Among the films that should be included in any cinema and architecture event there is definitely L'Homme de Rio (That Man From Rio, 1964) directed by Philippe de Broca and starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Françoise Dorléac.
At a certain point of this action movie protagonists Agnès and Adrien drive in their rocambolesque quest to find a rare statuette to Brasília. Rather than being mere settings, the modernist architectures of this utopia city designed to shape a new identity for Brazil, become co-protagonists.
Adrien is often framed contemplating the landscape, running or cycling around it, climbing buildings to escape the hitmen running after him. Partially completed modern structures create distinct shapes around him, giving a further sense of dynamism to his action and the impression that this new and strange partially built city in which the main characters move is a dream being moulded out of the red rugged earth.
It's only when you rewatch the film and pay more attention to the various scenes shot in Brasília (by the way, many thanks to Kutmusic for digging out of its archives a copy of the film for the screenshots in this post) that you wonder if the late Oscar Niemeyer, the architect who designed those iconic buildings, shouldn't have been maybe mentioned in the film credits as "accidental" set designer for this movie.
Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect involved in projects that helped the government of his country shaping the “novo homem, Brasileiro e moderno” (new man, Brazilian and modern) died on Wednesday at the age of 104 in Rio de Janeiro, his birthplace.
Born in 1907, he enrolled in his early twenties at the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio to study architecture, while working for modernist architect and town planner Lúcio Costa, a supporter of Swiss-French modernist Le Corbusier.
The latter visited Rio twice: on his second time there in 1936 - two years after Niemeyer graduated - Le Corbusier was invited by Gustavo Capanema, Brazilian Minister for Education, and Lúcio Costa to design the headquarters for the health and education ministries in central Rio.
During this visit, Niemeyer got the chance to spend time with Le Corbusier and, influenced by his vision but driven by his own ideas and principles, he transformed Le Corbusier's scheme for the health and education ministries into a high-rise building with a subtle waving shape supported by rows of columns that give it a slender look (also this building appears in L'homme de Rio).
Moving from Le Corbusier's five principles - pilotis or supports, roof garden, free plan and free façade and long horizontal sliding windows - Niemeyer became very influential from the '30s on. For his designs he mainly employed concrete as steel was rare and too expensive in Brazil. Concrete allowed him to create innovative structures and to shape a new architecture for the future.
For his buildings he often took inspiration from natural shapes such as spirals, the female body, and the future, elements that influenced other modern architects including Toyo Ito, Tadao Ando and Zaha Hadid.
As Niemeyer wrote in his memoir, The Curves of Time, published in 2000, "I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. 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.”
Between the '40s and the '50s, Niemeyer received a lot of commissions, the most famous ones remaining the landmark buildings for the new capital, Brasília.
Promoted by Juscelino Kubitschek, the Brazilian president, Brasília, was supposed to be a futuristic city that had to break with the country's colonial past and give faith in technological progress.
Both Costa and Niemeyer worked on it, the latter focusing on quite a few commissions including modern blocks of flats, a revolutionary cathedral, the Palace of Justice, the National Congress building, the Presidential residence also known as Alvorada Palace, the national theatre and the Brasília Palace hotel.
After the 1964 Brazilian coup d'état, Niemeyer moved to Europe, and worked in Israel, France and North Africa.
During these years he designed among the other projects also the University of Haifa on Mount Carmel, the campus of Constantine University in Algeria, the offices of the French Communist Party in Paris and the headquarters of the Mondadori publishing house in Italy.
The recipient of numerous awards, he kept on working and drawing every morning from his studio located on top of a 10-storey Art Deco tower known as the Mae West building, in Rio de Janeiro.
In 2003 he designed the Serpentine Gallery's summer pavilion in Kensington Gardens, London, while Brasília's 50th anniversary was celebrated at the 12th Venice International Architecture Biennale, in 2010.
Among his trademark buildings there are the UN complex in New York, the elegantly flying saucer-shaped Museum of Modern Art in Niterói, the Oscar Niemeyer Museum at Curitiba, the Oscar Niemeyer International Cultural Centre in Aviles, Spain, and, last but not least, Rio's Sambadrome, modelled on the body of a woman.
If form follows function in architecture, form follows beauty in Niemeyer's free-flowing sensuous curves characterised by lightness and striking forms.
This is the main reason why, the influence of the Brazilian architect quickly extended to fashion: Basso & Brooke's Autumn 2008 collection blended together the architecture of Norman Forster and Zaha Hadid with Niemeyer’s volumes, while Pedro Lourenço’s A/W 2010-11 collection was based on the structures and buildings Niemeyer designed in Brasília.
Thom Browne showcased his Spring/Summer 2011 menswear collection in the Parisian headquarters of the French Communist Party, and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac combined in the prints for his Spring/Summer 2013 collection, utopistically entitled "Esmeraldorado", exotic Brazilian vegetation with Niemeyer's Brasília.
A few weeks ago, Niemeyer also released a capsule collection for Converse (considered as controversial as his communist ideals seemed to clash with the labour conditions of the workers in Converse factories...) characterised by curves and rounded lines that called to mind his works.
One model was inspired by the 1986 designs for the "Tortura Nunca Mais" (Torture Never Again) monument in Rio de Janeiro, and included in the leather lining the architectural illustration referencing the social Landless Workers' Movement; another was instead decorated with his trademark quote about his fascination with free-flowing sensual curves and featured a red tongue referencing the entrance of São Paolo's Ibirapuera Auditorium.
A man with a powerful vision of equality who consistently believed in the integration of arts and in particular in architecture coming together with the fine arts, Niemeyer designed iconic buildings that still inspire awe and surprise.
No doubt younger generations of architects, artists and designers will embrace his works for years to come, but, hopefully, they will also embrace his vision of architecture conceived as a medium to fight against social inequalities, as something that can be enjoyed by each and everyone of us and not just by a wealthy minority.
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