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Oscar Niemeyer, Communism and Brasilia

Architecture as Invention

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Deyan Sudjic, writing in The Independent (Dec 7), proclaimed that, “Oscar Niemeyer had the vision our leaders lack.” Sudjic’s manner was scolding, ticking off British attitudes to the transformative nature of architecture.  The attitude of an indifferent Prince of Wales was symptomatic – “tasteless enough to compare the efforts of Britain’s architects to remodel contemporary London to those of the Luftwaffe to do the same job during the Second World War.”

Other papers noted the Brazilian’s distinct style – “distinctive and frequently curvy” extolled The Guardian (Dec 5).  Many tributes side stepped his politics.  Few dared mention the dreaded “C” word.  Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post (Dec 6), confessed that Niemeyer “was one of my heroes” – but wait, not “for his politics of course – he was, to the end, an avowed communist – but for this glorious buildings, which are freedom itself, sketched in concrete and glass.”

Such writers effectively divorce the architect from political identity, a true nonsense to begin with.  For one thing, Niemeyer’s communism is relegated to a footnote, a difficult thing to consider given that he was president of the Brazilian Communist Party between 1992 and 1996 and fled into exile because of those beliefs.  A figure such as Niemeyer did not see his work in a vacuum – any architect of worth would surely abhor such an idea. But even more striking has been the attempt to see “freedom” in its non-communist sense.

As for Niemeyer himself, no architecture could in itself “disseminate any political ideology.” That said architecture could be part of the social program, a struggle in favour of a social program.  “I am a man like any other one, who struggles against social injustice, with the same conviction born 70 years ago” (Businessweek, Dec 6).

Niemeyer the builder was a freedom lover, and his communism was surely inconsistent with that.  At least, according to such figures as Robinson.  “It is ironic that a man committed to an atheistic ideology designed one of the great religious structures of the world, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady Aparecida”.  It should be palpably obvious to Robinson that “atheistic” ideologies tend to create their own churches – the anti-religious are notoriously pious, disposed to rituals of observance.  Humanity’s link with the cosmos is a hard one to sever.  And, as Niemeyer would himself confess, the link with capitalism was even harder to abandon.

The great achievement for Niemeyer – bestriding the age of the God architect, the divine urban planner – was Brasilia, the issue of such ideas as Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse and a wild futuristic space or urban planning.  Every significant building on the site that Niemeyer initially described as “the end of the world” bore his mark.  His work remains a masterpiece of modernist fantasy, with a defiantly floating elegance.

With a structural radicalism in design, Niemeyer managed to push the technical envelope.  The parliament itself is but one example – upturned and downturned saucers that give it a sense of suspension.  Concrete brutalism is avoided in favour of “sensual curves”.  Brazil, metaphorically envisaged as a curved, sinuous beauty, fed his art.

The political project did not match the architectural genius.  Brasilia remains a city of isolation – at least in so far as politicians and bureaucrats are concerned.  Many societies prefer to see their functionaries banished to remote spots to govern (Canberra comes to mind for the Australian example).  The results of this policy are often mixed – we deserve the remote politicians we get.

In the case of Brasilia, most of the pen pushers tend to return to Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro for their weekends.  The city is not exactly a model of egalitarianism, being ringed by shanty towns.  Even Niemeyer had to concede that Brasilia became a city “constructed as a showcase of capitalism – everything for a few on a world stage” (Telegraph, Dec 6).  The theme was development, and more development, an idea of Juscelino Kubitschek to open the interior after his election as President in 1956.

The same could be said of his other projects, a mixture of works for the public and private good.  500 of them in all, he designed for a variety of clients, from the University of Constantine to Renault.  The United Nations headquarters in New York, designed in a difficult collaboration with Le Corbusier, also bears his mark.  His desire for a wide square was rejected by a more senior Le Corbusier.  “Today I deplore to have consented.  The United Nations square has disappeared, and the project has been definitely damaged” (Businessweek, Dec 6).

There is no neutral terrain on Niemeyer’s work.  One recoils, or embraces.  One is stunned and baffled.  Most of all, one is impressed – the daring inventor who breached boundaries because he felt they did not exist.  The dreamer is dead – long live the dreamer.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com