Whatever you think of Niemeyer, his architecture (some people find his modernist designs to be repugnant) or his his political views (he is an unrepentant communist), the fact is that, as the last surviving member of the group of great 20th-century modernist architects whose names include Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, Walter Gropius and Philip Johnson, he really is a living piece of history. Furthermore, the fact that he is still practicing his craft at his advanced age - drawing, designing and sculpting - is both remarkable and admirable. Niemeyer and his work truly are deserving of our respect and admiration.
The 101-year-old architect envisions building a "Plaza of Sovereignty," including a low-lying, curved building and a soaring 1,000 foot (300 meter) obelisk, in the heart of Brazil's capital, according to plans unveiled by city officials in early January.
But detractors quickly slammed the proposal in Internet blogs and local media, saying it would interfere with sight lines of surrounding buildings designed by Niemeyer 50 years ago that now constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cultural officials warned the project might circumvent Brazilian historical patrimony law which says the site, currently known as the Esplanade of the Ministers, must remain open ground.
Sylvia Ficher of University of Brasilia's architecture school said the monument resembles a unicorn and would interfere with the view of the National Congress, another Niemeyer creation.
"What we normally see is an architect interfering in the work of another architect. In Niemeyer's case, however, he is interfering negatively in his own work," she said in comments posted Friday on the university Web site. "It will be Oscar Niemeyer fighting with Oscar Niemeyer."
But now, in his advanced age, Niemeyer seems intent on tinkering with the concepts and designs that made him admirable in the first place, in ways that many feel detract from his original work. Has the once-great architect now become a crotchety old man who cannot recognize that his abilities have diminished to the point that he is now damaging himself and his work? "The greatest threat to Mr. Niemeyer’s remarkable legacy may not be the developer’s bulldozer or insensitive city planners, but Mr. Niemeyer himself," lamented New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff in December of 2007:
It is not simply that his latest buildings have a careless, tossed-off quality. It’s that some of his most revered buildings — from the Brasília Cathedral to the grand Monumental Axis of the city itself — have been marred by the architect’s own hand. And this poses an uncomfortable dilemma: At what point do we — that is, the public that idolizes him, his government and private clients — have an obligation to intervene? Or is posing the question an act of spectacularly bad taste?This dilemma is indeed uncomfortable because it touches upon some very sensitive subjects, such as whether and to what degree a person's creative genious deteriorates with age, or the extent to which a person's designs are truly "theirs:" after all, if Niemeyer himself designed a building - or, better yet, a city - 50 years ago, why can't he make changes to it later? Furthermore, why should academics such as the University of Brasilia's Ficher or critics such as the NYT's Ourousoff presume to know what is better for Niemeyer's designs or his legacy than Niemeyer himself?
As much as I respect Niemeyer and his current ambitions, I (perhaps unfortunately) tend to side with those who think that Niemeyer's legacy does indeed need to be saved from himself. The fact is, when artists attempt to alter or update previous works generally considered to be masterpieces, the results are rarely good (see George Lucas and Star Wars, for example). When such alterations are conducted on a scale such as Brasilia's carefully-planned Monumental Axis, the results could be catastrophic. With the caveat that I have yet to experience Brasilia's viewscapes in person, I simply can't see how the placement of a 1,000-foot obelisk within the grassy esplanades of the Monumental Axis would do anything other than completely destroy its original form and intent. As Ourousoff concludes:
Brasília’s Monumental Axis is not simply a relic from a discounted age or an emblem of a failed utopia. It is as crucial to the values of its time as the pyramids were to theirs. To mar that vision is a cultural tragedy, even if the creator’s hand is responsible.