I was already saddened by the news of Dave Brubeck’s death last Wednesday when news came of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer’s passing at the age of 104. Two icons of modern culture, each criticized in their time by purists for their exuberant departures from modernist orthodoxy, lost on the same day. The twentieth century has receded that much further into history.
Niemeyer, as every headline reminded us, was the visionary architect responsible for the almost otherworldly structures of Brasília, the new national capital built on a remote plain in the heart of Brazil. Built up from bare earth between 1956 and 1960, Brasília was the brainchild of President Juscelino Kubitschek, an open-handed, expansion-minded figure who promised his country “fifty years of progress in five.”
Years earlier, when Kubitschek was mayor of Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third-largest city and itself a fairly recent planned creation, he had given Niemeyer his first major public commission – a leisure complex including a small church on an artificial lake. The resulting Pampulha complex showcased Niemeyer’s signature curving lines, a dramatic departure from European modernist orthodoxy. The site was also adorned with the azulejo tiles of Portuguese tradition, recalling Brazil’s past even as the forms gestured towards an unknowable future.
As for Brasília, within a few years, it became the seat of a military dictatorship. And the city itself became a kind of symbol of the alleged inhumanity of modernist architecture and its vision of the radiant city – sweeping boulevards with no street corners to linger on, gleaming towers on a plain, with no houses for the people who built and worked in them. “The anti-Jane Jacobs. Showed us how not to build cities,” the editor of this review tweeted me on Wednesday night. Robert Hughes is similarly hard on Brasília in The Shock of the New. (For the record, the planning and overall concept of Brasília were the responsibility of Lucio Costa.)
Yet there is no denying the seductive power of Niemeyer’s curvaceous and monumental forms: the dramatic s-bend of São Paulo’s monumental Edificio Copan (1957), the flame-like lines of red that lead the audience into the auditorium in Ibirapuera Park (2002, also in São Paulo), the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum (1996) perched like a flying saucer on a rock above the sea (and his earlier, unrealized, even more radical design for a museum). The sinuous, organic curves, of Niemeyer’s work, and his willingness to play with the forms of modernism suggest everything that now seems glamorous and appealing about mid-century modernism.
Such forms seem to represent a radical break with the past, yet many have noted continuities with the monuments of Brazil’s baroque heritage. And there are perhaps echoes as well of the massive, almost unreal landforms found not only of Niemeyer’s native Rio de Janeiro, but other parts of Brazil as well.
Nor did the boldness and scale of Niemeyer‘s work exist in isolation – one could look as well at the Museum of Fine Arts in São Paulo, the work of Niemeyer’s contemporary, Lina Bo Bardi ( I can’t think of another female architect handling public commissions on such a scale at the time). The Glass House Bardi built for herself and her husband may be the ultimate mid-century treehouse. And the revolutionary designs of the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, whose works so often provided the setting for Niemeyer’s buildings (as they did in Brasília) have had an impact far beyond Brazil.
The city of Brasília may have been an isolated phenomenon, rising on its remote and featureless plain, but the innovative modernism of Niemeyer and his contemporaries was not. One of the key documents of Brazilian modernism was the Manifesto Antropófago, or Cannibal Manifesto, of 1922. In this manifesto poet Oswald de Andrade declared, in the words of historian Edwin Williamson, that “the Latin American artist would no longer imitate European forms but would aggressively consume them for his own purposes, an act of destructive transformation that would result in ‘totemic’ and authentically Brazilian creations.” Working a generation and more later, in another medium, Niemeyer arguably did just that.
In Brazil, Niemeyer was given a hero’s farewell, hailed as a larger-than-life figure who helped shaped not only the country’s built environment, but its world image, and whose century of life reflected much of Brazil’s own tumultuous passage through the twentieth century.
In 1907, the year of Niemeyer’s birth, Brazil’s first republic was only eighteen years old. For nearly sevens decades prior, the country had been an empire – not an imperial possession, but a self-contained empire (the story of how this came about is too long to go into here). A military coup had put an end to the only fully-fledged New World monarchy in 1889, and the country was now ruled — in practice, if not in name — by a coalition of regional oligarchs, known as café com leite (coffee with milk) because it was dominated by São Paulo coffee interests, with cattle ranchers playing a secondary role.
In 1907, two of the giants of Brazilian literature were nearing the end of their careers. Novelist Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis would die a year later, at the age of 69. The life and career of Euclides da Cunha, still in his forties, was cut short in 1909, after he attempted to shoot his wife’s lover — the lover, an army officer, fought back and turned out to be the better shot.1 The two between them defined the contradictions and complexities of the nation on the cusp of modernity.
Machado de Assis, an orphan of mixed race afflicted with epilepsy, had emerged from the slums of Rio de Janiero to become the country’s most celebrated writer. His legacy today rests largely on a late trio of witty, daringly self-referential novels: The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (also known in English as Epitaph of a Small Winner), Quincas Borba (also known as Philosopher or Dog?), and Dom Casmurro. These works came about after the Machado de Assis discovered Tristram Shandy and other works by the idiosyncratic and experimental British writer Lawrence Sterne. Machado de Assis’s late works, with their layers of wit and irony, their subtle probing of the characters’ necessary self-delusions, and their lightly worn erudition, sometimes seem to anticipate Nabokov.
Melville House has recently republished Machado de Assis’s The Alienist as part of their Art of the Novella series, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who wants to become acquainted with his work. It’s the darkly funny tale of a pioneering psychologist who, having founded an asylum in his home town, takes up the question of who really belongs inside it. The situation takes a Kafkaesque turn, yet the doctor’s own relentless logic ultimately leads him to a solution that satisfies everyone.
If Machado de Assis demonstrated Brazilian culture’s engagement with Europe and its capacity for innovation, the work for which Euclides da Cunha is remembered revealed the poverty and inequality that afflicted Brazilian society. Os Sertões – called Rebellion in the Backlands or simply Backlands in English – tells the true story of the War of Canudos, a popular uprising in the impoverished, drought-stricken northeast which ended in the massacre of the rebels – many the descendants of African slaves – by government troops. Da Cunha witnessed much of the violence firsthand. His massive narrative begins with a detailed evocation of the region’s thorny, stony, sunburned landscape, impossible to traverse in a straight line, and evolves into a meditation on the seemingly intractable conflict between the modern state and the peoples at its fringes. The war would have a fateful legacy – when a group of landless veterans of Canudos built a shanty town on a hill outside Rio de Janeiro, they are said to have nicknamed it Favela in memory of a similar hill where they had once fought. And the favelas of the twentieth century would be filled, in large part, by economic refugees from the northeast and their descendants.
Niemeyer’s birth also fell during the period when the young composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, having abandoned formal musical training in Rio de Janiero, was travelling the country and collecting the Brazilian folk tunes which often formed the basis of his mature compositions. The best known of these are undoubtedly his Bachianas Brasileiras (another instance of baroque inspiration) Almost everyone has probably heard the famous wordless vocal that opens No. 5, even if they’re not aware of having done so. (While Villa-Lobos would later tell wild stories of these years, including encounters with cannibals, the timeline at www.villalobos.ca says that in 1907 he was more prosaically employed as “an attendant at a local business firm” in the southern port of Paranaguá.)
Looked at in these contexts, Niemeyer’s work appears part of larger whole in ways some criticisms of it may have missed. The radiant forms of Brasília might seem detached from history, but they turn out to be very much part of it.
1 In a tragic and utterly surreal sequel, a few years later da Cunha’s only son attempted to avenge his father’s death by again shooting at the lover, Dillermando, and was himself shot. Dillermando is said to have committed suicide not long afterwards.)