After the Fashion of Oscar

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Stark, white, concrete buildings would not, perhaps, evoke thoughts of fashion at first consideration. And yet – upon hearing that Brazilian visionary Oscar Niemeyer had recently passed away, that was precisely where my mind first shot: to women’s haute couture and the eternally timeless, but quintessentially “retro” style that graces most issues of design magazines these days.

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1907, Mr. Niemeyer began his career in the studio of Lucio Costa in the 1930’s. He practiced his craft almost until his death on December 5, 2012 – just a few days short of his 105th birthday. Over 600 projects were realized during the span of his 80-year career.

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Though some of his notoriety can be attributed to his strong leftist political ideologies, Niemeyer’s fresh perspective in design gained him considerable fame. He embraced the pure, unadulterated geometries and open spatial planning of the emerging Modernist movement. He was a contemporary and sometime collaborator of the infamous Le Corbusier, who may have been an influence. But his manner of interpretation was uniquely Brazilian: he frequently cited his homeland as his inspiration, remarking, “I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves […] The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein.”

Feminine forms regularly populated his sketches – not only in forms of cross sections and elevations for his buildings, but also in simply penned nudes and portraits, which are reminiscent of Picasso’s line drawings.

Niemeyer’s use of materials and detailing accentuated his preferred lines. His predilection for white was an acknowledgement of environmental requirements in a sun-soaked tropic climate, but it was a deliberate aesthetic choice, too. White does not hide flaws – it is the architectural equivalent of nakedness. All variations in a surface texture, all minute changes in plane or severities of a curve, are revealed by the brutal honesty of daylight. Splashes of a bold primary color or sculptural [but functional] brise-soleils or V-columns were tastefully employed to heighten the glamour.

Consider three of his more celebrated projects:

The Cathedral of Brasilia, one of his earliest projects, consists of sixteen gracefully arcing, white, concrete ribs, which both support and establish the hyperboloid form of the sanctuary. Expanses of stained glass fill the openings between this structural skeleton, which requires no further internal support for its height and breadth. The result is a deft, modern reinterpretation of the Gothic cathedral.

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The Pantheon of the Fatherland and Freedom, also in Brasilia, features two monumental sail-like planes that form its elevations. Small, white marble tiles give a human scale to the forms; the sails’ top edge is sensuously curved to contrast their sharper linear terminations and the path and balustrades that guide the viewer to a perfect one-point perspective.

The Teatro Populare in Niteroi, is a more recent building. Its most prominent element is a single, undulating concrete plane that forms both roof and exterior walls of the complex – bridging from end to end like a body in repose. The plane’s surface is heavily textured by the formwork used in its casting process; infill walls are livid red and soft yellow, punctuated with Neimeyer’s figure drawings.

oscar niemeyer

Praised as aesthetically novel or criticized as too inhuman, Mr. Niemeyer’s work cannot be discarded as irrelevant in the greater context of design. He inspired countless imitations and reinterpretations [though many out of scale and context] in architecture … but also in lounge chairs, wall clocks, and other nouveau//retro home décor. The successes of the recent flurry of 50’s and 60’s set cinema and the affiliated department store trends are proof enough that the design-minded population’s appetite for such style is not waning.

But the true tribute, it could be argued, remains with women: who confidently express themselves in a beautifully structured sheath or an expertly draped gown… or, for that matter, any minimal, form-celebrating article. Especially when it is white.

Linda Just