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This article was originally written in September 2003, following the construction of his first building in Britain - the Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park.

In December 2010
Niemeyer marked his 103rd birthday by opening a museum of his work, and died two years later in December 2012.  The Oscar Niemeyer Foundation outside Rio de Janeiro houses drawings and models from his 70-year career.

On the same day in 2010 his last work, the Oscar Niemeyer Cultural Centre,  named after him, opened in
Aviles, northern Spain. The authorities in Aviles hope the centre will revive the city's fortunes in the same way that the Gugenheim museum helped transform the city of Bilbao from a declining industrial city into a cultural capital.

 

NIEMEYER  1907-2012

Politics and power often seem synonymous, but politics and ethics go together, particularly if you see the role of political leaders being to legislate for social and economic justice.

Most political of architects

Few architects, particularly successful ones with a world-wide practice across different cultures, are known both for their ethical stance and for their political involvement. But such is Oscar Niemeyer, who needs no introduction as an architect.

Although he has designed about 500 buildings across the world from Brazil to France, Algeria, Italy, Germany, Israel and the USA, his Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park, London in 2003 was his first building in Britain.

The brief each year is to design a temporary 300sq.m pavilion to function as a café during the day and forum for talks and debates in the evening.

Oscar Niemeyer was commissioned for the 2003 pavilion, although he was reluctant at first to design a temporary building. He became famous for his work at the new Brazilian capital, Brasilia, in the late 1950s, and more recently for his highly inventive organic forms which reinterpreted the rectangularity of European Modernism.

The scale of his concrete buildings is monumental, so how would a small pavilion with modest spans turn out? Would it appear a scale model of one of his more famous structures?

My idea was to keep this project different, free and audacious. That is what I prefer. I like to draw, I like to see from the blank sheet of paper a palace, a cathedral, the figure of a woman appearing.

The modest pavilion which resulted was given monumentality by its simple shape, thick cantilevered floor and roof planes, and by being raised half a storey above ground level. This allowed the floor as well as roof plane to be expressed, and the former reached by a ramp, a familiar element in Niemeyer's work.

The semi-basement (any allusion to the traditional London house?) was a concrete box constructed of Niemeyer's usual medium, but glazed on one side above ground level. Niemeyer decided that steel was appropriate for a temporary building, and so four steel columns at the corners of the box support the steel frame cantilevered floor, and the asymmetrical aluminium tent roof. This swings down to a valley around mid span and is steeper over the end cantilevers. The sides of the pavilion were largely open or glazed, and a large circular roof light illuminated the servery end of the café, as well as giving a view up into the trees. Niemeyer also designed the furniture and wall sketches.

A stair lift ensured accessibility to the semi-basement, where visitors could relax and watch an hour long autobiographical video, which was on sale in the Serpentine Gallery together with his memoirs, The Curves of Time, published by Phaidon in 2000.

The memoirs reveal "how his many passions - among them his large family, many friends (including intellectuals and politicians), the sensuous landscape of Brazil, women, communism, art and literature - have influenced his life and in turn inspired his architecture." (Phaidon catalogue).

The memoirs end with,

"Here, then, is what I wanted to tell you of my architecture. I created it with courage and idealism, but also with an awareness of the fact that what is important is life, friends and attempting to make this unjust world a better place in which to live." (Memoirs p176).

That, as much as his architecture, is the theme of video and memoirs. It was his great concern for the suffering of the poor, in his own country as well as elsewhere, that led him to reject his catholic upbringing and join the communist party. This did not prevent him designing the cathedral in Brasilia, and other churches, but it did bring him to Europe (and designing the French Communist Party HQ in Paris) as he fled from Brazil following the military coup in 1964.

He was, indeed is, against imperialism, and this led to his university work in Algeria for the newly independent country.

So there is clearly a deep political/ethical context to Niemeyer's work, which is more clearly expressed in his drawings and sculpture than in his buildings, sculptural as they often are. That context is as follows.

In 1930 a revolution against the land-owning class brought President Getulio Vargas to power; he initiated a massive programme of social reform, industrial development and national integration, using architecture to promote an image of modernity. Niemeyer was a student at the time, under Lucio Costa for whom he began working on graduation in 1935. Here he participated in the design of the Ministry of Education and Health and met le Corbusier - and each apparently influenced the other.

Vargas degenerated into a totalitarian dictator, though he sided with the Allies in the Second World War, and was ousted by the army in 1945. About this time Niemeyer joined the communist party, participating by selling newspapers, putting up posters etc.

A republican constitution was adopted in 1946 and in 1956 President Juscelino Kubitschek appointed Niemeyer chief architect for Brasilia. Kubitschek had previously commissioned him to design the Pampulha Complex when he was mayor of Belo Horizonte.

Rather amusingly in 1963 Niemeyer both received the International Lenin Prize and was made an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects.

In 1964 there was another coup by the army, and the military dictatorship banned the magazine Modulo which Niemeyer had begun in 1956. In 1965 he gave up his teaching post in the University of Brasilia in protest against the new education policy, and in 1967 having had several problems with the military police he left Brazil and set up office in Paris.

The 1960s saw the rise of liberation theology in Latin America as hopes of dealing with the area's poverty by economic aid faded.

"Many came to believe that gaps between rich and poor nations could never be closed under the capitalist systems, but that China, and especially Cuba, demonstrated that Marxism held the key to the future for Latin America." (The History of Christianity Lion handbook).

The Catholic Church had been associated with the status quo and European imperialism. However many Catholic priests sided with the poor, and liberation theology grew as a Marxist version of Christianity, with salvation seen as political liberation akin to the Exodus. Having left the Church Niemeyer does not seem to have been influenced by this movement.

As a Marxist Niemeyer championed the cause of Cuba and distrusted aid - at least he does not believe in socialist architecture in a capitalist country. "It tends to be paternalistic; or worse, it perversely intends to mitigate struggles around old, hard-fought-for demands." (Memoirs p162)

In 1975 Modulo resumed publication; in 1978 he was a founding member and first president of the Brazil Democratic Centre; and in the following year a general amnesty restored political rights in Brazil. In 1990 he left the Brazilian Communist Party, and was decorated Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great by the Pope!

It is against this background of political involvement that Oscar Niemeyer followed an ethical quest on behalf of the poor.

It is therefore surprising that as an architect he worked on so few social welfare projects. His explanation is that when he did so he felt that he "was conspiring with the demagogic and paternalistic objectives such projects represent: to mislead the working class, which demands better wages and equal opportunities…. When we built the CIEPS, we were happy to see that poor children liked them, as if the buildings gave the kids hope of some day having access to what only the rich enjoy today." (Memoirs p176).

These Integrated Centres of Public Education, designed in 1983, provided "an entirely new kind of education that involves not just schooling but also keeping the kids off the streets - with meals, study periods, and sports, all good preparation for the hard life ahead of these students… Suspended from their concrete supports and brightly painted, they certainly stand out from the surrounding buildings, as we intended them to." (Memoirs p21).

The commission for the Latin American Memorial in Sao Paulo in 1987 was an important undertaking for Niemeyer, and demonstrates the role of sculpture in making political statements.

"This cultural centre was to convey an appeal, a message of faith and solidarity for all Latin American people. It would invite them to come together, share experiences, and fight more effectively on behalf of this highly neglected and endangered continent….Despite having completely devoted myself to the project design, I felt that something was missing, something that would allow me to take part in the political nature of the cultural center, which was more important to me than its architecture. Thus to represent Latin America, I designed a large concrete open-palmed hand, its fingers slightly bent to convey despair, and a trickle of blood running down to its wrist. To explain the spirit of my sculpture I wrote, 'Sweat, blood, and poverty have marked our disjointed and oppressed Latin America. Now it is crucial that we readjust this continent, unite it, and transform it into an untouchable monolith capable of ensuring its independence and Happiness.' Thus the 23 foot tall hand was erected." (Memoirs p135 139)

Niemeyer also chose all the artwork by various artists for paintings, sculpture, stained glass tiles and embroidery.

In 1996 Niemeyer designed the Eldorado monument which he donated to the Movement of Landless Rural Workers, and in the late 90s went on to design memorials to Maria Aragao and to Darcy Ribeiro, who was exiled during the military dictatorship but later returned and set up the CIEPS schools.

Although he always took great pleasure in giving to someone who asked for help, in the end Niemeyer felt there is little we can do and seemed to accept a fatalistic world view.

"I was always something of a rebel. [Even his curved architectural forms began as a protest against the right angle and rationalist architecture]. Having left behind all the old prejudices of my Catholic family, I saw the world as unjust and unacceptable. Poverty was spreading as if it was only natural and inescapable. I joined the Communist party and embraced the thinking of Marx, as I still do today. But life brings both joy and sorrow, and as unprotected citizens all we can do is move ahead, laughing and crying in this harsh world." (Memoirs p149).

 

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