Celebrated Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer once said: in architecture, the most important thing is astonishment. And astonished is exactly what Yuri Gagarin must have felt when he visited Niemeyer’s Brasília. The pioneering Soviet cosmonaut likened the experience to landing on a different planet. He meant it as a compliment, of course, and many other people before him must have felt the same way.
The Brazilian capital is so out-of-place it seemed to have landed in the country’s vast, dry interior aboard a meteor. Brasília’s architecture was (and still is) forward-looking, a bold statement from a designer who tried to find the forms of tomorrow. Nothing of the same has been done before anywhere on earth. The curves, according to Niemeyer – who passed away in December last year at the age of 104 – were inspired by none other than Brazil itself: ‘Its mountains, its rivers, its ocean, and the body of the beloved woman,’ he wrote in his 2000 memoir. Indeed all Niemeyer had to do was to look outside the window of his Rio office, stare at the Sugarloaf Peak, the women bathing at the Copacabana Beach, and he had his next architectural masterpiece.
Few architects were able to summon such design vision. Niemeyer’s Brasília was daring, sculptural, colourful and, in some cases, seemed to defy the very laws of physics – exactly what Brazil needed to declare itself. Its choice of location is as symbolic. Brasília’s importance, it is said, is confined not only to its modernist architecture, but also to its strategic role in integrating a vast yet fragmented nation.
It was in 1956 when Niemeyer was invited by Brazil’s new president Juscelino Kubitschek to design the civic buildings for Brazil’s new capital, and along with Lúcio Costa as chief urban planner and Roberto Burle Marx as landscape designer, they were tasked to build a new city far from any existing ones, 600 miles from then-capital Rio de Janeiro in the south-eastern coast, and sitting atop a 3,000-foot plateau in Brazil’s central Highlands. The city was inaugurated in 1960, the same year it became the country’s capital.
In an obituary written by British architect Norman Foster, he described Brasília as not simply designed but choreographed. ‘Each of its fluidly composed pieces seems to stand, like a dancer, on its points frozen in a moment of absolute balance.’
But despite Brasília’s seemingly elitist, modernist and futuristic tones – from the bowl-shaped domes of the National Congress of Brazil, the columns of the Cathedral of Brasilia, to the bone-like concrete columns of the Palácio da Alvorada – Niemeyer’s choice of material was quite utilitarian: reinforced concrete. In fact, it was this very choice that made the creation of the structures possible.
Niemeyer loved concrete for its plasticity. He believed it could be painted in luminous colours or decorated or shaped in any way. But above all, he loved it for the fact that it demanded unskilled labour. For Niemeyer, an avowed socialist, concrete meant the liberation both of buildings and of men.
This same ideology (and his association with Communist Party of Brazil) cost Niemeyer much. When a military dictatorship swept over Brazil, he was forced into exile in 1966 and opened an office in Paris that same year. He found customers in diverse countries during his time in France. He designed the University of Science and Technology-Houari Boumediene in Algeria, and the headquarters of the French Communist Party in Paris and of the Mondadori publishing company in Milan, Italy. He also designed furniture produced by Mobilier International. Though far away from his motherland, his designs during his exile evoked the same beauty of Brazil that inspired him to design in the first place.
His leftist inclination didn’t escape criticism for his work, however. Some critics argued that Niemeyer’s designs had a bourgeois character, and therefore were the antithesis of the very ideology he adhered to. But Niemeyer was sceptical about architecture’s ability to change an unjust society. According to him, activism should be undertaken politically and that simplifying architecture to such purposes would be anti-modern.
He was also an atheist throughout his life, though it never stopped him from designing religious structures. Indeed, in designing the Cathedral of Brasília, one of his most acclaimed works, his intention was for the large stained-glass windows to ‘connect the people to the sky, where their Lord’s paradise is’, although he never believed one minute of it.
He returned to Brazil in the early 1980s when the country’s dictatorship ended under João Figueiredo’s rule. At that time he designed the Memorial Juscelino Kubitschek, the Pantheon and the Latin American Memorial. Brasilia was then declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Niemeyer, meanwhile, was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1988, at the age of 81.
He designed at least two more buildings in Brasilia in the 1990s: the Memorial do Povos Indegenas (Memorial for the Indigenous People) and the Catedral Militar, Igreja de N.S. da Paz. Then he again stunned the design world with his Niterói Museum of Contemporary Art in Niterói, a city next to Rio and offers a spectacular view of the city and Guanabara Bay.
Niemeyer often said that he was strongly influenced by Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (with whom he collaborated, along with other architects from around the world, in the design of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City). It was from Le Corbusier that Niemeyer learned to design according to the principles of full-width strip windows, rigid sun shading, roof gardens, pilotis (columns raising a building above the ground), and, most important of all, free-forming plans within a grid of columns.
But he also said that that admiration didn’t stop him from pursuing a different direction. ‘Niemeyer added to these advantages a tremendous exploitation of free form, greater perhaps than that deployed by Le Corbusier himself,’ Foster wrote. As Le Corbusier observed years later: ‘From the outset Niemeyer knew how to give full freedom to the discoveries of modern architecture.’
Foster, recalling his meeting with Niemeyer in 2011, wrote that it seems absurd to describe a 104-year-old as youthful, but his energy and creativity were an inspiration. He said that ‘architecture is important, but that life is even more so. What matters is to improve human beings.’