The Architect of the Future That Never Was

The failed dreamscapes of Oscar Niemeyer.

Architect Oscar Niemeyer, who died in Rio de Janeiro on Dec. 5 at age 104, was a mythical figure even when alive. In his home country of Brazil, he defined the approved look of a rapidly modernizing nation. And outside Brazil, at least for a decade or so, his buildings embodied what it meant to be modern.

Niemeyer's major works include the government complex and cathedral in Brasilia, Sao Paulo's Edificio Copan apartment complex, the headquarters of the French Communist Party, the University of Constantine, and a good portion of the United Nations' headquarters in New York.

His style was unmistakable: white platonic solids, curves, and black glass, all set on podia, aloof from the world. Nobody did Niemeyer like Niemeyer. But outside Brazil, he was not always taken seriously. European architects, most famously Swiss modernist Max Bill, thought his work both frivolous and inhumane, while Americans were uneasy about his lifelong communism. At home, despite his unassailable position with the political elite, there were quiet, but persistent, complaints about the quality of his later work. And throughout the world, as fashions in urban planning have come to favor walkability, environmental sensitivity, and organic growth, Brasilia has often become a buzzword for the impractical, utopian ideas of the past: a white marble monument to central planning surrounded by slums. Is there anything worth salvaging from Niemeyer's complex legacy?

I met Niemeyer in 2001 on a visit to Rio. A local friend put me in touch with him, and we secured an appointment at his Copacabana office. We were shown to a desk adorned with a large black-and-white photograph of two young women lying on their backs, naked. A tiny, prune-like man in a crisp shirt greeted us -- Niemeyer. Chain-smoking cigars throughout the meeting, he was charm itself. He showed us a funny animated film in which he arrived from outer space in a flying saucer that, on landing, became the new Museu de Arte Contemporanea in Niteroi. We talked about his latest work, jazz, beer, women (the inspiration for all those curves), and Brasilia. Brazil's capital was to be the centerpiece of my trip, and I'd planned a week there. A week? Niemeyer laughed. I was mad, he said. A day was quite enough.

The remark about Brasilia stayed with me because it revealed a strangely casual attitude toward the capital, the site of his greatest work. Brasilia's first phase was built from 1957 to 1960 in a frenzy of nationalist modernization. One of the world's largest-ever construction projects, Brasilia represented "50 years' progress in five" according to then-President Juscelino Kubitschek, the capital's chief advocate.

Niemeyer's diffidence about Brasilia was odd. Moreover, it seemed to suggest how little he thought about his buildings once erected. All architects have this fault to some degree, but Niemeyer was an exaggerated case. How his buildings performed in reality -- their condition, their maintenance -- was of little concern. He was an artist, and his job was to create new forms, which he did, prolifically. Unsurprisingly, given this attitude, his works can be problematic for those who have to use them on a day-to-day basis. In Brasilia, the famous cathedral, all glass in a city with one of the world's highest indices of sunshine, turns into a furnace, a literal hell, in summer (perhaps intentionally so -- Niemeyer was an atheist). The ministry buildings align perfectly so that one face is blasted by the heat in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Some high-ranking officials are said to have two offices, one for each part of the day.

The shortcomings in the performance of these buildings drew early critics' attention to other problems in the capital's design. It was a city of freeways for a population of people who mostly did not yet have cars; a city of organized socialization in a society that loved spontaneity; a city that was already falling to pieces less than a decade after it was built. A mischievous 1967 article in the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects depicted a city of ruins, raw sewage pouring untreated from apartment blocks, the city's museum inundated. It was a terrible sight, one that set the tone for at least two decades as Brasilia's utopian promise evaporated. As Brazil's economy labored in the late 1960s, foreigners visited the city not in search of a miracle, but the sublime spectacle of modernity ruined. A slew of highly skewed anthropological studies followed. In Brasilia: Plan and Reality (1968), an American academic, David Epstein, described a city of garbage-strewn slums, patrolled by feral dogs. By the late 1960s, architecture for the most part moved on. There's barely a mention of Brasilia in the international architectural press from 1970 onward.

Even Niemeyer could admit to the city's difficulties. In 2008, at age 100, he complained to the Guardian that the city had grown beyond his vision. "The way Brasilia has evolved, it has problems. It should have stopped growing some time ago. Traffic is becoming more difficult; the number of inhabitants has surpassed the target; limits are being exceeded."

Holding Niemeyer responsible for all the capital's urban-planning failings is a bit unfair. Although often discussed as if he were the city's primary designer, in the mold of Pierre L'Enfant with Washington or Baron Haussmann with modern Paris, Niemeyer's relationship with Brasilia is actually far more ambiguous. He was employed from the start by Kubitschek to build a presidential palace and the government buildings, but (calmly ignoring the results of an international architectural competition) employed his friend Lucio Costa to do the street plan. It is Costa who was in effect responsible for most of the lived city.

Adapting Le Corbusier's 1920s urbanism, Costa built a rigidly zoned city, with separate areas for work, residence, and play. Costa was extremely talented, and the city plan is beautiful by any standards (from space, it looks like a bird). But he made two mistakes: He assumed everyone would be middle class, so there is literally no room for the poor; and he assumed that the city, once finished, would not grow. Costa was an idealist and an aesthete, and much as he admired organic form, organic growth -- city growth -- was intolerable.

Niemeyer certainly shared Costa's antipathy to uncontrolled development. His aims were purely aesthetic and limited to the Eixo Monumental (Monumental Axis), the central avenue where the most important government buildings are located. He aimed to create a sense of surrealist spectacle that would literally "shock and surprise" visitors out of their everyday lives. This he certainly achieved in the otherworldly Square of the Three Powers, an astonishingly inventive set piece that simultaneously invokes neoclassicism and Hollywood science fiction, while being entirely sui generis. There is nowhere on Earth like it.

Niemeyer's communism had him fall foul of the authorities by the late 1960s. During the post-Kubitschek military dictatorship, he left for Paris, where he built the French Communist Party's headquarters -- partly, one suspects, out of revenge. After he returned to Rio in the 1980s following the fall of the dictatorship, Niemeyer's career developed a studied casualness. Pre-Brasilia, Niemeyer was photographed earnestly poring over drawings, brow furrowed, hard at work. Post-Brasilia, he was the artist-playboy, dabbling in poetry, sketching the girls of Copacabana, magically designing buildings before lunch. It was a good life -- and Niemeyer was supremely good at it -- but it did not always produce good buildings. Outside the now pristine capital, Niemeyer's work is frequently undermined by poor craftsmanship and materials or inadequate maintenance. (And boy does it need maintaining: Brazil's humid coastal climate does terrible things to Niemeyer's preferred material, concrete.) The 1996 Museu de Arte Contemporanea is a case in point. Lauded by the world's architectural press, it looks superb at a distance. Up close, it's a terrible bodge job, a first-grader's approximation of a flying saucer.

Niemeyer took no notice of such criticisms. In any case, by then he was decisively back in fashion. His species of sculptural modernism turned out to be perfectly suited for cities in our contemporary globalized economy, anxious to differentiate themselves through new icons. What Frank Gehry did with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1996 to such acclaim, Niemeyer had in fact been doing for years in Brazil. His understanding of architecture as icon was peerless, and a new generation of icon-builders, Zaha Hadid especially, has acknowledged Niemeyer as a prime influence. New professional honors followed, along with new commissions outside Brazil, including a spectacular 2010 cultural center for Avilés, Spain.

Meanwhile, Niemeyer went on building in the capital until the end of his life. His last buildings to be realized, both in 2006, were the National Museum and a branch of the National Library, both ostensibly functional buildings, but both in reality giant sculptures, located -- to the annoyance of many architects -- right in the middle of the Monumental Axis. A huge white dome and a great slab on pilotis, they are as spectacular as anything Niemeyer ever built, but literally and figuratively empty, signifiers really only of themselves. In many ways they represent the closing of the first chapter in Brasilia's history. As Niemeyer built, the city around him turned itself into a successful metropolis of 4 million. It is now a far larger, more complex, and frankly more interesting place than he ever imagined. Niemeyer's planned city is still the symbolic heart of Brasilia, but it has become a sort of modernist Upper East Side: wealthy, old, and rather dull.

Meanwhile, the satellite city of Taguatinga, originally home of the construction workers who built Brasilia and for years a bastion of poverty on the edge of the well-planned capital, has become the economic motor of the new metropolis. That's where the action is these days -- with a thriving private sector, cultural institutions, and vibrant neighborhoods growing outside the original core.

Niemeyer's Brasilia belongs increasingly to the past.



Return of the Silviosaur

Italian politics these days is like Sunset Boulevard meets Jurassic Park.

With one tactless remark last week, an Italian cabinet minister may have inadvertently triggered the fall of the country's technocratic government and the return to center stage of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Corrado Passera, the normally suave and experienced economic development minister told a television interviewer that "a return to the past would not be good for Italy." The remark was an explicit reference to Berlusconi's Popolo della Libertà-led government, which stepped down in November of last year. The immediate reaction was a salvo of criticism from leaders of the PdL and the party's decision to withdraw its support from Prime Minister Mario Monti's government. Berlusconi then strongly hinted that he was planning to throw his hat back in the ring: "I cannot let my country fall into a recessive spiral without end. It's not possible to go on like this," he said in a statement, noting that he had been "besieged by requests" to run.

On Saturday, Monti announced that his government would resign, saying the PdL's withdrawal of support clearly represented "a no-confidence vote for the government and its policies." Later that day, Berlusconi confirmed what was already obvious to everyone. "I am running to win," he told reporters. Elections must now be held within 60 days of the dissolution of parliament, and the world will wait to see if  Berlusconi can return to the prime minister's office for a fourth time. If he does, the consequences for Italy and for the rest of Europe are likely to be dire. Even if he does not win, the negative effects will color the whole campaign.

Berlusconi had been hinting at this for a while. A couple of weeks ago, he promised  that he would "pull a dinosaur out of the hat"; the implication was that he was the dinosaur. The given explanation is predictable: Monti's economic policies, according to Berlusconi, are not working, and he has to return in order to save Italy... again. But, given that this is Berlusconi we're talking about, the real reasons are more complicated.

The first is Sunset Boulevard on the Tiber. Berlusconi is the aging star who refuses to accept that he is past his prime and still craves the adulation and attention of fawning fans and the media. He is 76 and despite (or sometimes because of) the very visible pancake makeup, he looks his age and more. His comeback bid is a dangerous ploy, as he also knows that he risks an electoral disaster and bitter criticism from his own former party faithful. The potential for humiliation is likely the reason he has waited so long to jump back in. But that risk evidently wasn't enough.

Berlusconi may also want to return to politics in order to protect himself and his friends. Last week, the cabinet debated a decree that would prevent anyone convicted of crimes carrying a two-year sentence or more from running for office. As the law would only apply to those convicted at all three levels of Italy's court system, only a couple of parliamentarians would be affected -- though quite a few more at lower levels of government.

Even though Berlusconi has faced dozens of criminal indictments over the years and was convicted of tax fraud by a Milan court in October, he has never been convicted at the highest level. But there is talk that before the law is passed, it might be modified to include first- or second-level convictions, in which case Berlusconi would be in trouble personally. The current draft law says that anyone convicted while in office will have to stand down. Berlusconi is expecting judgment in February on the so-called Ruby case, in which he is accused of soliciting an underage prostitute and abusing his power. That would only be a lowest-level conviction, but he likely feels the noose tightening. Some of his close associates, including longtime friend Senator Marcello Dell'Utri, who was convicted at all three levels for false accounting and given a sentence of two years and three months, are feeling the heat as well.

Berlusconi and PdL party secretary Angelino Alfano have also made it clear that another reason for their decision to abandon Monti's government is the lack of progress on justice reform, though they have a fairly unique understanding of that concept. When Berlusconi was prime minister and Alfano was justice minister, they did nothing to answer the most pressing issue facing Italian justice: the years it takes to reach a definitive sentence. This is not only a problem of equity and justice but a serious discouragement to investment; no one is going to invest in Italy if they can't expect the courts to decide civil cases.

Berlusconi's main concern, by contrast, is that judges and magistrates should bear personal civil liability for their actions. In his ideal world, if a prosecution fails, the prosecutor should be personally liable for damages to the accused. It is a measure that smells of vendetta, as well as a way to discourage any prosecutor, not just the over-zealous. His other hobbyhorse is limiting police use of telephone taps. It is no coincidence that wire taps, both those used in court proceedings and those leaked to the media, like the conversations of the girls who went to his parties, have been very damaging to his reputation.

According to current polls, a return to power would still be a long shot for Berlusconi. The center-right is on a downward slope at the moment; they lost regional elections in Sicily in October, and the PdL is currently polling anywhere between 12 and 20 percent nationwide, a disaster compared to the 37 percent they garnered in 2008. Monti had been polling at around 47 percent prior to his announcement. But it's definitely to Berlusconi's advantage to have the election sooner -- when public anger against Monti's pro-European, pro-austerity policies is high -- rather than later, when party infighting will only drag the PdL further down.

There's also a new player on the scene whose emergence may be to the former prime minister's advantage. The Five Star Movement, a recently created party led by the popular comedian Beppe Grillo -- a kind of Genoese Stephen Colbert -- has emerged as the second most popular party in the country, according to pollsters. The party's ideology is mostly left-wing but is defined more by anger against Italy's traditional parties and politics. Berlusconi, though often a target of Grillo's barbs himself, hopes to tap into this discontent and regain some of the alienated center-right voters who have embraced the new party's populist, euroskeptic message. About half of Italy's electorate is either undecided or planning not to vote. They do not like Monti's austerity measures or the old parties. If Berlusconi can mobilize even a small proportion of them, he will increase his share enormously.

The consequences of Berlusconi's threatened return have already been felt. The spread between German and Italian government bonds, which had dipped below 300 for the first time since early last year, immediately jumped to well over 300 after his announcement last week, a tangible demonstration that Berlusconi's claim to be "saving the Italian economy" was nonsense. European stocks plunged on Monday following news of Monti's departure and the potential of Berlusconi's return. It now falls to the old triumvirate of President Giorgio Napolitano, the European Union, and the markets to persuade Berlusconi to step back. If they fail, Italy may once again find itself at the mercy of the Silviosaur.