Can an architect design a beautiful building by luck or accident, and if he does so, is it enough to redeem his life’s work? There is no doubt that Oscar Niemeyer, who has died at the venerable age of 104, built several beautiful buildings, the best of them (of all that I know) the Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia, the seat of the Brazilian Ministry of External Relations. It was not his fault that his original conception, which included the palace’s setting, was comprehensively ruined by the addition of a banal office block behind it, built to accommodate additional bureaucrats. And to mold concrete into beautiful forms, as Niemeyer did in this building, depriving it of its usual inhuman quality, took imagination and ability. Indeed, it is a feat that I’ve not seen equaled or even approached elsewhere.
An author has a right to be judged by his best book, but does an architect have the right to be judged by his best building? The cases are not analogous, for while bad books can be ignored, bad buildings cannot, and Niemeyer built many of them. An artist whose work obtrudes itself on the public cannot be judged by the same criteria as one whose work is easily avoided.
Among the terrible buildings Niemeyer built are the Edificio California in São Paulo and the National Theatre in Brasilia, the former worthy of a Soviet provincial capital and the latter more like a giant nuclear fallout shelter than like a resort of entertainment or culture. That Niemeyer was a man of talent, as his best work proves, only makes his considerable contribution to ugliness all the more unfortunate.
His greatest monument was Brasilia, where one can see his most elegant and ugliest work, the latter combining banality and brutality. The city was a joint enterprise of Niemeyer and the urbanist Lucio Costa; Costa planned the city, Niemeyer built the buildings. The overall effect is, in my opinion, inhuman (though it is only fair to mention that people who have spent their lives there love it), and the inhumanity was connected with their ideology.
As is well-known, Niemeyer was a Communist for most of his adult life and never recanted. Even at its best, his architecture lacks human warmth. The Palácio da Alvorada, the seat of the Brazilian president, is elegant in form, but no one who didn’t already know its function would dream that it was a residence. It would be suited to that purpose if man had the coldly streamlined form of the praying mantis. Niemeyer’s creations would be perfect if only no one had to live in them; people spoil them so. Attempts to humanize the interiors of his architectural forms are unavailing and look tawdry. An upholstered sofa in this setting serves the same function as a child’s teddy bear in a threatening or incomprehensible world: it is something to hang on to in an emotionally cold environment.
Niemeyer was by all accounts a charming man, and he never used his fame or position to accumulate a fortune, as he could easily have done. He was disinterested. Like many architects of the twentieth century, he built for humanity; as for men, he knew them not.
First published in City Journal.