Looking Back: A Conversation with Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer’s iconic Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói. FORMmag.net remembers the architect as part of our new series. Photo by Rodrigo_Soldon on Flickr.

Over the years, FORM has brought you thought-provoking interviews with some of the world’s leading architects and designers. They’ve discussed and assessed their work, their legacies, and the direction of their professions. As part of an ongoing, Web-only feature, we’ll be bringing you some of the most notable conversations from our archives. To kick off the series, we’re sharing an interview with the legendary architect Oscar Niemeyer that appeared in one of our early issues—May/June 2001. In the Q-and-A, conducted by the architect, critic and architectural historian Roberto Segre, Niemeyer, who died in December at the age of 104, reflects on his work, the design of cities, and the state of architecture in Brazil. As Brazil is about it take the world stage for two major sporting events (the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games), his words are especially timely.

Roberto Segre: You have always had a passion for this city [Río de Janeiro]. What are the memories and experiences that you still hold from your past?

Oscar Niemeyer: Río de Janeiro is a city where nature prevails over human actions, in spite of the evil and destruction working against it. I remember, at the beginning of the century, when some of the original morros [hills] were leveled, it altered the “natural” references to the landscape downtown. The winding shapes of the bay, the sweetness of the surrounding hills, and the lusty exuberance of the vegetation, make it unique in the world. There are few urban contexts in which one can experience mountain heights in the midst of a dense tropical forest, and in a few minutes, be on a white beach at the ocean’s edge. Until the 1930’s, when I was growing up…the city’s architecture wasn’t imposing, rather it molded itself to the strong presence of the natural environment. It’s no wonder that from the moment Le Corbusier entered the Bay of Guanabara, he incessantly sketched the undulating curves of the morros in his sketchbooks.

RS: Do you think that the authentic values of Río have been lost forever?

ON: Río is a city that has aged badly. Speculation and the indiscriminate construction of tall buildings have obliterated much of the natural beauty. For example, in San Conrado, the forest descended without a break from the hills to the beach. Today, that area is full of apartment buildings. Likewise, little of the historical context seen 50 years ago remains in the downtown area today. I think that if, in the 40s, it would have been possible to imagine the urbanization of Barra de Tijuca, perhaps many of the old buildings would not have been demolished. In Paris, a better solution was found. The “modern” city with offices and skyscrapers was built in La Défénse [district], away from the traditional fabric of the city.

Direct contact with the sea was also lost. In Copacabana, you used to be able to leave your home and easily walk down to the beach. Now, the presence of an expressway for cars has made pedestrian access to the sea difficult. Even though Burle Marx’s design for Aterro do Flamengo is beautiful, it creates a neutral space that blocks views to the ocean.

RS: Do you think the government’s initiative to aesthetically rescue some important areas of the city is a good one?

ON: The city’s effort to recuperate cultural values is praiseworthy in relationship to the multiple aspirations of its inhabitants. But, Río’s biggest problems are providing services to the residents of working class neighborhoods, creating jobs, and improving living conditions in the favelas [squatter settlements]. I think these objectives should be given priority over spending millions of dollars on a bid for the Olympic Games. When intervening in neighborhoods, a balance should be struck between the architectural elements, the existing landscape, and new proposals. I am not against creative freedom or the integration of the old with the new; but, I think some design solutions should be more thoroughly analyzed.

RS: Nonetheless, your admiration for the traditional city didn’t motivate you to create projects integrated into the urban fabric, instead they have always been broken out of the context. What is your reasoning?

ON:I am a fan of old cities that have a homogeneous and continuous structure. Recently, I was in Lisbon and I appreciated its historic neighborhoods, so coherent, orderly, and clean. It’s a pity that they have introduced post-modern towers that break up the harmony of the urban landscape. Paris continues to be a universal example of a context created by architects and urban designers. I remember reading that in the past, before constructing a palace on Place Vendôme, they sketched all the facades around the plaza so that unity was achieved. Today, in the chaos of the contemporary metropolis, the link between city and building has been lost: everybody does as they please. The city is the sum of its buildings: good, regular, and bad. For this reason, the creator must imagine an original project that breaks with the surrounding mediocrity, and at the same time, he must generate a cultural symbol that evokes surprise and curiosity in citizens. Art doesn’t exist without beauty and surprise.

RS: Let’s return to Río; do you think that, with its current degree of heterogeneity, it is possible to save the environmental culture with isolated symbols?

ON: In times in which contemporary cities are dominated by social and economic conditions dictated by speculation, the drive to make a quick profit, the lack of culture among businessmen, and the lack of commitment in politicians, one can only produce gestures or suggestions at the moment an opportunity arises. In Río, when at last they decided to insert the proposed Ministry of Education and Culture into the civic center — Le Corbusier had suggested that it be located on an isolated site in the Gloria district. We tried to juxtapose the compact masses of the surrounding monumental buildings by raising the main volume with 10-meter high stilts in order to create an open space—a green lung—for free movement of pedestrians which would alleviate the tension produced by heat and the lack of ventilation on the narrow streets. Actually, I don’t think that this building is an expression of Brazilian architecture; it is instead a product of Le Corbusier’s talents.

Recently, there was another attempt at organizing a new urban space and embody the necessary relationships between architecture and landscape when they decided to expand Río to Barra de Tijuca (to the south). But the initiative folded under the pressure of speculators and landowners who were more interested in the sale of their property than in creating a homogenous residential development.

Niemeyer’s National Cathedral. Photo by babasteve on Flickr.

RS: But didn’t this solution for Barra have the same urban assumptions as Brasília?

ON: I have always emphasized a tight relationship between architecture and nature. I believe that the mission of the architect is to design an environment that generates everyday happiness in the ephemeral lives of human beings. But architects are restricted by the norms imposed by society, at times, undesirable and unacceptable. In that situation, a crisis develops from the rejection of restrictions imposed by the precariousness of the urban environment. The search for integration, human contact, and solidarity among people, should prevail over isolation and separation. The current system of urban development favors individualistic tendencies based on the autonomy and introversion of different functions. In reality, this approach is the result of the intent to overcome the deficiencies of the traditional urban pattern, as proposed during the 1930s by the Europeans, reflected in the Charter of Athens and later, the initiatives of the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM). Lucío Costa applied those principles in the design of Brasília, the only capital city in the world strictly planned in accordance with the urban premises of the Modern movement.

But after many years, it turns out that this wasn’t entirely successful. That overly open scheme doesn’t encourage the coming together of people and the dynamic circulation of pedestrians. Everybody has to get around by car. For example, compare the Monumental Axis [in Brasília], completely deserted of people and full of vehicles, with the Champs Elysées in Paris, which is full of people strolling. Its intense social life is the key attraction for numerous shops and cultural events. The creation of a city with a single activity doesn’t work either. Such is the case in the political and administrative character of Brasília. Due to the lack of a diversity of uses, there is minimal urban vitality. Political power cannot be isolated from the people; leaders should be in daily contact with the pulse of urban life. I don’t believe that this concept will be applied again in the future.

A view in the capital. Photo by seier+seier on Flickr.

RS: Your most recent work was just built in the Bay of Guanabara. What significance does the Museum of Contemporary Art in Niterói have for you?

ON: I am very moved by the impact the Museum has had. In the first month, it had 40,000 visitors. This reinforces my belief that works of art, originality, and the element of surprise can have social importance. People experience sensations and perceptions for the first time, provoking curiosity, pleasure and happiness. For this reason, in addition to resolving the functional requirements of an art gallery, I wanted to create an abstract flower, floating in the breathtaking bay, its whiteness standing out against the blue of the ocean and the sky. This building, sponsored by the municipality of Niterói, is an expression of the technical possibilities of reinforced concrete, a material I have decided to use in unconventional ways since the Pampulha projects in Belo Horizonte.

I see the Brazilian contribution to world architecture as an explosion of originality and tropical innovation in its formal and special proposals. We do not have the same ties to the past that restrict European architects. We assume connections that are closer to nature, the landscape, the possibilities of new materials than to a historical heritage. My relationship to baroque architecture is not stylistic, rather it is conceptual, an admiration of the inventive fantasies of those artists, even though they had to work with traditional technology. That’s why I find shortcomings in the exploration of some of the masters of Modernism, that obsession for cubic forms, as is the case of Gropius or Mies van der Rohe. We should, without prejudice, take the historical principles and apply them to the future by using modern technology to its greatest potential in order to originally conquer space. This was Le Corbusier’s greatest lesson; he was always reticent to prolong what exists, and turned to innovation and progress. Following his example, I felt free of restrictions in designing my projects, especially government and cultural buildings in which one should give expression to the hopes and creativity of our country.

RS: You have been a participant in the difficult struggle of the Latin American artistic vanguard to build a more beautiful and just world, do you feel these original ideals have failed?

ON: Despite all the contradictions that trouble us at the end of this century, I am an optimist. I believe in the human race, in our insatiable desire to build a better future. The history of mankind and its culture is so long that we are alive for only a fleeting moment. We leave a footprint and then we disappear, with the illusion that we are leaving behind a meaningful legacy for our fellow human beings. Life is a continual struggle between good and evil, between happiness and suffering. We can look up to the example of two leaders in the struggle that were able to imagine a glimmer of hope that illuminated the future, in spite of adverse and closed conditions. Locked up for decades in the prisons of fascists and racists, Antonio Gramsci in Italy and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, never tired in the face of adversity. Think of the people of Vietnam who wrote one of the most unforgettable chapters in contemporary human history. Now, they are rebuilding their cities with faith in the future. It is a great honor and very moving for me to have been invited recently to design the Guest House in Hanoi. At the gates of a new century, my advice to young generations of architects it to be realistic, creative and optimistic.


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