Oscar Niemeyer 1907- 2012
Oscar Niemeyer, one of the leading 20th century Modernist architects died December 5th. What should urbanists make of him and his career? His curvaceous buildings gave his version of modernism a Brazilian style in contrast to the stark simplicity of le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Like Corbu, Niemeyer largely failed at planning. Brasilia, which he designed along with his mentor Lucio Costa was influenced by Corbu's Ville Contemporaine (1922). Brasilia, I would describe as a lifeless auto-centric monstrosity more resembling a suburban office park than a city. However, his individual buildings built in a pre-existing urban context are attractive, even beautiful; none more so than the Communist Party headquarters in Paris where he lived in exile after a Brazilian fascist military coup.
Niemeyer was an idealist and what I would call a good Communist (if there is such a thing); not a Stalinist, but more of a humanist. He fought poverty in Brazil, striving for a more egalitarian society. His political views cost him particularly in the United States, where he was prohibited from traveling during the Cold War. In 1952 his candidacy to succeed Walter Gropius at Harvard's School of Design was blocked because of his membership in the CP. Whether a Dean Niemeyer would have been any different or better for urbanism than the anti-urban Josep Lluis Sert is a question for design historians. His leftist politics combined with his affection for grade-separated highways provide an interesting juxtaposition with right wing, pro-highway advocates like Cato's Randall O'Toole, Reason's Robert Poole and writer Joel Kotkin. One wonders if any of today's rightists see the irony that the auto-centric design they love had its origins with a Communist (Neimeyer) and a socialist (Corbu).
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