Monday, December 27, 2010

Age and Achievement

 Age getting you down?
Think you might be getting too old to marry?
Too old to do productive work?
Too old for creative endeavor?
Think again.
And take your inspiration from this guy:
 Oscar Niemeyer married (for the second time) when he was 99.
He turned 103 on the 15th of December.
He still works.
Every day.
And he remains creative as hell.
Oscar Niemeyer is an architect – Brazil’s greatest.
You may not have heard of him.
But you’ve seen his work.
 The UN building was a project that he did together with Le Corbusier in 1947. Niemeyer, back then, was forty years old. Le Corbusier was sixty, and very much the senior man, but most of the design is attributed to Niemeyer.
 This was Niemeyer’s first building on U.S. soil. It’s largely forgotten now, but it was a great sensation at the time. It’s the pavilion he and Lúcio Costa designed for Brazil’s participation in the 1939 World’s Fair.
The innovative nature of the project inspired New York’s mayor of the time,
Fiorello La Guardia, to award Niemeyer the keys of the city.
But was the Pampulha Project, a year later that brought Niemeyer into contact with another mayor – the man who, ultimately, had the major influence in shaping his future life.
 Juscelino Kubitschek was the mayor of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the State of Minas Gerais.
Pampulha was a suburb he wanted to build north of the city.
The work he commissioned Niemeyer to design was the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, later to become Brazil’s first listed modern monument. The conservative Church authorities of the time refused to consecrate the church, and continued to refuse until 1959, in part because of its unorthodox form…

…and in part because of the depiction of Saint Francis, tiles painted by Candido Portinari.
 Twelve years later, Niemeyer, by now rich and famous, completed this project, 
the Canoas House, his new home in Rio de Janeiro.
And it was here, one September morning in 1956, that he got a visit from his old friend, Juscelino Kubitschek, the newly-elected President of Brazil.
“Oscar,” Kubitschek said, “I am going to build a new capital for this country, and I want you to help me.”
Niemeyer organized a competition for the lay-out of the city (the winner was Niemeyer’s collaborator on the 1939 World’s Fair project, Lúcio Costa) and immediately set to work on the design of the principal buildings now regarded as his greatest works.
Among them are
 the residence of the President, the Palácio da Alvorada,
 the National Congress,
 the Cathedral of Brasilia...
... with its stunning interior...
and the monument he designed in honor of his old friend Juscelino.
 Viewed from above, Brasilia can be seen to have elements that repeat themselves in every building, giving it a formal unity. Niemeyer and Costa used the opportunity Kubitschek had given them to test new concepts of city planning.
But the project also had a socialist ideology: 
in Brasilia all the apartments would be owned by the government and rented to its employees. The city wasn’t going to have wealthy neighborhoods, or middle-class neighborhoods, or poor neighborhoods. Top ministers and common laborers were to share the same buildings.
Of course it didn’t work out that way. In Brazil, with a long history of the great gap between rich and poor, it never could.
But that was the theory in the beginning.
Brasilia was designed, constructed, and inaugurated within four years.
 Niemeyer’s politics, though, continued to be as controversial as his designs. (He’d joined the Brazilian Communist Party in 1945.)
And those politics were to lead to a reversal in his fortunes.
During the military dictatorship, in 1964, he was forced into exile in Paris.
 He stayed away for almost twenty years, returning only in 1985.
But his politics never wavered.
He served as President of Brazil’s Communist Party from 1992 to 1996.
And, even today, remains true to his youthful convictions.
He was offered an opportunity to teach at Yale.
But, because of his leftist leanings, he was denied a visa to enter the United States.
And only three years ago, he designed a statue that he wanted to have erected in Havana.
Symbolic of the “heroic” resistance to the U.S. blockade, it showed a tiger, with its mouth open, being held at bay by a man holding the Cuban flag.
When Fidel Castro saw the design he remarked, "Niemeyer and I are the last Communists on this planet”.
Well, his politics haven’t, perhaps, kept up with the times.
But most folks would say that his work has.
Here's a museum in Curitiba...
...another in Niterói, across Guanabara Bay from Rio de Janeiro and 
his design for a monument to commemorate the achievements of the great football player, Pelé.

In closing here are a few words from Niemeyer about Niemeyer:

“I’m not attracted to hard right angles and inflexible straight lines. My attraction is to curves, the curves of my country’s mountains, of her rivers and of the bodies of her women. The universe is made of curves.”

Leighton - Monday


  1. I should have waited, too.

    Happy New Year, my friend.

    This one I shall sign anonymously.:)

  2. A very interesting post. There are many things about this man that are amazing.

    Thoughts in Progress

  3. I'm glad you bring Niemeyer to our attention Leighton and a Happy New Year to you and your family.

  4. Mason,
    Particularly when you look at Niemeyer from the perspective of the 1950's.
    The cathedral in Brasilia is over fifty years old now, but still magnificent.
    And that, mind you, from a "Godless Communist".

    Thanks, Jose Ignacio, for your Holiday Wishes.
    And to you and yours as well.

  5. Leighton--

    No architect who owns a mirror can be classified as "godless."


  6. The key to being young when very old is to keep the brain working and the mind open.

    I had a professor in college who said he was never going to get old because he spent his life with interesting and interested people between the ages of 18 and 22.

    The gift of creativity keeps on giving as long as the heart keeps pumping.


  7. As a Brazilian who lives in Belo Horizonte, where the Pampulha district is located, I must disagree with the upbeat assessment of Niemeyer's work. His constructions make for absolutely dreadful dwellings. In Brasilia, the Alvorada Palace, which Niemeyer designed to be the official residence of the country's President, was spurned by a succession of its intended occupants in favor of more habitable spaces (Granja do Torto and Casa da Dinda, to name only two).

    Neighbors (and foreigners) may love the "cool" design of Niemeyer's work. Those forced to live or work in it often do not share the same opinion. The buildings he designs are offspring of the Bauhaus, which Tom Wolfe, uhm, deconstructs (or tears apart, take your pick) in "From Bauhaus to Our House", as are many of the horrendous glass towers that make the skylines of every major US city repetitive, while requiring massive amounts of energy to cool and heat.

    Niemeyer's "masterpieces" often end up getting partially remade so as to make them minimally livable. The great architect then publicly riles about how his work gets disfigured by the ignorant bourgeoisie. However, Niemeyer had no qualms about adding a 1950-ish aluminum foil to the top of the art deco building in Rio where he keeps his office.

    Niemeyer's work is insufferable, fit only for dystopian movies like "Aeon Flux", filmed, quite fittingly, in Brasilia in 2005.

    The fact that he is 105 and still working is reason for concern. As we say in Brazil, there is nothing worse than an enterprising idiot ("nada pior do que um burro com inicitaiva").


    1. Hi Henrique,
      In this age of The Emperor's New Clothes it is rare to find someone who tells it like it is. What about roof leaks? A giant bowl, an upside down pyramid or a flying saucer might make for interesting sculpture, but architecture is supposed to be about flow and life, right?

  8. Come on, Henrique, what do you really think?

  9. Wonderful post.

    Merry Christmas and thank you for reminding me that of course I am not too old to publish that novel yet ;D

  10. Marco Aurélio,

    Your point about the occasional impracticality of Niemeyer's work is well-taken, particularly, as you point out, in buildings where people have to "live and work".

    I've heard those arguments before, but I daresay a number of our readers have not. So I thank you for making them.

    That said, I contest your statement that his designs are derivative of the Bauhaus. That one really knocked me off of my chair.

    Niemeyer and I disagree about many things, particularly in the area of politics. But we have at least one thing in common: both of us dislike the Bauhaus.

    And Niemeyer went on record by saying exactly that in an interview he gave to The Sunday Times (London) in December of 2009. You can access the entire article here:

    The operative words from that article, Niemeyer's own, are these:

    "We hated Bauhaus. It was a bad time in architecture. They just didn’t have any talent. All they had were rules. Even for knives and forks they created rules. Picasso would never have accepted rules. The house is like a machine? No! The mechanical is ugly. The rule is the worst thing. You just want to break it.”

    The importance of Niemeyer, for me, is that, occasional lapses in practicality aside, he was able to design structures of heart-stopping beauty.
    Can you enter that cathedral in Brasilia and not be moved? I cannot.

    "Insufferable" you say?
    No, Marco Aurélio, I don't think so.

    "um burro"? Hardly.

    And your statement that "The fact that he is 105 and still working is reason for concern"?

    Wow! Only a young guy would make a callous remark like that. Give us older fellows a break, will you?

    For us, a guy of 103 (not 105, as you wrote) who is still producing creatively is a cause for celebration.
    And great inspiration.

    I don't know you, or your work, and I'm sure you are sincere in what you have written.

    But so am I.

    And I have to say that for any creative person to come down on Niemeyer as hard as you have done smacks of sour grapes.

    Sorry, just my two cents. (Uhhh, centavos.)

  11. I agree that it's great that Niemeyer is productive and working at 103!

    It gives those of us who are getting older (consider the alternative!), coming out of middle age, another kindred spirit, who is showing the way to being elderly (not old, for goodness' sake!), productive, creative, interesting, excited about the world, strong, courageous, principled, etc.!

    It's wonderful to me. What a great post!

    I didn't know about him, but may agree with him more than not.

    Still, his presence, work--and attitude--are inspiring to those of us who are aging--gracefully, I hope, and with optimism.

    Best wishes for the new year

    Kathy D.

  12. @Leighton,

    Yeah, I was probably on a bad day when I wrote that post.

    And my knowledge of the history of Architecture is less than perfect. I stand corrected w/r to the Bauhaus.

    But Niemeyer is still a clear and present danger - he just designed the new "Cidade Administrativa" (the office complex) for the government of Minas Gerais state. I have been there and function was totally forgotten, rendering the place unlivable impossible to work in. Just ask the 10,000 or so government employees who had to leave the city center to work in exile in a place in the middle of nowhere, halfway between Confins (the local airport) and the city center.

    So Niemeyer designs these places in such a way as to make them impractical. Then he hands the plans over to the big construction companies, which shall remain unnamed). These mega-construction projects (Brasilia, Pampulha, Cidade Administrativa) have two things in comon: (1) more often than not, they have Niemeyer's fingerprints all over them and (2) they serve as pretexts for siphoning off billions of taxpayers' money in what are, at best, projects with a questionable public purpose.

    So if you live next door to one of these buildings, yeah, you might find it cool to look out the window. But if you are on the inside looking out, you feel more like you are trapped in one of the gulags run by Niemeyer's dear, old USSR.

    Plus he has used my home town of Belo Horizonte as his personal laboratory, with the blessings of politicians from Juscelino to Aecio (always eager to hand a grandiose project to their buddies in the construction industry).

    Let us recount the myriad projects he has inflicted upon Belo Horizonte: the curvaceous building on Praca da Liberdade, for which a gorgeous early twentieth century mansion was torn down; the ghastly JK apartment complex; the open sewer known as the Pampulha lake complex, where Niemeyer's assorted "masterpieces" (the church, the museum of art, Pampulha Iate Clube, and Casa do Baile) stand basically vacant or unused (because they are unusable), slowly rotting away, while still costing the city a great amount of money.

    So I stand by my assertion that there is nothing worse than an enterprising idiot. I said mistakenly that Niemeyer was 105. I pray he does not make it - at least not as a working architect, anyway.


  13. I am not an architect. I am an aging man at 75 now.He is a great insiporation for me to remain creatively active at the age of 103.
    I intend he should be my role model.
    My he live long and rfemain creative as ever.

    Nalinaksha Mutsuddi

  14. I'm another aging man, 74, who is not an architect. I find Niemeyer's buildings to be stunningly beautiful, as I see them from the outside, in pictures. Like many who do not experience famous architecture directly, I am unable to form an evaluation of the practicality and livability of the structures. Our own Frank Lloyd Wright built houses that were indifferently protected from rain and aging. Come to think of it, that criticism applies to the human body as well.

  15. @ Marco Aurelio

    I believe you are placing the blame on the wrong guy here for our administrative/political problems.

    Why would anyone blame Niemeyer for the awful job that every governament in this country does and has been doing since, what, 1500, at preserving ANYTHING, from the nearly extinct Atlantic Forest to buildings of the twentieth century? Or the LOCATION where they chose to build Cidade Administrativa? Or its inaccessibility? Or fault him for the decision of tearing apart a lovely building just because it was one of his creations that took its spot?

    Believe me... I'm quite aware that those massive constructions are the easiest way for a politician to take our tax funds and place them into their own fat pockets. BUT, if it were not Niemeyer, it'd only be someone else, and, most likely, the end result would be either an inferior building or just a "white elefant" that never gets finished. Google "Cidade da Música" to see my city's latest, pointless and overpriced white elefant. Blame Aecio for deciding create such buildings, not the architect who was hired to project them.

    By the way, from Niemeyer's work, I've seen (live) the Contemporary Art Museum of Niteroi (MAC, the one shaped like a U.F.O.). I've seen the Church of Pampulha and its lovely altar by Portinari (another amazing Brazilian artist). I've seen Brasilia and, particularly, the Cathedral. Inside and out, they're all stunning. There was nothing oppresive about them, with all that natural light and clean, smooth curves (no straight lines!). Nothing like a gulag.

    Also, I don't believe Niemeyer's political views have anything to do with this topic. It just makes it seem you're determined not to like him instead of posing an inteligent discussion, which is very disappointing.

    Niemeyer may be 103 years old and may not be perfect, but he has definitely made my country see art for what it can be instead of a strict, mathematical formula. As a former Architecture student and currently an Art student, I appreciate this man for expanding our Brazilian horizons - for most of us anyway.

  16. I am not an architect either, but having lived in one of Niemeyer's building in Brasilia when I was young, I have only good things to say. By adding the sustaining pillars under the residential buildings , he created a distinction of private and public , and a very safe environment for children to gather and play, instead of using the streets.
    The position of the buildings inside the "quadra"(groups of buildings) and the added facilities , such as having their own magazine stand, school and park created a sense of protected
    community that I also don't see in many grid designed cities and even in closed gated communities.
    His unique ability to include "meaning" in some of the buildings designs also add a whole different dimension to them. One has to enter the cathedral in Brasilia or even the new round museum which he has just finished few years ago to understand how Niemeyer perceived space as an experience and not simply as utilitarian . For instance, The cathedral has no opulent front door, instead, you have to go through a black marble tunnel and then be pleasantly surprised by finally entering the bright glass/concrete building,(which by the way, for me is one of his masterpieces) as in Plato's writings about having to go through darkness in order to reach enlightment. The main government building is in a shape of a standing H, directly opposed to a horizontal H, which is the bus station where the people gather, alluding to men's ego and alter-ego (I just haven't figure out, which one is which...!!). well, there are many other meanings.. I can also say that I was profoundly transformed aestheticaly by living in that city.
    I can still remember the first time I have ever seen an ornate building in my teens and realizing I was actually having a whole different experience than everybody else.
    So, despite any criticism, and even many of his mistakes, I can say I take ALL my hats off to Niemeyer at age 103, 104 or for as long as I live. And if I can live that long and be so productive and true to myself as he has always been, standing behind all his ideas and ideals despite so much criticism, then I would safely say I lived a good life.
    The other day I've read that he only received $40K "cruzeiros" for the whole Brasilia project , and had rejected the bonus, as he didn't like the word... it went against his principles.

  17. Thank you, Sporto, for your thoughtful and fascinating contribution to our blog.
    We are as one in this!