Oscar Niemeyer, the modernist master architect responsible in part for Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, died Wednesday at the age of 104. The New York Times states that he died of a respiratory infection while at a hospital in Rio de Janeiro.
Though this blog is about Provo, Utah, it takes its cues from many other cities around the world. And perhaps no city that I’ve visited is as remarkable or as bizarre as Brasilia, which was built from scratch in the middle of nowhere in the 1960s. The Times article (link above) has a great rundown on Niemeyer’s career, including his role in creating Brasilia:
His curvaceous, lyrical, hedonistic forms helped shape a distinct national architecture and a modern identity for Brazil that broke with its colonial and baroque past. Yet his influence extended far beyond his country. Even his lesser works were a counterpoint to reductive notions of Modernist architecture as blandly functional.
However, once Brasilia was completed, it was largely considered a failure:
Brasília soon became a symbol of Modernism’s failure to deliver on its utopian promises. The vast empty plazas seemed to sum up the social alienation of modern society; surrounded by slums, the monumental government buildings of its center exemplified Brazil’s deeply rooted social inequalities.
Though the article claims Niemeyer’s reputation was eventually restored, Brasilia remains, in my opinion and that of many urbanists I’ve read or talked to, a spectacular failure.
The problem is that it’s devoid of people in a haunting, almost sublime way. The last time I visited, for example, I remarked to Laura that walking in the center of Brasilia was like walking through a post-apocalyptic film; the infrastructure was all there but the people were conspicuously absent.
One of the problems is that Brasilia was designed almost exclusively for the car. It has big, wide highways curving around Niemeyer’s striking buildings, but few useful sidewalks connecting destinations. And because it’s a car-centric city, the distances are extraordinarily. In 2010, Laura and I tried to walk from the main government buildings to a well-known pizza restaurant. In Provo, the walk would have taken us maybe 30 minutes. In Brasilia, it took three hours and required repeatedly climbing through bushes, over highways, and through tangles of modernist housing projects. It was a disaster.
One of Brasilia’s other main problems is that it was designed for a finite population size that was long surpassed. The result is that the glittering city has been surrounded by ever more distant slums (which coincidentally are more vibrant in many cases).
Many of these problems can be traced to Brasilia’s planner, Lucio Costa, rather than specifically to Niemeyer. And some of Niemeyer’s buildings are unquestionably interesting, especially in cities — Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, etc. — that grew up more organically.
But regardless of the problems the city remains noteworthy and fascinating. In some pockets — near that pizza place, for example — remarkable examples of vibrancy have popped up despite the design flaws. And whatever its faults, I like Brasilia for the boldness of its vision and experimentation; its an emotionally unsettling city, but in the end I probably wouldn’t be writing (Pro(vo)cation) if I hadn’t spent time there.