Tuesday 11 December 2012
Further to the obituary of Oscar Niemeyer by Jay Merrick (7 December), I saw a number of his earlier buildings in 1953, when I was in Brazil with an oil company. I was overwhelmed by his "shock of the new", in Merrick's words. His break from convention was breathtaking. The Department of Education building in Rio was built in the 1930s, before air conditoning. With Rio's high temperatures and high humidity, the conventional approach was a veranda on the ground floor, with mini roofs over the windows on the floors above. This cools the air, but darkens the inside, so that electric light sometimes had to be employed during the hours of daylight.
A similar approach was used by the British and other Europeans in the Far East and Brazil, until Niemeyer's arrival. Instead of verandas or mini roofs he used horizontal louvres to keep the sunlight off the window, which could be altered by hand to admit or restrict light. Ventilation was achieved by windows which opened by hand, achieving an air circulation equalled only by Arab wind towers of the Middle East.
Another break from convention was to use any site as it was, instead of flattening and squaring it as practised by British architects. A house by a hairpin bend on the coast south of Rio was constructed on several levels, corresponding to the patches of ground down the cliff face. Rooms were connected by bridges across the gulleys. Moreover, Niemeyer did not forget people, even on difficult sites. The School of Dentistry near Rio was on a crescent-shaped site, with a drop of some 10 feet along the outer edge. His solution was a crescent-shaped building, leaving the lower level as a piazza for people.
On returning to the UK in 1960, exasperated by the conventional houses being built, I contacted a British architect who had worked in Brazil. His response was that British builders could not replicate the flowing concrete designs commonplace in Brazil, so I had to settle for a standard box. Nowadays, exasperation has been overtaken by despair when I see the mock-Tudor kitsch being built brick by brick, tile by tile, using technology 2,000 years old. If Niemeyer saw them, he would exclaim in the words of his favourite city, Porto Alegre, "Que barbaridade" – "What barbarism".
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