Thursday, December 6, 2012

Oscar Niemeyer: The Last of the Titans

In the world of international architecture a Titan has passed.  Oscar Niemeyer (above) was the last of three men who shaped the look and feel of Brazil.  Niemeyer along with Lucio Costa,(right) the Planner of Brasilia and Roberto Burlemarx, Landscape Architect Extraordinaire (bottom right) leave a legacy of artistry, fascination that have influenced architecture, design and planning throughout the educated world.  Niemeyer died yesterday at the age of 104.

As a young man influenced by what I saw, there were no more beautiful shapes than those that I discovered in the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer.  There was a certain appeal to the curves and the lack of traditional approach that he took in balancing the void with mass.  I always wanted to be an architect and by the time that I came around to retraining, I was more in love with the organic designs that his colleague, Roberto Burlemarx, brought to Landscape Architecture.  Much later on, I learned of the role of Lucio Costa who was also an architect but who served to instigate the framework of design and social culture that would hold in place the plan for Brazil's capital of Brasilia.

What had been a jungle was bulldozed to create the plateau that served to hold the all the government buildings and housing for this, then developing country under the leadership of Juscelino Kubitschek.  The vision was extraordinary, the reality hard for a growing country that still is facing so many challenges.  As a kid I watched the French version of James Bond, the 1964 action thriller titled That Man from Rio.  Jean Paul Belmondo was great traipsing through a construction site that was the Brasilia backdrop for the film.  The structures shown reflected a concept in architecture that was so futuristic and modern that it almost felt we were on another planet with the red earth everywhere and stark white buildings.  His buildings today are still futuristic because even at almost 105 Niemeyer never gave up.  After years in exile in Paris while his beloved Brazil suffered under radical right wing politics he returned and gave one of his most modern buildings of all: the Niteroi Museum of Modern Art.  

Many years later through friendships while on Christmas Holiday in Paris I was invited to spend my next Christmas holidays in Brazil.  It was a magical month of discovery for not only did I get to see and enjoy the company of great people but I was able to pursue my loves in Architecture and Landscape Architecture in Paradise.  Thus in 2006 I spent all of December discovering a country that has always fascinated me.  Enjoy some images from that trip and regale yourself in the design and mystique of a renown world architect.

A trip up a mountainside to his residence built in 1953 in Canoas in the jungle called "Barra de Tijuca proved to be a wonderful escape from the December heat of Rio and a discovery of things to come.  A modest three bedroom home with basic amenities but rich in design, concept and setting.

Living room dining room with the boulder laying the way pretty much like at Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water where the hearth is a natural boulder.

Models and drawings furnished most of the bedrooms but would prove images to remember the in the days and weeks to come traveling.  Left drawing of Brasilia, Middle Niteroi Art Museum, Right Model Brasilia Cathedral.

Perched like a Flying Saucer over Guanabara Bay in the neighboring community of Niteroi this is to Rio what the Guggenheim is to New York City, the only difference is that it faces the landscape with art on the inside: a much better trick but unfortunately the  landscape competing with the art almost always wins.

The design for Brasilia was inspired by a bird with wings spread.  The green center are the government buildings on axis not unlike the Washington mall terminating in the National Congress Building.  The yellow represents housing and commercial corridors.  Lacking implementation was a rapid rail system.  

The Congress building with its dome and bowl symbols of government is an uniquely modern building with tunnels connecting beyond the perimeter into office complex out of view of the grand axis.

In place of a West Wing, Niemeyer decided that the president should have a separate office building for all the functions of state.  These buildings border a massive open space that unfortunately is hotter than hell and unwelcoming because of lack of shade.  Burlemarx who designed the landscape in and around the buildings was limited from obscuring the grand axis with vegetation.  

The Brazilian White House like all other Brazilian government buildings is modern and owes no historic obedience to ancient cultures, rather it is a symbol of what was perceived to be a future where all would enjoy the great fruits to come. 

Along the mall are situated a whole variety of projects undertaken by Niemeyer over the decades.  The Brasilia Cathedral (above) is a remarkable over sized Tepee like structure that sits below grade.  All that is seen from above is the stain glass frame puncturing the white terrace.

Like in Washington DC  the greats are commemorated with monuments in Brasilia.  Here is the Monument to Juscelino Kubitschek who modernized Brazil and helped place it on the road to the economic giant it has become.  Oscar Niemeyer honored his patron with a rather grand but seldom visited monument.

The Central Exhibition Hall fortunately for me was honoring Oscar Niemeyer's 98 birthday when I visited this over sized futuristic igloo also designed by him.

Oscar Niemeyer was not allowed entrance into the United States to the lucrative and prestigious teaching market done by architects because he was a lifelong Communist.  Yet, there was no more a democratic proponent of architecture with designs that evoked a dependence on regularity  by repetition of basic elements that harnessed an egalitarian but provocative effect.    In spite of his repudiation by our government he still managed to win the highest prizes in architecture, designed the United Nations New York World Headquarters and who knows how many other prestigious buildings worldwide.  

Before Frank Gehry thought of sensual curvy buildings, Oscar Niemeyer was building them. "Right angles don’t attract me. Nor straight, hard and inflexible lines created by man,” Niemeyer wrote in  his "The Curves of Time," his 1998 memoir. "What attracts me are free and sensual curves. The curves we find in mountains, in the waves of the sea, in the body of the woman we love."  Oscar Niemeyer was a man way ahead of his time!

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