Niemeyer & the Sweep of History

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

At almost 101 years of age, the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer's eyesight is pretty much limited to peripheral vision, but he's still working. There are cultural centers in Spain and Chile to be finished, and a corporate headquarters in Paraguay. And he is still busy in his native Brazil, the architecture of which he has defined and dominated for more than half a century.

After more than 700 projects and 70 years in the business, Niemeyer can be forgiven for seeming to be a bit on the sidelines. It's not that he's irrelevant -- his bold concrete forms cast in white and set against tropical blues and greens look as fresh and enticing as they did 50 years ago -- but he's long past the age at which he needs to court the good opinion of fickle tastemakers. And so there's a compelling serenity to much of what is on display at the Art Museum of the Americas, which is hosting an extensive retrospective devoted to Niemeyer's career. Niemeyer hasn't chased trends, he hasn't had a silly postmodern phase, dabbled in the Zen of glass boxes or blown apart his voluptuous forms in a nod to deconstruction. His career has had high and low points to be sure, but it has been remarkably consistent.

When Niemeyer was born in 1907, slavery had been illegal in Brazil for less than 20 years, and even less time had passed since the country booted its last emperor. Brazil's European-descended elite had one foot in the 20th century and one in feudal times. Much of the rest of the country's population was living in prehistory.

Niemeyer emerged in the 1940s as a left-wing architect looking for creative room within the dictates of the modern style. Brazil wasn't just looking for a modern identity, it wanted a modern Brazilian identity, and the one-size-fits-all boxes of the international style weren't, in fact, fitting very comfortably. In 1940, Niemeyer designed a church named for St. Francis of Assisi as part of suburban development near the city of Pampulha. It was a simple, curving tentlike fold of concrete, ornamented with blue tiles. At a time when other architects were making buildings that looked like bar graphs, Niemeyer gave the world a sine curve, the kind of shape one might doodle on a napkin during a distracted moment over cocktails. It became a signature gesture.

"Rationalism, limited as it was, did not express the new world of shapes made possible by reinforced concrete," wrote Niemeyer, explaining why he "covered the chapel at Pampulha with curves."

Pampulha, which seemed to connect Brazil's modern ambition with the fluid lines of its Baroque, colonial style, made him famous. After the end of the Second World War, he was involved in designs (with Le Corbusier) for the new U.N. complex in New York City. And by the 1950s, he was Brazil's national architect. In 1956, when the country decided to create Brasilia -- its new, modern capital, on a patch of empty high prairie in the nation's center -- Niemeyer was made the chief architect.

"I didn't want it to be cold and technical -- the hard, hackneyed purity of straight lines," he wrote. "On the contrary, I wanted its appearance to be shapely, dreamy and poetic."

Few modern cities have entered the imagination like Brasilia. Like the two bowls of the Niemeyer-designed National Congress, one turned up like a giant basin, the other turned over like an ancient funeral mound, the city seemed to be both futurist and primal at the same time. Surrealist painters had dreamed of this kind of landscape, a world of basic, iconic shapes, in primary colors, arranged like sculpture on a vast plain. For better and worse, Niemeyer made it real.

One virtue of the current exhibition, which is spread over two floors of the museum, is its focus on detail. Brasilia is easily grasped as a monument but harder to fathom as a real place, with texture and grit. Along with photographs and models of its major buildings, there is also an angel sculpture Niemeyer designed for its cathedral -- a church that suggests a giant, crazy tepee of curving concrete beams arranged in a circle. A wall of decorated tiles demonstrates how the reiteration of a simple curving form gives unity to Niemeyer's architecture on both the micro- and macroscopic level.

A model of the city's central government axis is a little more troubling. Niemeyer's architecture captured the utopian exuberance of the moment, but it is also heavily dependent on the utopian possibilities of the automobile, which seem to be fading fast.

And it's not just a matter of pollution or high gas prices. A futurist, high-speed, go-where-you-want sensibility is fundamentally built into Niemeyer's aesthetic. Even the long, wide, sinuously curving pedestrian ramps, which are a distinctive feature of his work, seem designed for moving much faster than legs will take you. His most recent designs, seen in computer renderings, are so chillingly empty, and so spacious, the only proper way to appreciate them would be through some kind of computer flyover, like Google Earth.

The exhibition would be stronger if it connected Niemeyer more directly to the architects he has influenced (such as Zaha Hadid, and their shared jet-age romance with speed). And if it devoted space to the context from which he emerged. He may have defined 20th-century Brazilian architecture, but he didn't invent it. The work of architects such as Gregori Warchavchik, Alfonso Reidy or Niemeyer's mentor (and the urban planner for Brasilia), Lucio Costa, ought to be given more attention. By avoiding Niemeyer's roots, it inadvertently overstates the case.

Living to 100 is a bit like gaining a full lap on history, and it's unclear what your real standing is compared with the other runners in the race. To an unprejudiced, outside observer, Niemeyer's most recent work might look fashionably retro. An art museum that resembles a flying saucer set on a giant central column (designed in the early 1990s for the city of Niteroi, in Brazil) could be a cutting-edge entry for some world expo, circa 1950. Is this the work of an architect stuck in the past, or an architect so firmly committed to a fundamental idea that he won't be distracted by novelty? An even more recent project, for the Oscar Niemeyer museum in Curitiba, looks like a giant eye slit set on a yellow pillar. It is screaming for the Italian director Antonioni to come back to life and feature it in a remake of one of his 1960s cinematic masterpieces.

Evaluating Niemeyer's work is likely to make us uneasy, because it has been so obsessively consistent to one idea of the good life -- bold, cool curves of oversize concrete set in empty, beautiful places -- that has passed us by. And it's not clear if that's a good thing or not. Sometimes we fail to live up to our dreams, and sometimes the dream itself was the problem.

Oscar Niemeyer will remain on view through Oct. 26 at the Art Museum of the Americas, 201 18th St. NW. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Admission is free.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company