Brazilian architect Niemeyer interviewed

This is a video about Oscar Niemeijer.

By Peter Godfrey from Britain:

‘Everything is interconnected’

Monday 07 June 2010

Oscar Niemeyer‘s studio has a stunning vista of Copacabana beach and the Sugar Loaf. At 102 years old, he still comes to work every weekday, using a specially installed lift from the top landing of the Rio apartment block. But there are few other concessions for the man who, some seven decades ago, broke the stranglehold of the right angle and straight line on Western architecture.

“In our work we are always looking to surprise. Because that idea of the Bauhaus that architecture has to be purely functional was absolute nonsense. It can be both practical and beautiful. It can amaze.

“We’re seeking an architecture that’s lighter and freer, with few supports – so it becomes daring and creates a more generous space, where people can behave in a new way.”

Niemeyer talks in a deep, sonorous voice, and for someone who learned his trade with Le Corbusier in the 1930s and almost single-handedly designed the monumental buildings of the new capital, Brasilia, in the late ’50s, is remarkably unassuming.

“Our concern is political too – to change the world. I’ve spent my whole life at a drawing board, but life is more important than architecture. What matters is to improve human beings,” says Niemeyer.

Brought up in a devout Catholic family, Niemeyer has been a lifelong Communist, and a picture of Luiz Carlos Prestes, the historic leader of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), hangs on his studio wall.

“We’re asking for so little. We want people to regard each other fraternally, without looking for faults. We’re all in the same boat – we should be living with our hands joined.”

For the past five years, Niemeyer and his colleagues have had a weekly visit from a physicist who leads seminars on philosophy, history and the cosmos.

“We emerge from a session on the cosmos feeling smaller, more modest, that we’re really not so important. But we should at least be loyal, and keep faith with others.”

Niemeyer is scathing about higher education in Brazil.

“When students leave college they’re like children who know nothing about the problems of life and don’t have a political stance.”

He and his wife have launched a magazine, Nosso Caminho (“Our Path”), to try to counteract narrow specialisation.

“It’s ostensibly about architecture, but takes in literature, philosophy and many other things with the aim of making young people more idealistic, showing them that they live in a selfish world and should try to improve it,” he says.

Niemeyer’s own contribution has been to dream up an array of buildings that challenge the status quo – and often too the laws of gravity.

“In architecture today you can make use of all the possibilities of reinforced concrete. There’s no reason to design buildings that are rectilinear, because with concrete you can cover almost any space.”

The sinuous curves of Niemeyer’s buildings, some with improbable exterior walkways suspended in mid-air, reflect his aim to convey beauty and harmony through the simple geometry of the structure itself.

As he has famously said: “What attracts me is the flowing, sensual curve. The curve which I find in the mountains of my country, in the body of a favourite woman, the clouds in the sky and the waves on the sea. The whole universe is made of curves – Einstein’s curved universe.”

Niemeyer first made a splash designing audacious buildings in Pampulha, a suburb of Belo Horizonte, in 1940 for the city’s mayor Juscelino Kubitscheck.

Nearly two decades later, when Kubitscheck was president of Brazil, they renewed their collaboration to conjure Brasilia out of a strategically located area of scrubland.

“It was the success of Pampulha that gave us courage.”

The cathedral in Brasilia is perhaps Niemeyer’s most iconic building. I wondered whether, as a confirmed atheist, he had found it uncomfortable to design.

“The Catholics in my family were very good, honest people, so I felt at ease because of that. And the project of a cathedral is fantastic – you can do what you like. You have the problem of light to resolve. I remember how much I enjoyed designing the cathedral, making those pre-fabricated curves and hanging them up.”

Fifty years later, Niemeyer is still adding to the distinctive skyline of the Brazilian capital.

“We’ve designed a new television tower more than 100 metres high. Halfway up there’s a large information and lookout point – no-one has built anything like it,” says Niemeyer.

He’s also proposing a new central square to ease congestion around Brasilia’s bus station. It features a soaring triangular structure – also more than 100 metres high.

The flamboyant design has attracted some controversy, but Niemeyer is no stranger to conflict. He was on a boat to France when, in 1964, the military seized power in Brazil. “They went to my studio and trashed it.”

Brazil‘s loss was France’s gain, as the architect received special dispensation to work there, designing, among other buildings, the elegantly undulating French Communist Party headquarters in Paris.

“The dictatorship was 20 years of misery and violence. I stayed in France several months, but when I returned to Brazil the police hadn’t forgotten me. Some of my friends were tortured, but I didn’t suffer that. I was humiliated.

“A number of times I was summoned and detained for several hours. They would interrogate me in an enormous room full of tables and police officers. But fortunately things changed.”

Niemeyer is positive about the current Workers’ Party government led by President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva.

“Capitalism is crap, it’s in decay, but we’re living at a moment that allows us a certain hope. Our president is a worker, he’s linked to the people and linked to the defence of Latin America, which has been under such threat.”

His view of Brazilian society at large is less rosy.

“Everything is a fight over money. Today the prevailing force is egoism, a lack of understanding of life, of how human beings can be fairer. And we badly need agrarian reform – the land belongs to everybody.”

As for the future of the Earth, his vision is, well, apocalyptic.

“I think the planet has grown tired. In the next 40 years things are going to change a lot. Sea levels could rise by more than two metres and all the coastal cities will have to be moved. It may get so hot that people have to create gardens on the roofs of apartments, cover open spaces with vegetation. Then there’s the problem of water…”

For all his international prestige, Niemeyer charges architect’s fees at the lower end of the professional scale, and chose to design Brasilia on a civil servant’s wage.

He travels regularly to Niteroi, across the bay from Rio, where he is designing a series of buildings along the scenic coastline.

“It’s a big effort for me, but you have to try to set an example,” he says.

While there he talks to groups of architecture students who come from as far afield as Sao Paulo and Brasilia. His advice to them is to read widely.

“You have to read to be informed. Everything is interconnected. It’s no good being ignorant.”

Niemeyer still enjoys a full life, and has no remaining ambitions, but is busy with new projects – the latest a commission for a vast square in Kazakhstan.

“Things are difficult. You get older and find yourself saying goodbye to people. Life doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it’s more meaningful if the will to be useful and to help your neighbour predominates. Human beings have to be realistic. We live, die and see others die – at the very least there should exist a spirit of solidarity.”

A report released this week by Human Rights Watch cited Brazil for widespread torture, police killings and a continuing amnesty for crimes carried out under the military dictatorship: here.

3 thoughts on “Brazilian architect Niemeyer interviewed

  1. Pingback: Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer dies | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Art and social movements, exhibition in England | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: Art, social movements and history, exhibition | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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