Oscar Niemeyer passed away last night in a Rio de Janeiro hospital just 10 days shy of his 105th birthday. A giant of modernist architecture, Niemeyer’s work has left an enormous impact around the world: the UN complex in New York City, Mondadori’s headquarters in Italy, and the University of Science and Technology in Algiers are just a few of his distinctive works.
Niemeyer was still prolific after his 100th birthday and was involved in several projects even while hospitalized for much of the past several months. He even designed a line of Converse athletic shoes–and like the buildings he started to design in the 1930s and his furniture of the 1960s and 1970s, they celebrated Niemeyer’s ultimate obsession: the curve.
Of course, Niemeyer’s greatest legacy is Brazil’s capital, Brasília, the design of which held fast to Niemeyer’s beliefs about social justice. Revered and reviled, Brasília reveals the tenuous relationship between Niemeyer’s experimental approach to architecture and his inspired devotion to nature.
Niemeyer eschewed the right angle and conformist glass-and-steel structures that defined modern architecture. It was the curve that defined most of Niemeyer’s work including Brasília, the planned city that dragged Brazil kicking and screaming into the 20th century. To Niemeyer, the curve was an embodiment of nature: the incredible mountains that surrounded his native Rio de Janeiro, the city’s glistening beaches and of course, the city’s women, for which Rio has long been famous in popular culture.
Yet Niemeyer’s reverence for the curve and nature, according to many of his critics, was lost in Brasília. The city’s construction, which occurred in four years in what was once the country’s untamed cerrado (savannah or high plains), was a harbinger of Brazil’s eventual emergence on the global scene, and would also become a symbol of the country’s struggle to balance economic development and environmental sustainability. At first glance, Brasília’s master plan was brilliant: government and cultural buildings such as the National Congress and Cathedral of Brasilia demonstrated that South America’s largest country had driven a stake in the ground and was therefore an economic and cultural force to be reckoned with.
Brasília’s problems, however, mounted almost immediately after the city became Brazil’s capital in 1960. The reinforced concrete that comprised most of the city’s buildings allowed for the lofty appearances that gave an impression these structures floated above the ground and were in harmony in nature.
These same buildings, however, had their share of structural problems. And then there was the layout of the city: grand plazas that were supposed to bring Brazilian society together were often empty, imparting social alienation and showcasing a city that was full of compelling ideas but at a core level lacked any soul. What was utopia on paper became dystopia in the middle of nowhere.
Aghast at Brazil’s social inequality and therefore a communist since the 1940s, Niemeyer also decided Brasília’s design had to inspire social justice. The new capital’s design had the goal to unite Brazilians of all statuses and income levels. But the city’s layout (from the air the city resembled a cross, or an airplane) left Brasília’s center far too expensive for most of its residents and outlying areas of the city became infested with slums. The wide streets and cloverleaf interchanges which led to this city of 2.5 million, became devoid of pedestrians.
What is important to remember, however, is that no one had attempted anything like Brasília, ever. Brasília is now a thriving city, and is dealing with its growing pains in part by developing projects that will help make the city more comfortable and sustainable for its residents.
And therein lies the brilliance of Brasília and its lead architect. Niemeyer was always quick to break away from architecture’s conventional norms. He dared to fantasize about how he believed a city and its buildings should be designed; in fact, many of his buildings were the outright result of his dreams. Niemeyer will not be remembered as a “green” architect, but he has left his followers countless lessons about how nature can inspire smarter design. His unrestrained creativity and attempts to use architecture as a way to solve social problems were thought provoking and inspirational. By failing and then picking himself up and working and succeeding into his 80s and 90s, he sparked life lessons applicable to all of us.
This is Leon Kaye’s 700th article for Triple Pundit. Based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).