Mĺrten Claesson
Mĺrten Claesson,
Architect SIR
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"Did you see the match?"

Oscar Niemeyer invites us in to his office located on the top floor of the highest building in the city with a panoramic view over Copacabana. The address is naturally the best imaginable — Avenida Atlântica. He is Brazil’s most prominent architect throughout time; in a class of his own.

My brother and I are travelling in Brazil. So far, we have visited the capital city, Brazília, and are now in Rio de Janeiro. The day before, just out of curiosity, I looked up the name Niemeyer in the telephone book under the heading "Architects". I actually found the name, and with an increased pulse decided to dial the number. To my great surprise, I was able to immediately speak with Oscar, and yes, we could come by tomorrow at twelve o’clock.

There stood the 90 year-old legend — withered, but with fire in his eyes — asking if we had seen the match! (He is speaking of The World Cup Semi-Finals between Brazil and Holland that went into overtime and penalties and surely killed half of all Brazilians with suspense. My brother and I scarcely dared to go home from the bar where we saw the match that night. When Brazil made the last and final penalty, war literally broke-out on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.) The six-seven employees of the office are already sitting around the lunch table waiting for the lunch guests to arrive, before they begin eating.

I absolutely do not want to talk about the match, or eat for that matter. I want to ask how it was.... But all Niemeyer wants to discuss is how it is and how it will be.

Oscar Niemeyer was born in 1907 in Rio de Janeiro. By 1934 he had already worked together with Le Corbusier on a large state building project which, in all likelihood, changed the young architect for life. Around 1940 Niemeyer happened to make the acquaintance of Juscelino Kubitschek, the mayor of Belo Horizonte, which among other things gave him the commission to design a casino for the city. This was in fact when Niemeyer’s career really took off. This same Kubitschek, a communist like Niemeyer, later became president of Brazil. It was through his initiative that the entire new capital city, Brazília, was built. Niemeyer was made chief architect and given the commission to design all of the most important buildings himself.

Brazília — that incredibly insane project: suddenly, it was decided that Rio de Janeiro would no longer be the capital city. A new place was found, in the middle of the country, in the middle of nowhere. "Here is where it shall be. And it will be a monument to the modern man, the state, and the belief in the future." Simply put, it was a dream; political, technological, architectural. Jackpot for a determined and gifted young architect early on in his career.

The city plan (architect: Lucio Costa, 1956) forms the figure of an airplane fuselage and is in almost all respects a catastrophe. The main street, Esplanada dos Ministerios, is completely too wide (70 meters). However, it is lined with a row of architectural jewels; the majority and best of them by Niemeyer. The heat is always pressing, even in the middle of winter. There is no cool, refreshing sea within 1000 km; only flat, burnt landscape. Here, you don’t go by foot, because the distances are too great and disparate. However; sitting in a car, the city is viewed in an entirely different perspective. It then flows beautifully, almost like new (North) American cities.

Everything is too monumental. Inhuman. A failed utopia. And despite all of that... compared to everything (certainly everything Brazilian)... the city is a miracle. Everything is so much more perfect than it is anywhere else in Brazil. The poured concrete is smooth. The windows sit straight. And Niemeyer’s "building-sculptures"stand as some of the best that modern architecture has brought forth.

Brazília is naturally not thought of as human. How could it be, when it expresses something so elevated as a human idea. Insane, of course, but at the same time somehow deeply poetic. Brazília is a creation that leaves traces in the future. In 5 000 years, when all historical facts are long forgotten, archeaologists will marvel over Brazília like man today marvels over the pyramids in Ghiza.

Most reknowned is naturally the National Congress building (1958-1960) with its two giant bowls on the roof. One of them is turned upside down. Talk about playing with geometry. A sort of early version of postmodernism.

Nearly as well known is the Cathedral (1959-1970). It looks almost like a blown-up version of that little crown which adorned all of the American vaccuum manufacturers’ logotypes around 1957.

The differently angled pillars like slanted persian blinds which, mirrored in water, hold up the roof of The Palace of Justice (1962-1970) are an ingenious design. Rigid, elegant, unexpected and playful all at once.

Upon entering the white marble clad Panteâo da Pátria, a monument to the former president Tancredo Neves and one of the latest additions (1985), one meets a coal black interior. Only one huge window with purple-red glass high up on one of the walls lets in a little light. The floor is covered with a black wall to wall carpet that, at the corners and without a break, turns upward to make the walls. With eyes still adjusting from the bright relentless light outside, it is easy to walk straight into a wall. Fortunately, the carpet is soft. The contrast is close to scenography in effect. Powerful.

I ask Niemeyer what makes a good architect:

— A good architect has intuition. That is the difference, nothing more. And it is obvious in the result. One can see it in classic buildings, modern buildings, and postmodern buildings. It is like Alvar Aalto once said: "It is not a question of modernism or classism. It is a question of good or bad."

This Niemeyer says and adds with the authority of his age:

— It looks so easy afterwards.

Niemeyer is working right now on two very large projects: a conference center in Rio de Janeiro and a hotel in Brighton(!). When will they be finished, I wonder:

— In a year, maybe ten. Who knows?

Niemeyer begins to sketch up the buildings for me, in the classic little naive Corbusiér manner. (After my pen is rejected for being too wimpy, in what seemed like a hundredth of a second, some invisible assistant pulls out a fat felt tip marker.) The hotel in Brighton is spectacular and far from "Form follows Function": chanterelle mushroom of concrete. Eight floors high with an asymmetric hat. A restaurant built as an extension balances the composition. Niemeyer trusts his engineers:

— Architecture is to invent. An idea can take a long time, or it can come in an instant. It is the creative surprise that is the key. You can build anything in concrete. "Engineering follows architecture."

I wonder to myself what Prince Charles will say. The conference center in Rio is presumably more realistic. The mayor is an architect himself. (What a dizzying thought for a native of Stockholm: one of the city’s highest representatives with a bit of culture in his body.)

One can object and say that Oscar Niemeyer only builds the same 1950’s futurism again and again. But he himself refuses to acknowledge or subscribe to some label or movement. He is not a modernist and absolutely not a futurist; and I dare not even mention Le Corbusiér. Similarities, both in idea and expression, are too obvious. And still, something is decisively different. This is Brazil, not Europe, and it shows. Here, playfullness is allowed. The extreme is accepted by everyday people. Here, one who builds sculptural scribbles, apparently with complete disregard for Genius Loci-spirit of a place, and defends them with "the idea of plastic freedom", can still work and be hailed as a hero. Perhaps it is providence. Presumably Niemeyer could not have blossomed in the same way in a culture that did not, at the same time, recognize genius and allow for a measure of craziness and whimsicality.

The lunch visit is over, but before we go Niemeyer clasps our hands and invites us to come back for another visit sometime.

— Any time you pass through Rio...

It is naturally only a polite thing to say. We all know that the distance is too great and life too short. But within that old body lives a young soul that is still full of ideas to be realized, and that perhaps refuses to see that time is too scarce.

After lunch, we are driven by the grandchildren to Niemeyer’s own house (designed 1953). It is located in Canoas, on the mountain above the fashionable part of the city Săo Conrado. The house is filled with thoughtful details. A stone block is half inside and half outside. Bedroom windows project like prisms. Bathrooms are lit through skylight grids of concrete. Put simply: a pearl. Oscar; however, doesn’t live here anymore. He has moved to an apartment in Copacabana.

The next day we take the ferry over Guanabara, gulf to the city Niterói. There lies the museum of contemporary art, MAC (1991-1996), Niemeyer’s latest completed work. Like a giant white mushroom, a water tower, or a spaceship, the museum balances farthest out on a promontory with the entire gulf as a backdrop and Rio’s skyline in the horizon. Quite simply a place for an architect to die for. But the detailing is not near that of Brazília’s buildings. The museum is best seen from a distance, or in photos (where one can disregard bad angles). Unfortunately, the power of this type of futurist architecture fails when shoddiness shows through.

The house which in reality is already a museum; the lack of quality control during the building of the museum; finding out that his daughter is head of a Niemeyer foundation taking care of and cataloging drawings from the long career; I have a feeling that all this occurs behind Oscar’s back. The old man isn’t even dead yet. Surely, it is the will to continually move forward within the present that has kept him young for so long.

Mĺrten Claesson, Architect SIR
Home page: claesson-koivisto-rune