A Vision in Concrete

Editor’s Choice: Oscar Niemeyer’s work continues to enchant and appall students of architecture and urban planning.
FORM FOLLOWS FEMININE: Niemeyer's affinity for curves is apparent in the Casa de Baile dance hall, in Pampulha. (Photo by Styliane Philippou, from Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence, Yale)

It was a heroic and inhuman scheme. From 1956 to 1960, Brazil—in an effort to cleanse itself of its colonial past, to flee its burgeoning social afflictions, and to fulfill its long-prophesied emergence as a great power—conjured a new capital, Brasília, on an empty plateau in an endless savanna 3,500 feet above sea level. The city’s planner, the architect Lúcio Costa, found the setting “excessively vast … out of scale, like an ocean, with immense clouds moving over it.” No invented city could accommodate itself to this wilderness. Instead, Costa declared, Brasília would create its own landscape: he devised a city on a scale as daunting as the setting itself. In conformity not with its environment but with those modernist utopian theories of the rational, sterile “Radiant City,” Brasília was not to grow organically but to be born, Costa said, “as if she had been fully grown”—he even refused to visit the site, because he didn’t want reality to impinge on the purity of the original design. Brasília was the first place built to be approached by jet, and the city’s roads—inspired by Robert Moses’s deadening expressways belting New York’s outer boroughs—were like runways. Here was a city without a traffic light, containing thoroughfares without crosswalks. The result was (or should have been) obvious, as Simone de Beauvoir reported after visiting Brasília the year it was inaugurated:

What possible interest could there be in wandering about? … The street, that meeting ground of … passers-by, of stores and houses, of vehicles and pedestrians ... does not exist in Brasília and never will.

Today, the city is quite correctly regarded as a colossally wrong turn in urban planning—but Brasília, paradoxically, contains some of the most graceful modernist government buildings ever produced. All were designed by Oscar Niemeyer (now 100 years old and still working), who helped select Costa’s master plan and who was the creative influence behind the building and shape of the city. Both facts must be considered in any effort to reckon the legacy of Niemeyer—the last great architect of the modernist ascendancy—and his relationship to modernism, a relationship that both spurred and warped his creative achievement.

A crop of books published over the past few years illuminates both Brazil’s extraordinary achievements in modern architecture from the 1930s to the 1960s (Lauro Cavalcanti’s clear and intelligent When Brazil Was Modern and the ambitious if at times pretentious Brazil’s Modern Architecture, edited by Elisa­betta Andreoli and Adrian Forty) and specific aspects of the career of Niemeyer, an architect revered in his country as its greatest living cultural treasure (Oscar Niemeyer: Houses, by Alan Hess, and Modernist Paradise, by Michael Webb, an opulent explication of the only Niemeyer-designed residence built in the United States). These join such older works as Brazil Builds, the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal introduction to Brazilian modernism; Henrique E. Mindlin’s Modern Architecture in Brazil; Norma Evenson’s Two Brazilian Capitals: Architecture and Urbanism in Rio and Brasília; David Underwood’s Oscar Niemeyer and Brazilian Free-Form Modernism; and Niemeyer’s self-indulgent but (intentionally and otherwise) revealing memoir, The Curves of Time.

None of these books approaches Sty­liane Philippou’s forthcoming Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence, one of the richest historical, cultural, and aesthetic assessments of an architect’s work I’ve read. To be sure, Philippou, a British architect and architectural historian, indulges in some academic gobbledygook (that marker of hip academese, “the Other,” makes its appearance far too often), but in authoritatively assessing Niemeyer’s work and its place in architectural and Brazilian cultural history, she has marshaled such diverse subjects as 18th-century colonial Portuguese architecture, bossa nova, the topography and cultural geography of Copacabana Beach, and the design-selection process for the UN headquarters. The book is also a marvel of presentation. Philippou fluidly explicates her narrative and arguments with detailed site diagrams and maps; drawings, plans, and elevations; photographic comparisons of buildings historically linked to Niemeyer’s; and her own lavish, precise photography of Niemeyer’s work, including both general views and details.

THE CASINO in Pampulha
(Photo by Styliane Philippou, from Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence, Yale)

Although he was a disciple of Le Corbusier’s and clearly embraced modernism, Niemeyer, with his love of curves and organic shapes, offered a jaunty alternative to the geometric severity of the International Style (a “monotonous and repetitive architecture … so easy to create that it quickly spread from the United States to Japan,” as he characterizes it in his own, often repetitive, memoir). Confirming Niemeyer’s assertions, Philippou repeatedly shows how eroticism inflected Niemeyer’s approach—“form follows feminine” is one of the architect’s many, somewhat tiresome, pronouncements—and how that approach quite literally grew out of his girl-watching (something of a dirty old man, he’s forever explaining his architecture by sketching women’s breasts and backsides for mock-scandalized journalists). He was obviously also inspired by the undulating beaches and topography of his native Rio de Janeiro (his longtime studio, in the penthouse of an Art Deco landmark building, takes in famously sweeping views of Copacabana and Sugarloaf).

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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