In Porto Alegre, south of Brazil, one of the last projects by Oscar Niemeyer, the worldwide famous Brazilian architect who died just a few days ago, is currently being built. The reinforced concrete so loved by him is still being shaped, with views to an inauguration in March 2013. Fittingly, the building is a memorial to a famous Brazilian communist leader, Luis Carlos Prestes. Niemeyer, himself an unrepentant communist and admirer of Stalin and Castro to the very end, donated the project to the city administration in the early nineties but it started to be built only last year, when Niemeyer was already in hospital.
How much did Niemeyer´s communist ideology influence his aesthetics? Once, in an interview, he mentioned that he was inspired by a “dream of equality”. However, his major legacy, the city of Brasilia, ended up becoming exactly the opposite of such ideal: while the politicians congregate in the beautiful white modern buildings, the rest of the population live in huge gray Soviet-like structures, and the poor live even farther away, in the slums of the so-called “sattelite cities” around it. One could argue that in the end Brasilia represents, not the ideal, but the reality of communism, with powerful bureaucrats living in palaces while the tired and huddled masses would dwell in collectivist misery. (As for Niemeyer himself, he would rather live in Rio, in the penthouse of a 1939 Art Deco building overlooking Copacabana beach.)
However, as wrongheaded as the planning of Brasilia was (actually developed by Lucio Costa with supervision by Niemeyer), with its zoning policies and its anti-pedestrian stance, there is no denying that Brasilia contains some very striking buildings, with their own special kind of beauty. Oscar Niemeyer, called the “poet of curves” or the “poet of concrete” by his admirers, was certainly a talented architect, even if his works leaves some people cold.
Let’s admit it: a fair amount of contemporary architecture is ugly. This is not just a matter of personal taste or prejudice. Many decades ago, modern art broke with the traditional conventions of classical beauty, considered by many intellectuals a bourgeois anachronism. It was more important to be original, daring, even shocking – to the point that breaking with tradition became an end in itself. Architecture eventually followed the same road, and if it didn’t get to the extreme bad taste of contemporary art with it mutilated sharks and crucifixes immersed in urine, it was because, contrary to experimental art, it was bound to certain basic principles and needed to at least make sure that the buildings would not fall down.
Oscar Niemeyer started as a disciple of Le Corbusier, who was perhaps the first of the so-called “starchitects”. But he would diverge from the master early on in his career. Niemeyer’s signature would always be the curves: “What Le Corbusier is to right angles, I am to curves”, he joked once. This gave his buildings a more relaxing appearance. Also, contrary to more strict modernists, he was not afraid to use some traditional elements in his work.
But architecture is always informed by the taste of the elites more than by that of the public at large, and the fashion among the elite at least since the 60s has been to have buildings with “interesting shapes” more than any other characteristic. In many cases, the buildings become famous specifically for having the shape of something else other than a building. This is also the case of the Brazilian architect. It is no wonder that many of Niemeyer’s buildings ended up getting nicknames: the “flying saucer”, the “volcano”, the “eye”. While that is partly because Brazilians tend to give nicknames to everything, it is also because of their unusual shape.
Unfortunately, the original or innovative shape becomes in many cases distracting and even detrimental to the purported use of the building. The “flying saucer”, also known as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Niteroi, is a case in point. While it is certainly striking when seen from a distance, as a museum it doesn’t really work. The circular shape and the large windows overlooking the beautiful panorama of Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay become very distracting, to the point that you can barely look at the art displayed, much less remember it. The place probably works better as an observatory of the beautiful seaside view. In fact, when you visit the museum, you see more people looking through the windows outside than at the paintings and other art works. (However, that could also be because, being a contemporary art museum, the art is not very interesting to look at in the first place).
Being an original, Niemeyer influenced and inspired many architects and artists, but didn’t leave direct followers, not even in Brazil. His ideology, however — unfortunately – sometimes seems to have had a more pervasive influence, particularly among local intellectuals. In that circle, Communist ideology is a plus, not a minus. It is possible that Niemeyer’s success was also due partly to his Stalinist sympathies and his reflexive anti-Americanism. Had he been a right-wing fanatic, or mereley a defender of capitalist free enterprise, would he have the same level of international success? It is unlikely. Of course, Niemeyer was avowedly a Communist, but, except in some cases where ideology was more important than money (such as the Memorial in Porto Alegre, or the building of the Communist Party in France), he liked to be extremely well-paid for his work. The Niemeyer brand was not cheap. In some ways, this reflects what happened in Brazilian politics too, where the former communist guerrillas of the 60s mutated into champagne-sipping leftist politicians who took power in the 90s. Some of them were recently arrested in an important corruption trial that may even affect and stain the legacy the popular ex-president, Lula da Silva.
Indeed, more than a symbol of the equality dreamed by Niemeyer, Brasilia and its buildings became, in the minds of most Brazilians, a symbol of corruption. In a recent political cartoon recalling the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, a plane is shown striking the “twin towers” of Congress built by Niemeyer. But what we have next to them, instead of people fleeing in horror, is a cheering multitude, happy to see corrupt politicians dead. That’s how bad the image of Brasilia is these days.
In the end, however, art and ideology are only partly related. Long after the last Communist dies in the world (and Fidel Castro once said that Niemeyer and himself where the only “true communists still remaining”), his architecture will still be visually arresting, even if not for all tastes.