Oscar Niemeyer and the death of the modernist dream

Several years ago I had the chance to visit the capital city of Brazil, Brasilia. It is a remarkable in many ways chiefly owing to it’s centrally planned, modernist architecture, but also because it is very poignant example of a single architectural style–modernism. The city’s chief architect, Oscar Niemeyer, died this week at the impressive age of 104. He is one of the twentieth century’s greatest architects and he continued working from his hospital bed, right up to his death.

Niemeyer’s designs are a window to the heart of the modernist dream that was emerging in Brazil in the middle of last century. Although it seems foreign in many ways looking at the way the city was conceived and designed gives us some insight into our own dreams and ambitions. Every major city in the United States has one or more modernist building nestled between representatives of other architectural movements that mute the force of the modernist vision.

Master plan of Brasilia, Lucio Costa

Brasilia is one of a few cities I have visited over the years that grew up from scratch. That is to say, it was founded and settled in the last generation. It’s like Las Vegas in that respect.

A key difference is that the Brazilian government commissioned Niemeyer to design and build the entire city.  As a result all of the buildings in the Federal District are modernist. As you can see from the map above, the city was designed in an aircraft-like pattern–almost signifying Brazil’s mounting up on the eagle’s wings of progress and taking flight. It was to be an ideal city, a representation of the dreams of modernity–unity, dominance, control, and convenience.

A brief look at a map demonstrates this. The urban plan by Lucio Costa arranges the city into groups of buildings by purpose–hotels and leisure, government, retail, residential. Most (if not all) residential housing is in the form of flats or apartments–some quite large–grouped into a sections. Each section has it’s own gas station, for example. Other than that, if I recall, residents travel to the part of town where they shop or conduct business. In this respect, Brasilia is a city predicated on the automobile and something of a pedestrian disaster. 

Oscar Niemeyer, Government Building, Brasilia
Oscar Niemeyer, Government Building, Brasilia (Courtesy: AFP)

Our growing understanding of the ecological problems associated with fossil fuels means that, in many respects, Brasilia is no longer and ideal city. In fact, in many respects it stands as a representative of the human desire to conquer nature and impose artificial order on a creation that has its own order–one we either don’t understand or refuse to take time to understand.

I found the city to be strangely alluring yet repulsive–symmetrical without being beautiful. It’s the architectural counterpart of the jardin à la française–that monstrosity displayed behind the Palace of Versailles: the French formal garden. Truly beautiful cities–like truly beautiful gardens–have a beauty that borders on chaos, rather like and English garden.  

The concept of Brasilia turned out to be very different from the reality of the city. In a few short years  masses of Brazilians travelled there in search of work.

Many of those unable to secure it ended up living in the numerous favelas that are scattered on the outskirts of the city.

A favela near Brasilia

The federal district itself is easily mistaken for Europe–fine shopping, excellent food.

However, a few miles away is intense poverty and a degree of hopelessness for the future. Like all cities, especially those built all at one time, Brasilia is a parable of the presuppositions dominant at the time of its construction:

  1. That space and must be conquered.
  2. That beauty is synonymous with order and uniformity.
  3. That it’s better to start from a blank slate.
  4. That tradition and convention are of little to no value.
  5. That the car will be available and affordable for all residents.

Each of these presuppositions is present, to one degree or another, in the way we tend to conceive of our own lived environment. 

Here are some ways in which I think this is true:

  1. We design and build big houses that swallow much of the acreage on which they’re built. We conquer the land, removing trees and creating lawns, rather than creating a design that more appropriately cooperates with the land.
  2. We value “affordability” and so our new construction tends to utilize uniformity of design as a way to reduce cost. The result: master-planned subdivisions that are simply minor variations on a single theme.
  3. We build new houses and new subdivisions while large parts of our cities remain uninhabited. It’s better to have a new house than to worry with the hassle of an old house. I’m not sure that most of us love our new houses the way that many of us living in quirky old houses cherish ours.
  4. Architecturally, we defy convention and tradition in favor of convenience. Roof lines on new homes are a significantly different from those of earlier iterations–Cape Cod, Craftsman, etc.
  5. We’re still dependent on the car more than we should.

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