In search of... Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil

He was the genius behind Brasilia, an architectural vision of the future that was pure 1950s. Oliver Marshall gazes at the work of a modernist master
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The Independent Travel

So who is this fellow Niemeyer, an up-and-coming young German architect?

No, he's a 96-year-old Brazilian.

A late developer, then?

Hardly. His architectural career stretches back 70 years. He made his name in the 1930s when he worked alongside Le Corbusier, the father figure of architectural modernism, on the Ministry of Education building in Rio de Janeiro, which was then Brazil's capital city. This year, he has designed the Serpentine Gallery's fourth annual summer pavilion.

Yes, I remember now. Wasn't Niemeyer responsible for transferring the Brazilian capital to the jungle?

Well, sort of. You're thinking of Brasilia, which was created some 1,200km (746 miles) north-west of Rio in Brazil's semi-arid cerrado - a kind of a South American savannah. With Niemeyer as its architectural director, the project was launched in 1956 to promote the economic development of the interior. Niemeyer himself designed many of the key public buildings.

Is there much worth seeing there?

Absolutely. Fans of modernism will feel that they've died and gone to heaven. The chief attraction of Brasilia is its extraordinary architecture, displaying a late-Fifties vision of the future. There are numerous stunning buildings within a short distance of each other. The main government complex, known as the Esplanada dos Ministerios, centres on the twin towers and bowl-like structures of the congress building. A combination of white marble, curved concrete, delicate arches, plate glass and water pools, the complex is Niemeyer at his best. Then there's the Palacio do Planalto, the president's office, with its glorious curving ramp - characteristic of Niemeyer - that seamlessly connects the ground to the building. Rather different is the city's cathedral, which takes the form of a giant inverted chalice and crown of thorns. You could easily spend a couple of days there looking at everything.

I'm not sure I could justify going all that way to spend two days in Brasilia.

While you're there, you could visit other Brazilian locations with Niemeyer buildings. A good place to start is Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, roughly mid-way between Rio and Brasilia. Founded only in 1895, Belo Horizonte is a relatively new city and it has some rather wonderful Neoclassical and Edwardian buildings. Niemeyer aficionados should head out to Pampulha, an upscale suburb developed in the 1940s. In many ways Pampulha served as a rough draft of what Niemeyer went on to do in Brasilia. Especially attractive is the Igreja de Sao Francisco de Assis; with its striking curves, tiled frontage and elegant bell tower, this church was decades ahead of its time. So shocked was the intensely conservative local Catholic hierarchy by the building's daring that the archbishop refused to consecrate it, and 20 years passed before Mass could be held there. While in Minas Gerais, it would be a sin not to visit Ouro Preto and Diamantina, two beautifully preserved 18th-century towns.

Eighteenth century? I thought you said Niemeyer is only 96 years old.

The point is that although both towns are crammed full of beautiful colonial-era houses and churches, each has a Niemeyer-designed hotel. Brazil's equivalent of English Heritage decided that new buildings erected on vacant sites should be modern designs and not colonial pastiches, the idea being that good-quality architecture of one period does not compromise surrounding buildings of other periods. However, there's no escaping the fact that Ouro Preto's Grande Hotel (00 55 31 3551 1488; www.hotelouro preto.com.br) is uninspiring, with the slabs of concrete that form the building's basic structure displaying none of Niemeyer's usual graceful approach to the material. But it's an early Niemeyer work, from 1940; far more refined is Diamantina's Hotel do Tijuco (00 55 38 3531 1022), opened in 1951. Both hotels are absolute bargains - you'll pay less than £30 a night for a double room with a balcony providing wonderful views across the towns.

And elsewhere? Surely I can't visit Brazil without going to Rio?

Apart from the Ministry of Education building, the best Niemeyer creation is in Niteroi, a town directly across Guanabara Bay from Rio. Opened in 1996, the Museu de Arte Contemporanea has the appearance of a spaceship perched on a rocky promontory. While the walkway, curves and the creation of shade are all typical of Niemeyer, it is the position and the awe-inspiring views across the bay to Rio that combine to make the building remarkable.

Is there anything that I should avoid?

With a seven-decades-long career behind him and more than 500 buildings to his name, there are bound to be some creations that have been less than successful. The city of Sao Paulo, with more than its fair share of architectural monstrosities, has what is surely Niemeyer's ugliest creation. The Memorial da America Latina - a huge conference/exhibition complex that opened in 1987 and is already in a state of decay - is an incoherent and vulgar construction. But even the Memorial has its admirers, who argue that it's one of the most remarkable examples of the interaction between architecture and engineering. If you do visit, dwell not so much on the overall appearance but on the huge beams, the curved ceilings and other structural features.

I'm convinced. How do I find out more?

The two must-reads are Oscar Niemeyer: A Legend in Modernism, edited by Paul Andrea and Ingeborg Flagg (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2003) and Lauro Cavalcanti's When Brazil Was Modern: Guide to Architecture 1928-1960 (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003).

For a taste of Niemeyer, the Serpentine Gallery's Summer Pavilion (020-7298 1515; www.serpentinegallery.org) is open daily, 10am-6pm, Fridays to 10pm, until 14 September 2003.

There are direct flights from London to Sao Paulo and Rio, with onward connections to Brasilia from around £730 booked through Journey Latin America (020-8747 3108; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk).

For further information contact the Brazil Tourist Office (020-7629 6909; www.brazil.org.uk) or the Latin American Travel Association (LATA) (020-8715 2913; www.lata.org).

Oliver Marshall is a co-author of the 'Rough Guide to Brazil'

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