It is heartening to consider that, rather than finding out via my little ritual, I became aware of Niemeyer's passing on account of a number of expressions of sadness on Facebook and Twitter. How much sadness can a community really feel at the death of a nearly 105 year old man? A lot, I was happy to see.
Niemeyer is among my favourite architects, and, being a tad grief-stricken I spent part of today overdosing on obituaries from as many sources as I could find. Definite highlights are Oliver Wainwright's short insight into the man himself, and above all Norman Foster's touching written tribute (in a way it strikes me as odd that friends and admirers such as Foster only write such tributes to a person when they are gone). My own tribute simply seems a natural progression.
Niemeyer's is a curious form of modernism. On the one hand, his materials palette of white concrete and glass is immediately recognisable, and the apparent weightlessness of his buildings is common to many a modernist. Yet on the other hand, he ran counter to some key modernist mantras - both in his design and vocally: for example his oft-quoted saying "form follows feminine", was used to champion the use of the curve rather than the usual strict straight lines; he also went up against the production ethic of Bauhaus Modernism, saying "Walter Gropius came to see me at the house... He said, it's beautiful, but it can't be mass-produced. As if I had intended such a thing! What an idiot."
For many reasons, I should not be a fan of Niemeyer's architecture. Often his work is prone to the greatest follies of modernism, such as a lack of respect for the built context the work is in (see figure 1), or the related tendency to treat buildings as isolated objects, divorced from and failing to define the public space surrounding them (see figure 2). Furthermore his rebellious use of curves, which freed him from the restraints commonplace among other modernists, had a slight tendency towards the incredibly post-modern trait of meaningless formalism, unsurprisingly more obvious in his later work (see figure 3) - which perhaps is the reason for some critics' claim that Niemeyer was a direct influence on and predecessor to Zaha Hadid, an accusation which sickens me.
Figure 1: Auditorium in Ravello, Italy
Figure 2: Supremo Tribunal Federal in Brasília, Brazil
Figure 3: Niteroi Museum of Contemporary Art in Niteroi, Brazil
Another thing which ought to put me off Niemeyer's work is the somewhat conflicted relationship it has with his political ideas. Given that he was a lifelong and passionate communist, I would normally expect more concessions to 'the people'; there is the occasional gesture, such as the fact that the public was given access to the roof of the National Congress Building in Brasília (now closed for safety reasons) and the very fact that he was involved in the design of Brasília at all (the naïvety of 1950s planning does not preclude the good intentions of all involved). However, these brief nods to the greater population are no more involved than was common for many modernists.
Some publications claim that Niemeyer did not believe that architecture could wield any true political power, hence his direct political involvement through other means (an involvement strong enough that he was firm friends with Fidel Castro). For his part, Niemeyer is quoted as saying: "Architecture does not change anything. It's always on the side of the wealthy". To me, this lack of belief in architecture's power seems incongruous with a politically minded modernist, and I feel this could potentially have added another dimension to his work.
The Genius of Niemeyer
With all these issues, it is a wonder that I like Niemeyer's work at all. Yet he is in fact one of my favourite architects - so what is it that is so special about Oscar Niemeyer? His unusual quality can be summed up in the following quote:
"Camus says in 'The Stranger' that reason is the enemy of imagination. Sometimes you have to put reason aside and make something beautiful."
In the past hundred or so years, the majority of serious architects have avoided the word 'beautiful', and largely for good reasons. In most institutions, the desire for beauty is swiftly trained out of young architects, sculptors and artists. Theorists who attempt to give a definition or list of criteria for beauty usually resort to either dictating facile personal bias or conjuring paper-thin pseudo-psychology, and most architects who try to achieve beauty in a pure sense will end in failure.
But not Oscar Niemeyer.
Figure 4: Itamaraty Palace in Brasília, Brazil
Neimeyer's eye for beautiful forms is frequently astounding. Very little theory is ever given supporting the shapes he creates, except for his love of curves inspired by Brazilian beaches, mountains and above all, women. His seemingly intuitive understanding for visual beauty more than overcomes all of my reservations about his designs.
Figure 5: Cathedral of Brasília in Brasília, Brazil
Niemeyer's effortless work has the power to bypass all of my normal opinions about architecture. Usually skeptical of the idea, in Niemeyer I see an inspired genius, working from intuition more than understanding, and almost always transcending explanation. Now, the world seems one genius short.
R.I.P. Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho - December 15th 1907 - December 5th 2012.