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||The architect Oscar Niemeyer, at the age of 92, still goes to his office every day, and continues to give the world some of the most sensuous, beautiful buildings anyone has ever imagined let alone built. His latest work, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Niterói, just outside of Rio de Janeiro, is set on a hillside above the sea, an immense saucer with an undulating pink ramp. Because of the narrow site, Niemeyer's solution was to build on a central support, and in his own words "from it, the architecture arose spontaneously like a flower."
Niemeyer arrived on the international scene in 1937 when, under the tutelage of his mentors Le Corbusier and Lucio Costa, he helped design the Ministry of Education and Culture building in Rio de Janeiro. As he designed solo projects like the Pampulha suburb and worked with Le Corbusier on the United Nations Plaza in New York, his fame grew. Like his mentors, Niemeyer was a Modernist.
Modernist architects strove to create disorientating environments that were self-contained and separate from their surroundings. Like the painters they associated with, they attempted to shock people into reevaluating their middle-class world view. Le Corbusier, one of the founders of the movement, tried to achieve this effect through the creation of what he called "Radiant Cities," made up of homogeneous concrete slab buildings which sat on columns, surrounded by parkland and ribboned with superhighways.
Architects around the world incorporated modernist principles into their projects for the next several decades, but no one was able to build an entire radiant city. Then, in 1956, the President of Brazil, Jucilino Kubitchek, announced that he was going to commission the building of a new capital in a desolate area of rolling scrubland. Urban planner Lucio Costa won the bid and Oscar Niemeyer was commissioned as the chief architect.
There was a popular theory at the time that a developing nation could skip what was believed to be an evolutionary stage of early Western-style industrialization and propel itself directly into the modern age through large scale construction projects that were designed to cause a kind of spatially-based social conditioning of their inhabitants. One of Costa and Niemeyer‰s goals in the designing of Brasilia was the elimination of social classes. Niemeyer attempted to minimize class differences by designing identical apartments for every inhabitant. Costa decided, in Corbusian fashion, to try to eliminate street life by refusing to construct sidewalks and laying out the entire road system with cloverleafs instead of stoplights and intersections. The city was designed to look like an airplane from the sky, with residences, stores and offices falling into separate zones. But in Brasilia, Niemeyer moved beyond the influence of Corbusier into an organic realm based on the curves of the mountains and the sunbathing women of his native Rio.
As the fortieth anniversary of Brasilia approaches, a number of exhibitions and symposiums are planned, and with them a debate going back to the project‰s earliest days will surely be reopened. Because although Brasilia remains one of the great architectural landmarks of our time, it is generally acknowledged as a failure on a social level. Almost immediately upon its completion the problems began. The government refused to let the poor workers who built Brasilia live in the city, so they built their own neighborhoods on the outskirts of town. The wealthy immediately moved into suburban mansions along the banks of an artificial lake. Only the middle class stayed in the city itself and complained, among other things, about the loneliness and isolation caused by a total lack of street life.
Shortly after the completion of Brasilia there was a U.S.-backed military coup in Brazil. Niemeyer, a lifelong member of the Brazilian Communist party, was forced into exile. He moved to Europe and spent the next fifteen years doing some of his best work, including the French Communist Party Headquarters and the University of Algiers.
I caught up with Oscar Niemeyer a few months ago in his office on the top floor of an apartment building on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. He was sharp-witted and down to earth. The first thing he said was, "What do you want to talk to me for? You should be on the beach getting some sun, looking at the pretty girls." As I prepared to leave the country a few days later, I happened to catch a local news broadcast. Fidel Castro was in Rio. As the crowds parted, there was Castro, with his old friend Oscar Niemeyer. They were strolling arm-in-arm up the entry ramp of his museum in Niterói, past a throng of machine gun-toting security forces, to visit an exhibition of photos from the Cuban revolution.
Brian Mier: Are you working on any projects at the moment?
Oscar Niemeyer: Yes, I'm working. I arrive at the office at ten o'clock. I work all day long as if I were twenty years old. I have lunch in the office and leave in the evening. I'm doing some works abroad, some in Portugal, "Casa Brasil," for example. I'm doing a huge project here in Rio for the Mayor. It's a convention center. I'm working in Niterói it's also a convention center which will include other buildings like a theater and a cathedral. I should say that it's an enormous project. I work a lot. People my age have to be busy.
BM: You started out as one of the pioneers of the modernist movement, but later your work became more organic. What influenced you to change your style?
ON: No, no! I hardly changed at all. I started working at Lucio Costa's office when I was a student. When Le Corbusier came to Rio I helped him out designing some projects. So when I first embraced the profession I was already doing the architecture that I liked. I learned a lot from my contact with Le Corbusier and from reading his theories. The only direct influence I had from him, however, was on the day that he told me that "architecture is universal." Then I started my architecture. It all started in Pampulha in 1942. It was there that I found out that architecture would have to be different.
BM: How so?
ON: At that time, architecture did not do justice to concrete. It was rigid. The right angle predominated. I thought it should be otherwise because when one wants to do a project in concrete the curve is always there. So the highlight of the Pampulha project was a church that had curves everywhere. A new architecture, but more like the old churches, a bit Baroque. There was a book called Brazilian Beauty, which was published in the U.S. and which highlighted the work at Pampulha. Soon afterwards the work was understood. It's the architecture that I do today looking for beauty, seeking out the impressionable shape, the surprise. In architecture, as in any work of art, the most important thing is astonishment. It's for a person to look and see that it's something different. Architecture is all about curiosity. When architecture is repetitious, always the same thing, monotone, it doesn't appeal to me. So I did as Le Corbusier did I also glorified the structure. In Brasilia when the structure was completed the architecture was present.
BM: How did you first become involved with this project? Did President Kubitchek ask you to design Brasilia or did Lucio Costa invite you?
ON: No it was Kubitchek. And it was made with a real sense of urgency over the course of three years.
BM: Brasilia was a planned city. It was built very quickly according to a master plan, like Washington D.C. or Belo Horizonte ...
ON: There has never been a city built so far away from everything. Brasilia was built at the end of the world. There were no telephones, nothing. There were no roads. Everything had to be flown in. The few roads that existed were dirt. Transportation was a serious problem. The road from Brasilia to Belo Horizonte was built during the construction of the city.
BM: How did you get there?
ON: We arrived by plane. Later I used to drive there from Rio once the road was completed. It was a real adventure.
BM: Where did you stay?
ON: There were some simple houses.
BM: Where the workers lived?
ON: Yes. Many of them came from the Northeast. They came to Brasilia because they thought it was a solution to the problems in their lives, but unfortunately they remained poor like they were before.
BM: Did you ever live in Brasilia?
ON: I was there the entire time of the construction. It was the greatest discomfort. We were there with the workers, eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, the same lack of comfort.
BM: Were you trying to design a kind of utopia? Do you believe that utopias can exist?
ON: No, I just did my style of architecture. It was the President's idea to build Brasilia. He thought it was an important thing to do to bring progress to the interior of the country. And I did my kind of architecture. I went there and did the project.
BM: Today Brasilia is famous all over the world, but some people say that it was built entirely for the middle class.
ON: Well, this is a reflection of the regime, isn‰t it? We are a capitalist country, right? It's a class problem, it's inevitable.
BM: The military took control of Brazil and Brasilia shortly after it was completed.
ON: Yes, there was a period of dictatorship. But nobody was trying to hurt the city. The city suffered from time problems and a lack of money. Some things were modified. But this is inevitable. When the dictatorship came into power I left Brazil. I wanted to show my distinct architecture to the world. I wanted to show the importance of the engineer's work. I did great projects. I overwhelmed a lot of people with the engineering techniques from my country.
BM: Did Brasilia turn out differently than you thought it would while you were working on it?
ON: Look, I designed the buildings. Lucio Costa was the Urban Planner. These are two different things.
BM: Are you satisfied with the condition of the buildings today?
ON: No. You know what time does, it's a time problem. But the city was built to bring progress to the interior of Brazil and the President accomplished this. As a result of Brasilia, new cities sprung up and a lot of progress came to the countryside.
BM: I read that you were influenced by the surrealist movement.
ON: No! My architecture is different. It is very personal. There is not one route for architecture. I believe that the architect must do what he or she likes. Looking for bigger spaces, gaining higher ones, showing the technique, isn't that so? That's the architecture I need. But I don't criticize my colleagues.
BM: Due to your involvement with the Communist party, you were not allowed into the United States for many years ...
ON: Hah. But I'm not thinking of going there. I no longer think about it. I remember that for twenty years I was barred from entrance into the USA. One time when I was in Rome, I got an invitation to go to the USA. I went to the American consulate and the attendant said, "I can‰t issue you a visa." I asked myself, "Is it personal? In that case I'm happy. If, after twenty more years they deny me a visa, that means I haven't changed." But that is my position. I like the American people. I spent more than a year there. What I don't like is the line that the American State Department takes with respect to the less fortunate, with respect to Latin America. They try to impose their point of view, which is of a progress that doesn't include the country of Brazil. But that's okay. We envisioned a world without frontiers, all men being equal. For the time being, however, that's not possible.
BM: Could you explain why you think that Communism is important for the world?
ON: I think that the word "communism" scares most people. We want a world where everyone is equal, with the same opportunities, pursuing a better living. Life is nothing but a breath it doesn't make a lot of sense and it's too short. So we have to stay within such a reality, walking together peacefully because we are all in the same boat.
BM: I would like to change the subject a bit and ask about your new building in Niterói, the Museum of Contemporary Art.
ON: The natural setting is beautiful, so that helped the project. It was really good for Niterói because today the museum has become a kind of flag for the city. A lot of people visit, and the mayor is content and wants to do other things. He wants to take what he calls "Niemeyer's route."
BM: It looks like a flying saucer.
ON: No! That was not the intention. The landscape was great and I didn't want to hide nature. I had to go up, opening up. So the building stands out like a flower in space. Nature is glorified on the ground. When you arrive there you see the building, the view. You see the buildings going by, you see the Sugar Loaf across the bay in Rio de Janeiro. When this happens you notice that the program of architecture is linked to the place where it is performed. It must preserve what is beautiful in the area. That is what architecture is all about.
BM: Could you talk about your friendship with the musician Antonio Carlos Jobim?
ON: He was a very dear friend. He had been to Brasilia. He and Vinicius de Moraes composed the "Symphony of Brasilia" together. He was not just a talented Brazilian, he was a good person, a Leftist, a friendly guy. He was a great individual, one of the important people in the Brazilian scenario.
BM: Have you ever thought of building a monument to him? Has anyone asked you?
ON: I'd do that with pleasure.
BM: I read that Vinicius de Moraes said you helped produce "Black Orpheus."
ON: No, I designed the sets.
BM: How did this happen?
ON: He was a great friend of mine, like a brother. He asked me to design the sets for the original theater production and I did it. It was an experience, you know, a trip.
BM: I was checking out your CDs here in the office. Do you listen to music when you're working?
ON: When I stop to take a break sometimes I'll listen to something. I love old Brazilian music, sambas, serenatas, MPB. I also like Frank Sinatra. He was fantastic!
BM: Many buildings that you've designed are monumental. They were financed by wealthy people. But aren't you a Communist? Don't you think there's a contradiction there?
ON: I only hung around them, pausing to create the cities of the future. When a better society comes, with everyone united, today's architecture will have prepared them to build the great things of the future. Now when people are talking about new schools, schools for the entire country, there are my beautiful pre-fabricated, modular schools that I designed for the state of Rio de Janeiro for them to look at. And I ask how is it that the people who come down from the slums, the children, like going into these schools so much? I'd like to believe that someday these people will become involved in the creation of beautiful things too. Simply because one is living in misery doesn't mean that one has to do miserable things. We must show that they can participate in these things. They should.
BM: So how do you view architecture's relationship to society?
ON: When I speak of architecture I always explain that it is not the most important thing there is. Life is the most important thing people getting along with each other. Solidarity is a necessity. I think that architecture is just a complement to more important things. You cannot think of architecture as something fundamental when you look around and see suffering all over the place. When I went out to make a living I was from a Catholic family I found out that the world is unfair. I took sides with the Leftists and I stand my ground to this day. We have to change the world. I always tell pupils that it's not enough to leave school as a good professional, they have to have their feet on the ground. They have to get to know their country and the world. I believe that the world will change the day man can go up to heaven to find out how little and unimportant he is.
BM: How would you like to be remembered in the future?
ON: I think that everything fades away. If you talk to a physicist he'll tell you that three million years from now the planet will be cold, wandering aimlessly through space. What I don't want is a society without great accomplishments. But I want everybody taking part in it, with the feeling that life is short and the outlook is grim. Nobody should act important because nobody is important. We have to walk together within the conditions that fate has set up for us. I believe in genetics. I think that people are not to blame for all their defects and they shouldn't be too proud of their good qualities. There are some people who have little intelligence and we accept them. There are some contemptuous people who are running things, isn't that so? This makes it easier for me to notice and understand things. But I think that it is just like a house. You can change the roof, a window, and things like that, but if the project itself is bad, it doesn't make much difference.