‘Concrete Poet’ Oscar Niemeyer dies

At 104, architect Oscar Niemeyer has died. His curvaceous buildings and left-wing ideas created the blueprint for a brand new city. Is it possible to design a utopia?

He is Brazil’s greatest architect. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Picasso of concrete’, Oscar Niemeyer is renowned for creating some of the world’s most daring and unusual buildings. On Wednesday, he died at the age of 104.

Niemeyer was a student of ‘modern’ architecture’s pioneer: Le Corbusier. Inspired by crisp lines and angular shapes, both men thought buildings should be planned according to rational principles, carefully considering the needs of all inhabitants.

Niemeyer’s buildings, however, were nothing like the angular constructions of the French master. He was attracted, instead, to the curves he saw everywhere: in Brazil’s mountains, rivers, oceans – and women.

The two men were not just interested in buildings. Le Corbusier believed he could apply his rational philosophy of architecture to urban planning, to improve living conditions and create a better society. He even created a design for a perfect, utopian settlement: ‘The Radiant City’.

In 1956, Niemeyer went further. With Brazil’s newly elected left-wing leader Juscelino Kubitschek, he designed a whole city from scratch. Brasilia was a new capital, built on wasteland by a workforce of 40,000 people.

Today, the painstakingly engineered city is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin compared it to another planet; architect Norman Foster says it appears ‘choreographed’, not designed.

Niemeyer’s buildings are everywhere. All are abstract and arresting: from the corset-shaped Brasilia Cathedral, reaching toward heaven, to Brazil’s National Congress, a pure white dome and bowl placed opposite each other on a concrete plain.

Niemeyer was a lifelong Communist. His city was meant to be shared by people of all classes; its expansive squares, leisure facilities and public spaces designed to give all a high quality of life. But the egalitarian vision was about artistry, as well as function: architecture’s purpose, Niemeyer said, was to ‘give ordinary people, powerless people, a sense of delight’.

Flaunting his curves

Today the idea of planning the perfect city is not as fashionable as it was – some critics have dubbed Brasilia a ‘fantasy island’ lacking in soul. The ideas of a few, they say, can never anticipate the needs of the many. Cities should evolve organically: those set out on rational lines will never feel fully human.

Niemeyer’s fans, however, disagree. If urban environments are not carefully planned to provide people fulfilling lives, they argue, space will be used to fulfil other purposes: maximising profit, for example, or just the most basic of necessities. Planning a city with ambition and idealism, they say, can help its inhabitants reach higher potential.

You Decide

  1. Would you want to live in Brasilia?
  2. Would urban environments be better if they were carefully planned and controlled to offer the best kind of quality of life?

Activities

  1. Think of one building that you think has had a major impact on your town or city. Write a ‘review’ of it, explaining why it is effective, or not.
  2. Design your own utopian city, with space for everything its inhabitants might need.

Some People Say...

“Buildings are just four walls and a roof.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Have Modernist ideas been influential elsewhere?
Absolutely. Le Corbusier’s buildings can be found everywhere, from India to France to Tokyo.
What about full cities?
In the 1960s, Milton Keynes was designed and built as a fully planned city in the UK. It was drawn up by many different architects, including the likes of Norman Foster, but was also inspired by a carefully thought-out philosophy of architecture and urban planning.
Tell me more...
It was the largest of Britain’s ‘Garden Cities’ – self-contained communities built around a concentric pattern of parks, boulevards and open spaces. In the UK, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City are both built according to these principles; the concept has also been influential in urban planning for suburbs of New York and Tennessee.

Word Watch

Le Corbusier
The popular pseudonym of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, possibly the most influential architect of the 20th Century. He devoted his life to making over-crowded cities liveable, and worked on hundreds of projects from the USA to the USSR to India. ‘The house’, he said, ‘is a machine for living in.’
Juscelino Kubitschek
Kubitschek, an ambitious, charismatic and masterful left-wing politician, came to power on a promise to build a perfect capital city in the space of a single term. He achieved this – but at such a cost that he aroused voters’ resentment, and he was voted out at the next election. Today, however, he is one of the country’s most revered politicians, popularly remembered as the founder of modern Brazil.
Unesco World Heritage Site
These are sites specially nominated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as areas of significant cultural, historical or physical significance. Other World Heritage Sites include Machu Picchu, Uluru in Australia and the Egyptian pyramids.

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