Revisiting Oscar Neimeyer in Sao Paulo
Sao Paulo is one of the biggest cities in the world, with more than 20 million inhabitants. Given Brazil’s economic growth is among the fastest in the world for a major economy, the city is quickly developing into a center for modern lifestyles.
Glamorous and colorful shopping malls and skyscrapers are found on nearly every corner of the city, so visitors can enjoy an impressive and interesting architectural landscape. The sophisticated architecture reflects the dynamics of the contemporary art scene in the city.
It was Oscar Niemeyer, one of the most celebrated architects of the modern era, who grabbed my attention the moment I arrived in this city. Niemeyer, still alive today at the age of 104, is an iconic figure for Brazilians, showing how the young country can reach world-class standards.
Since Sao Paolo was officially established as a city in 1711, it has enjoyed steady economic progress, largely fueled by exports from nearby coffee plantations. From its prosperity, the city was able to build many iconic buildings during the post-war period, and it became the center of business and banking in Brazil.
Sao Paulo lacked a city plan before 1889, and a no zoning law was passed until 1972. Indeed, well into the 20th century, much of the city retained a colonial aspect, with narrow unpaved streets, shabby buildings, and a few old churches of Jesuit and Franciscan styles.
Ciccillo Matarazzo founded the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1951. Oscar Niemeyer was invited to design the building inside Ibirapuera Park that would become the hub of the cultural celebration.
Visiting here was my first tour of an Oscar Niemeyer building. I could still feel the spirit of modernity lingering, reminiscent of the young nation and its big cultural ambitions.
From the outside, the building is not that impressive. But inside, it shows the sophistication of Niemeyer, combining concrete structures and geometric or curved lines.
Built as an exhibition space, the beautiful building itself seems like a work of art. On the third level, at the top of the building, the glass wall enables you to see the famous Ibirapuera Park and its surroundings. This is another visual oasis as visitors look at the artworks.
Ibirapuera itself is one of the biggest public parks in Brazil, hosting activities including jogging, picnicking, capoeira, and even school classes. Aside from the Ciccillo Matarazzo pavilion, the complex also houses the Museu de Arte Moderna (Museum of Modern Art) Brazil, Ibirapuera Auditorium, and the famous Obelisk of Sao Paulo.
The auditorium specializes in music concerts and the performing arts. While Niemeyer inserted this building in his initial plan in 1950s, it was only recently built. It takes up a single block that from the front has the shape of a trapezoid and, from the side, the shape of a triangle, with white concrete and red paint adding asymmetrical elements.
It contrasts with two bright red elements: the platform roof over the main entrance and the long rectangular door on the opposite side. Niemeyer always connects his simplicity with eye-catching visual elements that bring art to every corner of the space.
Among the taller buildings built by Niemeyer are the Eiffel Tower of Sao Paulo, in the heart of Republic Square, and the Copan Building.
The Copan Building has a mall on the ground floor that has become a major element of life in the city. It is unusual to see such tall buildings in a curved style, setting it apart from other contemporary glass-house buildings.
What makes Niemeyer projects intriguing is the way they bypass the glamour that would make them only accessible by upper- and middle-class people. This distinguishes them from the designs of many other renowned architects. Some of Niemeyer’s apartment projects are intended for middle- and working-class people, located in the middle of the city and offering easy access to public spaces.
This non-hierarchical spirit is essential to Niemeyer’s designs, accommodating potential rapid changes in the class system in contemporary society.
Missing out on the economic development of a city does not mean someone need live in a simple, boring and uncultured building. This has been a clear message from Niemeyer.
My tour of Niemeyer’s works exposed me to only a small selection of his designs over the past 80 years, but I could still sense the spirit of modernism that this young country embodied soon after World War II, and the strong desire to find its own cultural identity.
This so-called modernism does not include only Western influences, but also Brazil’s own history, in particularly colonialism and the role of indigenous people. This has made Sao Paulo develop its own identity as a megacity, though one that is comparable to other major metropolises such as Jakarta, Bangkok and Seoul.
Each of them have well-organized and popular modern art museums (facilities that have also developed in other developing cities, such as Mexico City), as well as other cultural offerings that show an engagement with contemporary lifestyles.
Niemeyer was born in 1907 in Rio de Janeiro, and studied at the National School of Fine Arts in his hometown, graduating in 1934.
He says his architecture career began in Pampulha, in the state of Minas Gerais, where he designed buildings intended to underline the new character of the city.
He worked closely on the Pampulha project with Juscelino Kubitschek, a governor of Minas Gerais who went on to become Brazil’s president in 1956.
The two were both men of the far left, with Niemeyer going on to became president of the Brazilian Communist Party from 1992 to 1996.
He has to his name several buildings abroad, in countries including France, Portugal, Italy and Algeria.