Interview with Oscar Niemeyer: “The architect’s role is to fight for a better world…”
Now approaching his 103rd birthday, Niemeyer continues to practise from his office in Rio de Janeiro
By Cristina Carrillo De Albornoz. Features, Issue 218, November 2010
Published online: 06 December 2010
Oscar Niemeyer was born on 15 December, 1907, in Rio de Janeiro. At ten years old he would make shapes in the air with his fingers, prompting his mother to ask: “What are you doing, boy?” He would reply: “I’m drawing.” “I could picture the drawings in the air and correct them,” he remembers. In 1956 he was commissioned to design an entire city—Brasilia, the new capital of Brazil—which brought him huge international acclaim. He was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1988 and the Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts in 1989. Now approaching his 103rd birthday, Niemeyer continues to practise from his office opposite Rio’s Copacabana beach, in a circular building that echoes the curves that are emblematic of his architecture. He is currently preparing a book on cathedrals while overseeing the final stages of the Niemeyer Centre (El Centro Cultural Internacional Oscar Niemeyer) in Avilés, Spain.
The Art Newspaper: You are almost 103. Are you still going to your office every day?
Oscar Niemeyer: I always say I’m 60, and I’m delighted to be able to do everything I used to do at that age. Work keeps me occupied. At my age, it’s better to be busy so as not to spend time thinking about trivia.
TAN: You’re scared of flying. How have you been able to supervise all the details of the Avilés project from Rio?
ON: The architecture has been in my head for a long time. I am able to do a project without the use of a pencil. I can imagine the location and I can imagine the project that I want to make. I think of all the solutions. My friend and permanent collaborator, Jair Valera, the architect in charge of the project in Avilés, shares all the details—each week we receive reports and photos of its progress. They’ve consulted us on every aspect of the building and they count on our support for resolving problems. One doesn’t always find such sensitivity. I’m thrilled at the extreme care, love and unusual attention they’re devoting to the construction of the Cultural Centre in Avilés. It is rare for this to happen. They’re making me very happy.
TAN: How did you first conceive of the project?
ON: My architecture places emphasis on open spaces. I like to do compositions of buildings of different dimensions; groups of forms that give a different feeling. That’s the spirit in which the building is conceived. The site in Avilés is splendid; very good, flat, with extensive views, so the idea was to create a huge, open plaza like a grandstand looking over the river and the old town of Avilés. I wanted the site to be clean so as to emphasise the architecture. First of all, I thought about one of the buildings, the museum, as an area above ground level opening onto the space below, which would facilitate movement. Another concern is that there should be no need for ramps to go from one building to another, so that everyone who arrives at the museum or the auditorium enters the lobby directly and goes down naturally from there. In the auditorium, the design of the stage is simple. This means the acoustics are easily resolved and the visibility is good.
TAN: What are the boldest aspects of the project?
ON: In this project there are a lot of surprises in the forms. The theatre stage is reversible. I’ve reduced the supports—and all this makes the architecture more generous, more daring. Ultimately, architecture is invention, dreams. The important thing in architecture is the element of surprise, and that’s what I’ve tried to achieve here. Architecture has to be pretty. It has to amaze; to be a masterpiece. I always try to bring beauty and amazement.
TAN: You say that architecture should lead to beauty. What is your concept of beauty?
ON: An aesthetic sense of life is fundamental; every architect should possess this, and because of it I’ve changed a lot of designs at the last minute. I’ve always been prepared to go for any concession or fantasy if it results in greater visual beauty. All my solutions are basically simple, direct and visually poetic. Everyone classifies beauty in a particular way, and for me it’s everything that astonishes and moves me.
TAN: You have said: “I don’t like metal structures, I prefer concrete—a more generous [medium] that adapts better to the expectations of the imagination.” What has it enabled you to do?
ON: Concrete allows everything; concrete has allowed me to give flight to the purest forms. It’s given me wings to produce an architecture without any limits, as if it were sculpture.
TAN: In the Avilés building almost everything is white.
ON: White is the colour that enhances the forms. And Avilés is a dark city, white suits it well. There’s red on the stage and yellow on the restaurant wall.
TAN: One thing that has surprised people most is the construction of the museum’s dome. It was built in a day.
ON: The dome covers the museum and it was built using an inflatable system. It goes up in a matters of hours. A person could walked by the site when it was empty and next day they would see the dome
TAN: In the four buildings that make up the complex, the main element is the curve. Is it true that the curves in your architecture are based on the perfect female body? (One feature will be a large-scale female nude, drawn by Niemeyer, which will be seen on the wall of the auditorium, facing the city.)
ON: No. If we have a dome with empty space—generous space—then we want the best-looking shape. Sometimes it happens to coincide with a woman’s body, but that’s not our objective. We want a pure form…I always go on searching until I find the forms I want. I like pure forms that give a different feeling to the project.
What I like about the Avilés project is that it has a respectable social component, open to the public to visit and to walk around the plaza and see the landscape, the museum, the works of art, the performances in the auditorium. It’s a foundation with a social [conscience], which is most important—more important than architecture.
TAN: And your favourite word is “solidarity”?
ON: We have to be decent, fraternal, all that. The architect must think that the world has to be a better place, that we can end poverty. So it is important that the architect think not only of architecture but of how architecture can solve the problems of the world. The architect’s role is to fight for a better world, where he can produce an architecture that serves everyone and not just a group of privileged people.
TAN: How do you imagine a better world?
ON: Houses will be simpler. We won’t have ghettos and palaces. The great human enterprises—theatres, museums, and stadiums—will be bigger so that all can enjoy them. Now, poor people cannot participate, they only know architecture from afar.
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