainly glass walls.

The third part of the historical display is '1953-1965 - Brasília, modernidade e eternidade' ('Brasília, modernity and eternity'), the result of Juscelino Kubitschek, who invited Niemeyer to create Pampulha, being elected as president.6 The invitation to design and construct Brasília gave Niemeyer what he needed to give full reign to his ideas. For instance, Congresso Nacional, Brazil's House of Representatives is two structures in the form of bowls placed on different sides of a horizontal box. Between the two bowls, one turned up and one turned down, two vertical, rectangular buildings rise. The entire structure is made up of geometric shapes. The other buildings, Palácio do Planalto, Palácio da Alvorada (Brazil's President Official Residence) and Palácio Itamaraty, for example, are ones in which Niemeyer made use of similar architectural solutions. For the city's cathedral, Niemeyer wanted a clear space with natural lighting, so he designed a circled building composed of abstract elements suggesting the shape of hands pointing to the skies and connected by a group of vitraux, window panes with images composed of differently shaped and coloured pieces of glass.

Next in the historical display comes '1965-1989 - Vivendo os anos de chumbo no exterior e a caminho de uma arquitetura social' ('Living the dictatorship years outside and towards a social architecture'), corresponding to a military dictatorship in Brazil, when Niemeyer lived and worked in other countries. Here visitors will see a building for the French Communist Party in Paris (1967); the Mondadori Editions Building in Milan (1968); and a group of projects for Algeria, such as a mosque in Algiers (1968) with an unconventional geometric shape, conceived to be placed over the sea.

The last group of historical works, labelled 'A partir de 1989 - O museu pessoal e os museus do homem' (From 1989 - The personal museum and the museums for the men), features Niemeyer's last projects: a museum for his own work, the Museu Oscar Niemeyer, in Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil; among them, a complex of exhibitions created in 2002 around a central unity in the shape of an eye, and Caminho Niemeyer (1996) in Niterói, a promenade by the sea that invites visitors to walk among some of the architect's sculptures.

Perhaps it is helpful to consider Niemeyer's works within a historical frame but, ultimately, the sense of space he created for humans to walk amid and master nature transcends time and even space. This sense developed from an idea of beauty, rooted in a practical notion of possibilities here on earth. Given the space he needed to explore his vision, provided by his country's administrators, Niemeyer was able to make a profound mark on his country and help to move it onto the international arena. During the coming year, Brazilians and visitors to the country will have a chance to celebrate his achievements and experience the full range of his vision.

Alexandre Werneck

1. 'Oscar Niemeyer Arquiteto Brasileiro Cidadão' is being shown at two venues, the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói in Rio de Janeiro (9 December 2007 to 30 March 2008) and the Museu Nacional do Conjunto Cultural da República in Brasília (13 March 2008 to 13 April 2008). This article focuses on the exhibit viewed in Rio de Janeiro, but many of the observations made relate to the display in Brasília, as well. The exhibition was conceived by Instituto Tomie Ohtake, located in São Paulo, and the curatorial process involved collaboration between designer Ricardo Ohtake, Niemeyer's grandson, the photographer Kadu Niemeyer, and Oscar Niemeyer.
2. One Niemeyer's future project is the longest free span ever built. With 150 metres, the span will be part of the new State of Minas Gerais Government Palace, located in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil, slated to begin construction this year.
3. To view the pavilion, go to
4. Among Bruno Giorgi's contributions to Niemeyer's projects are the Candangos, an image that is as representative of Brasília as it is of Niemeyer's work as a whole. Candango is the name people used to refer to the workers of Brasília, mostly from Brazil northeastern region, a poor area. The candango became a symbol of the strength of this people. In Bruno Giorgi's sculputure, two eight-metre human figures in bronze with lances guard the space called 'Praça dos Três Poderes', where were placed Palácio do Planalto, Congresso Nacional and Justice Palace. Alfredo Ceschiatti created various public sculptures for Brasília, the angels on the city's cathedral, for example.
5 Among the nine artists, Lygia Clark (1920-1988), Franz Weissmann (1911-2005), Ivan Serpa (1923-1973), Aluísio Carvão (1920-2001) and Ione Saldanha (1919-2001) were part of the Neoconcretism movement that emerged in Brazil in 1959 as a reaction to the 1956 Concrete Movement, proposing the artistic investment in the universal semiotics of the form, mixing abstract geometry and natural shapes. While several Neoconcrete artists acknowledged Niemeyer's influence, there is no historical connection between Niemeyer and Concrete or Neoconcrete statements. The other artists of this set are the sculptor Sérgio Camargo (1930-1990), a contemporary of the Neoconcrete Movement; painter and sculptor Paulo Roberto Leal (1946-1991), who was markedly influenced by the movement; draughtsman Joaquim Tenreiro (1906-1992), who worked for Niemeyer as a mobiliary designer; and painter Beatriz Milhazes (b.1960), whose work involves Brazil's cultural imagery in abstract forms and colours.
6 Niemeyer's Brasília is featured in the 1964 French film L'homme de Rio (That Man from Rio).

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