"Oscar, you always have the mountains of Rio in your eyes." -Le Corbusier
The passion for modern design in Brazil hits you the moment you arrive. Common objects like telephone booths have futuristic—and functional—shapes. Personalized sidewalks are everywhere, varied and patterned, and dramatic modern structures pepper the urban landscape. It's also a very tropical place, where flora, fauna, Samba and sensual delight come at you from all angles. You have to love a country that has an international airport named after a musician (the Tom Jobim Airport in Rio de Janeiro). Another feature is the use of curves which are woven into the fabric of everyday objects and buildings, a refreshing alternative from the rectangular forms we often associate with modernism. There are numerous modern design stories to be related from Brazil, but one story eclipses all others: the work of Oscar Niemeyer and his curvaceous sensibility.
If there is a country or culture in which an architect has had greater influence than Niemeyer has had in Brazil, we are unaware of it. He is equally recognized internationally, having completed major work in many countries and having worked abroad as an exile from Brazil. Niemeyer, still active while turning 100 this December, remains an ardent Communist. His politics have at times prevented him from obtaining a U.S. visa, precluding his teaching at Yale and building a presence in the States. Best known for overseeing the design of an entire city, Brasilia, with his partner and teacher Lucio Costa, Niemeyer also designed zoological gardens and a university in Algeria, Mondadori's editorial office in Milan, and a job center in France. And he was a leading influence, along with Le Corbusier, behind the United Nations plan in New York. These photos help to give some sense of the sensuality and majesty of the place.
Niemeyer's influence struck us as we were flying into São Paolo; even common Brazilian tourist guides contain many references to his work. His mastery pops up unexpectedly everywhere, as in the Ibirapuera Park in São Paolo, designed 50 years ago to celebrate the city's 400th birthday. We meandered around a covered, curved, concrete walkway that pleases strollers and delights skateboarders. Niemeyer is a Carioca (from Rio) and, fittingly, designed the stadium where the Carnaval performances are judged. In the same area is an avenue named after him. City buses in nearby Niteroi carry graphic gestures of his work. We visited the Niteroi Museum, which ranks as one of Niemeyer's most iconic works and, in terms of dramatic impact, falls somewhere in between the Frank Lloyd Wright and Gehry Guggenheim museums. You have to walk around the building in the light and breeze and dramatic landscape to fully appreciate this building in its context.
It is curious that Niemeyer's work gets such minimal exposure in the United States. Architects know him, of course—he was a Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate in 1988—but beyond serious modern design circles, he seems underrepresented. Besides his politics, which may explain the lack of his buildings in the United States, one reason for his absence may be that his work confronts the logic and rationale of the more well-known apostles of modernism: Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. The clues lie in the flowing and almost surreal nature of his work and the sensual side that has to be experienced physically to be appreciated. Niemeyer addressed his passion for curves and tendency toward a baroque and tropical modernism in the following verse:
It's not the right angle that attracts me,
Nor the hard, inflexible straight line
Created by man.
It's the free and sensual curve that seduces me,
The curve I can see in the mountains of my country,
In the sinuous curve of the rivers,
On the sea waves,
On the body of the favorite woman.
The universe is all made of curve,
Einstein's curved universe.
From My Architecture, 2000
Niemeyer’s perspective helps to keep us from becoming too boxed in about modern design. What is it about curves that architecture and design critics find difficult to appreciate in the context of modernism? I’m interested in your perspective.
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