FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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

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

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
March 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Trump is Obama’s Legacy: Will this Break up the Democratic Party?
Eric Draitser
Donald Trump and the Triumph of White Identity Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nothing Was Delivered
Andrew Levine
Ryan’s Choice
Joshua Frank
Global Coal in Freefall, Tar Sands Development Drying Up (Bad News for Keystone XL)
Anthony DiMaggio
Ditching the “Deep State”: The Rise of a New Conspiracy Theory in American Politics
Rob Urie
Boris and Natasha Visit Fantasy Island
John Wight
London and the Dreary Ritual of Terrorist Attacks
Paul Buhle
The CIA and the Intellectuals…Again
David Rosen
Why Did Trump Target Transgender Youth?
Vijay Prashad
Inventing Enemies
Ben Debney
Outrage From the Imperial Playbook
Michael J. Sainato
Bernie Sanders’ Economic Advisor Shreds Trumponomics
Bill Willers
Volunteerism; Charisma; the Ivy League Stranglehold: a Very Brief Trilogy
Lawrence Davidson
Moral Failure at the UN
Pete Dolack
World Bank Declares Itself Above the Law
Nicola Perugini - Neve Gordon
Israel’s Human Rights Spies
Patrick Cockburn
From Paris to London: Another City, Another Attack
Ralph Nader
Reason and Justice Address Realities
Ramzy Baroud
‘Decolonizing the Mind’: Using Hollywood Celebrities to Validate Islam
Colin Todhunter
Monsanto in India: The Sacred and the Profane
Louisa Willcox
Grizzlies Under the Endangered Species Act: How Have They Fared?
Norman Pollack
Militarization of American Fascism: Trump the Usurper
Pepe Escobar
North Korea: The Real Serious Options on the Table
Brian Cloughley
“These Things Are Done”: Eavesdropping on Trump
Sheldon Richman
You Can’t Blame Trump’s Military Budget on NATO
Carol Wolman
Trump vs the People: a Psychiatrist’s Analysis
Stanley L. Cohen
The White House . . . Denial and Cover-ups
Farhang Jahanpour
America’s Woes, Europe’s Responsibilities
Joseph Natoli
March Madness Outside the Basketball Court
Bruce Mastron
Slaughtered Arabs Don’t Count
Ayesha Khan
The Headscarf is Not an Islamic Compulsion
Pauline Murphy
Unburied Truth: Exposing the Church’s Iron Chains on Ireland
Ron Jacobs
Music is Love, Music is Politics
Christopher Brauchli
Prisoners as Captive Customers
M. Shadee Malaklou
An Open Letter to Duke University’s Class of 2007, About Your Open Letter to Stephen Miller
Robert Koehler
The Mosque That Disappeared
Franklin Lamb
Update from Madaya
Dan Bacher
Federal Scientists Find Delta Tunnels Plan Will Devastate Salmon
Barbara Nimri Aziz
The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On?
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Marines to Kill Desert Tortoises
Louis Proyect
What Caused the Holodomor?
Max Mastellone
Seeking Left Unity Through a Definition of Progressivism
Charles R. Larson
Review: David Bellos’s “Novel of the Century: the Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables”
David Yearsley
Ear of Darkness: the Soundtracks of Steve Bannon’s Films
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail