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“Fear and Seduction in Brasilia” - Read Raymund Ryan on Oscar Niemeyer

Published: Monday, December 10, 2012

[Church of St Francis of Assisi, Pampulha, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Photos by Miriam Dunn]

Remembering Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012)

As the world mourns the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) – the world’s last of the generation of great Modernist architects – here is a chance to read Raymund Ryan’s essay “Fear and Seduction in Brasilia”, published in Irish Architect (Architecture Ireland) in Jan 2001 (163).  If RIAI Members have any interesting photos of Niemeyer's work, we would like to add them to this article. Please email to Sandra O'Connell

Fear and Seduction in Brasilia

By Raymund Ryan

The Lonely Planet guide to Brazil lists three quotations about Brasilia. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin – and there is something retro-progressive about both the word "cosmonaut" and the 40-year-old capital originally planned by Lúcio Costa – had "the impression [of]…arriving on another planet". Robert Hughes, the Australian art critic unusually alert to urban issues, referred to Brasilia as a "utopian horror". And then there’s Oscar Niemeyer. The designer of Brasilia’s most important institutions likened his architecture to the curves of a lover’s body.

From high above, Brasilia spreads below in orderly lines to the north of a large artificial lake and bifurcates to either side of a grand spinal mall. Airplane passengers can easily distinguish the serial government ministries and such Niemeyer-designed monuments as the gleaming Congress Building with its flying saucer domes and twin office towers. But the conurbation has also leapfrogged in splotches across the flat red earth beyond the central city, growing from a population close to zero in 1957 to one and a half million today. Many residents thus live far from the Brasilia of architecture’s history books and political photo opportunities.

Seemingly happy to waste space, at least European or Asian concepts of space, this is a city providing little shade, for pedestrians, from either architectural elements or foliage. Each side of the mall linking the government institutions is a six-lane highway with sporadic VWs and many public buses trundling towards Brasilia’s own Edge City. With the ground plane cut into, ramped and bridged to prioritise rapid traffic flow, pedestrians and architectural tourists can easily be stranded amid the asphalt and concrete and change in levels. No wonder visitors are constantly advised to take taxis (taxis, incidentally, at North American prices).

The central node of this futuristic city is a multi-layered bus station with motorway tunnels and vast concrete overpasses; not even Rem Koolhaas has dreamt of something so ‘planetary’ as this. The buses follow Brasilia’s supermodern address code with zones subdivided into blocks, then lots, somewhat like a Japanese city, and destinations referred to not by landmarks or orthodox street names but by abbreviated letters and numbers.

Erupting from this terrain, Niemeyer’s individual buildings are occasionally stunning. The surreal abstraction evident in photographs is maintained in reality as fragments of what are, in essence, inhabited sculptures slip into view above highway embankments…to be silhouetted against the blue inland sky. They are also dramatically floodlit at dusk. Niemeyer seems to have aimed for a kind of Science Fiction Baroque, a representation of the "developing nation" at once futuristic and ornamental.

At the Itamaraty Palace, Brazil’s Department of Foreign Affairs, long-span volumes overlap each other as a seductive box-of-tricks, with one extraordinary stairs carving down to flow into an auditorium, another spiralling upwards to hook onto a broad mezzanine. One can only speculate what Minister Cowen’s opposite number makes of all this theatricality. The uppermost floor has vast reception rooms about a slightly raised garden by Roberto Burle Marx: a geometrical paradise. Perimeter walls are lined in vertical glass panels that swivel open to allow for a filtration of inside and outside quite different from that of cold European Modernism.

Niemeyer is also a great exponent of carpet, carpet in solid colours curving from horizontal to vertical to wrap entire spaces. He loves giant porthole windows and capsule-shaped doorways. At the Ministry of Justice, across from the Itamaraty Palace, he used walls of black glass and decorative metal sheeting. At the Congress Building – which plugs, beautifully, into Costa’s central axis – Niemeyer bermed the ground down and set his programme beneath the normative datum of the city. With external reflecting pools and a skeletal white marble ramp, this is the Wallpaper*moment par excellence, the poseur’s delight.

The great roof deck is however no longer accessible. But who wants balustrades to ruin pure architectural image?

The palaces erected by Niemeyer, and by armies of workers trucked in from Brazil’s most impoverished provinces, do function as wonderful party venues. In Brasilia for the Sixth International Conference of DoCoMoMo (Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement), I can attest to their curious spatial splendour. The conference highlight was a crisp recital, fusing Brazilian, French avant garde and American jazz tunes, at the Itamaraty Palace by pianist Marcelo Bratke. But be careful if questioning the merits of Brasilia to local professionals. It seems as if national pride is complexly entwined with this mid-century dream.

To evaluate the achievement of Costa and Niemeyer, tour the superquadras, their rendition of Le Corbusier’s unités d’habitation. These are – at least superficially – impressive, with small stores to enliven the side streets and vivid planting glimpsed through pilotis. To better understand Brasilia outside the conference circuit, I also visited the embassies of Mexico (Teodoro González de Léon), Japan (Fumihiko Maki), and Germany (Hans Scharoun). While praising the clean air and educational standards in Brasilia, diplomats spoke of seldom venturing beyond their elegant, gated compounds.

With Brasilia, Costa and Niemeyer might be credited with a form of Hypermodernism. Their shapes echo those of Koolhaas and other visionaries of today. The Itamaraty Palace has a spatial complexity reminiscent of OMA’s Educatorium at Utrecht, its stair sequence kin to the vertical equipment of Koolhaas’s House in Bordeaux. The Congress Building manipulates the ground surface to gain advantages in massing, circulation, car access and servicing. As indeed does the Dutchman’s Kunsthal in Rotterdam.

And neither Niemeyer nor Koolhaas seem particularly interested in details of construction.

Although much of Brasilia was built in a mere three years (1957-60), the rumour is that, in any event, Niemeyer designs only at 1:500. Of more vital importance, Brasilia suffers from that lack of density that Koolhaas calls congestion. Brasilia’s buildings appear seductive but they foster little social (romantic?) interaction. Of course, with all that land (is it simply rude for visitors to rattle on about ecology?), Brazilians may – in a way that seems odd to foreigners – feel grateful to be alone, distant from the intense cultural life of the coastal cities.

[The article was first published in IA 163, Jan 2001]

Shown below are Raymund Ryan's photos of the Congress Building in Brasilia


Categories: Architecture

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