Form Follows Whose Function?: Reflections on Brasilia and the Career of Architect Oscar Niemeyer

The career of Oscar Niemeyer (the architect who almost singlehandedly designed all of Brasilia) is discussed in a fascinating Atlantic article titled, A Vision in Concrete (July/August 2008).

It opens thus:

It was a heroic and inhuman scheme. From 1956 to 1960, Brazil—in an effort to cleanse itself of its colonial past, to flee its burgeoning social afflictions, and to fulfill its long-prophesied emergence as a great power—conjured a new capital, Brasília, on an empty plateau in an endless savanna 3,500 feet above sea level. The city’s planner, the architect Lúcio Costa, found the setting “excessively vast … out of scale, like an ocean, with immense clouds moving over it.” No invented city could accommodate itself to this wilderness. Instead, Costa declared, Brasília would create its own landscape: he devised a city on a scale as daunting as the setting itself. In conformity not with its environment but with those modernist utopian theories of the rational, sterile “Radiant City,” Brasília was not to grow organically but to be born, Costa said, “as if she had been fully grown”—he even refused to visit the site, because he didn’t want reality to impinge on the purity of the original design. Brasília was the first place built to be approached by jet, and the city’s roads—inspired by Robert Moses’s deadening expressways belting New York’s outer boroughs—were like runways. Here was a city without a traffic light, containing thoroughfares without crosswalks. The result was (or should have been) obvious, as Simone de Beauvoir reported after visiting Brasília the year it was inaugurated:

What possible interest could there be in wandering about? … The street, that meeting ground of … passers-by, of stores and houses, of vehicles and pedestrians … does not exist in Brasília and never will. 

Today, the city is quite correctly regarded as a colossally wrong turn in urban planning—but Brasília, paradoxically, contains some of the most graceful modernist government buildings ever produced. All were designed by Oscar Niemeyer (now 100 years old and still working), who helped select Costa’s master plan and who was the creative influence behind the building and shape of the city.

And it’s conclusion, though praising some of Niemeyer’s individual buildings, offers a sobering reflection upon utopian, grand-scale architecture:

In Brasília, too many of Niemeyer’s other sculptural edifices (he designed all of the major government buildings, and much of the housing) are soullessly set in immense paved fields that offer few places to sit and little refuge from the blinding sun, save for the colossal shadows cast by the buildings themselves. To be sure, Brasília’s reputation is in part the result of its history: although built by a progressive and more or less democratic government, it became the seat of an authoritarian regime four years after it was completed, and remained so for 21 years (to Zaha Hadid, Brasília means “all those wide streets for the army to drive through”). But it isan awful city—even juror Ada Louise Huxtable’s tribute accompanying Niemeyer’s citation for the 1988 Pritzker Prize (the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for architecture) had to acknowledge Brasília’s horrendous error. With Brasília, Niemeyer seemed to have embraced, or at least acceded to, the worst aspect of architectural modernism—its antiseptic urban theory—and in the post-Brasília period, when his work has too often been hokily sculptural or frighteningly overscaled (see his University of Constantine in Algeria, or his Maison de la Culture in Le Havre), he seems to have forsaken its best aspects: the grace and lucidity born of its restraint.

When thinking about Niemeyer’s grand scale architecture, I couldn’t help but think of contemporary Beijing, which has made use of the greatest architects in the world to construct huge-scaled buildings and infrastructure that, in large part, function to support the bureaucracy, and advance the prestige, of a command-and-control regime.

In any event, the whole article is excellent and can be read here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Form Follows Whose Function?: Reflections on Brasilia and the Career of Architect Oscar Niemeyer

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