Friday, December 07, 2012

RIP Oscar Neimeyer

The last of the great modernist architects has passed away.
Oscar Niemeyer, the celebrated Brazilian architect whose flowing designs infused Modernism with a new sensuality and captured the imaginations of generations of architects around the world, died on Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro. He was 104.

The medical staff at the Hospital Samaritano in Rio, where he was being treated, said on national television that he died of a respiratory infection.

Mr. Niemeyer was among the last of a long line of Modernist true believers who stretch from Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe to the architects who defined the postwar architecture of the late 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. He is best known for designing the government buildings of Brasília, a sprawling new capital carved out of the Brazilian savanna that became an emblem both of Latin America’s leap into modernity and, later, of the limits of Modernism’s utopian aspirations.
Niemeyer was not a particularly popular architect at the University of Houston College of Architecture when I studied there in the early 1990s. An intense backlash against modernism was underway at the time, and many of my classmates found his work, especially the buildings he designed in Brasília, as dated and inhumane. I personally liked his designs - I found the idea for the City of Brasília, which was laid out by fellow modernist Brazilian Lucio Costa, to be fascinating - but I was definitely in the minority. Brasília was seen by many of my classmates and professors as a silly, soulless dystopia: a city designed for the automobile, not for pedestrians, in a country where so much of the population was unable to afford cars. Niemeyer's politics - he was an unrepentant communist - also made him unpopular among my peers.

In the two decades since, however, there has been a re-examination of Niemeyer's work, so much so that people even felt the need to "save him from himself" when, in his advanced age, he envisioned a monument that would radically alter the vistas of Brasília he had so carefully laid out decades before. Part of this change in thought had to do with a new appreciation for modernism in general, but I think people also began to appreciate Niemeyer's designs for the  unique sculptures that they were.
In celebrating both the formal elements and social aims of architecture, his work became a symbolic reminder that the body and the mind, the sensual and the rational, are not necessarily in opposition. Yet he also saw sensuality and the brightness of dreams against a darker backdrop. “Humanity needs dreams to be able to survive the miseries of daily existence,” he once said, “even if only for an instant.”

No comments: