This past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine published a photo essay, accompanied by a single paragraph of prose by Julie Bosman, as a hagiographic memento for the late Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. The photos were all of Niemeyer’s work in Algeria: four buildings built out of 12 designs approved. Bosman’s paragraph says that Niemeyer was “a Communist who fled to France following the military takeover of Brazil in 1964.” The passing mention of Niemeyer’s communism seems somehow to suggest that this was a badge of honor, albeit one that has nothing to do with his architectural style. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In a 1920 documentary one can see Le Corbusier rubbing a thick black pencil over a wide area of the map of central Paris “with the enthusiasm of Bomber Harris planning the annihilation of a German city in World War II”, wrote Theodore Dalrymple in a tasty article for City Journal. The celebrated architect, founder of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), was busy designing a delusional, totalitarian fantasy: the Plan Voisin, a geometric collection of 18 cruciform towers of offices sixty-stories high supplemented by series of residential buildings outlining superblocks. That’s Niemeyer’s achitectural template. His communism was most certainly not incidental to his style.
Taste is just taste, of course. You might like the Capanema Palace in Rio de Janeiro, a 1936 Niemeyer design based on a sketch by Le Corbusier (I do like it, in fact). You might like the Cathedral of Brasilia (I love it), built in 1958, or the Itamaraty Palace (it’s gorgeous), the headquarters of the Foreign Ministry erected in Brasilia in 1960. You might even like the sumptuous headquarters of the French Communist Party in Paris (I do not), or the hideous Latin America Memorial in São Paulo, or the ridiculous Contemporary Arts Museum in Niteroi. But like or dislike, love or hate, there is no intellectual justification for separating the oeuvre of Oscar Niemeyer from its doctrinal roots. Niemeyer is an heir of the Le Corbusier matrix, the founding father of an architecture of destruction wholly devoted to the aesthetic of power and to hatred for history, living public spaces and, above all, common people.
Niemeyer was certainly no naive epigone of Le Corbusier, with “big boxes on sticks” (Frank Lloyd Wright), that were “a common hallmark of the modern form” (Lewis Mumford). This Brazilian was an inventor: His contours sinuously curved the masses of concrete, giving a tropical identity to modern architecture. But look again to the photos reproduced in The NYT Magazine: Niemeyer’s compositional strategies and his narrow repertoire of forms are not derived from purported renaissance or baroque inspirations, but from the neoclassical principles which are those of Le Corbusier.
Furthermore, Niemeyer shared with his master the fundamental belief in the “civilizing mission” of the state—namely, the state privilege of hoarding unlimited acres of urban land to carve the city (and society) according to the ideals of the ruling elite. The two architects, Le Corbusier and Niemeyer, demand the patronage of tyrants – or, rather, tyrants with a Vision. The New York Times Magazine does not tell its readers that Niemeyer’s Algerian projects overlap with the most authoritarian stage of the Boumediene dictatorship, between 1971 and 1975.
In the Brazilian press, Niemeyer’s death in 2012 (at the age of 104), was accompanied predominantly by two types of reviews. One kind stated that his work was genius because it reflected the “humanist thought” of the unrepentant Stalinist architect. This is an abominable opinion, but a coherent one. The other kind stated that his incredible body of work should be separated from his deplorable political beliefs. This is flimsy and inconsistent criticism. The architecture of Niemeyer, as of Le Corbusier’s, is not only a derivation of his ideological leanings but also a platform for his desired alliance between the architects and the tyrants. Le Corbusier served both Stalin and the collaborationist Vichy regime. “France needs a father”, pleaded the architect shortly before the publication of The Radiant City, whose title page says: “This book is dedicated to the Authority.” Here is the key to deciphering his work, and Niemeyer’s.
The Piazza della Signoria, which has no trees, is a wonder of the dessicated human spirit. You don’t need to be a romantic, nor do you need to shed any tears for the “green”, to be repulsed by the brutality of Niemeyer’s modernism. One doesn’t need to subscribe to the whole set of principles of organic architecture to repudiate the ignominious monumentalism of the Modern Temple. “The plan shall govern. The street must disappear”, wrote Le Corbusier in 1924, pointing to the direction adopted by Niemeyer. The destructive impulse is contained in each of the architectural interventions of both designers, whether the result happens to be beautiful or, more often, not.
Niemeyer’s buildings never establish meaningful or functional relationships with the surrounding structures, which he despises because they didn’t originate from his pencil. The residual spaces between volumes never acquire identity, functioning only as belvederes for contemplating his monuments to Authority. The larger the scale of the project, the more evident his “anachronistic modernity.” “The guiding role of open spaces, with its streets, squares, meeting places and markets” is diluted in Brasilia, “in a space without limits or other function than to frame isolated and sculptural buildings.” (J. C. Durand & E. Salvatori).
Niemeyer’s aesthetics make a political statement. In Brasilia, as James Holston has emphasized, the typological contrast between public buildings (“exceptional, figural objects of monumental nature”) and residential buildings (“repeated, serial objects of trivial nature”) epitomize the regressive utopia desired by the architect. A letter by Alberto Moravia to an Italian newspaper at the time of Brasilia’s inauguration as the capital noted that the city made people feel “like the tiny inhabitants of Lilliput” seeking, “in the empty sky, the threatening form of a new Gulliver.”
In Brazil, Niemeyer’s death in 2012 generated a torrent of flattery and bloated nationalism that drowned out the critical voices of public planners, architects, sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers. “Beautiful . . . like a bird”, says one Algerian of a Niemeyer work at the close of the New York Times Magazine piece.
Do you know the average thickness of concrete per square meter at the Memorial of Latin America—or at the University of Science and Technology—Houari Boumediene? When Niemeyer’s signature appeared on the blueprints, it was always good news for the civil construction business. But look once more to the eighth photo (or photos ten, 11, or 14) that the New York Times Magazine shows us. The scars in the university building walls in the outskirts of Algiers reveal the fate of Niemeyer’s architecture. Decay, wreck, and ruin. Some future.