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BRAZIL: On Stilts

3 minute read

High in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, ten of the world’s top architects, busy with clay and sketch pads, clustered last week in a grey-walled conference room. They were there to design a home for the U.N. The youngest of them, a 39-year-old Brazilian named Oscar Niemeyer, had no reason to apologize for his youth, because he had experience beyond his years. While war had immobilized most of the world’s architects, Niemeyer and Brazil had been building.

Tropical Brazil faces special architectural problems. The sunlight is dazzling; the air steamy. To circumvent that conjunction of the elements, Niemeyer, like other young graduates, first experimented with balconies and broad windows. Then, in 1936, a new wind swept Brazilian architectural planning. Famed French Architect Le Corbusier came along with his concrete piers and the brise-soleil (i.e., sun break). Niemeyer took to Le Corbusier’s modernism as readily as an earlier generation of Brazilians had taken to France’s Beaux Arts styles of the Second Empire. Most notably, he helped design a new home for the Ministry of Education and Health. The result, which looks something like a beehive on stilts (see cut), is often described by contemporary architects as one of the world’s most beautiful public buildings.

From then on, Niemeyer was established in the hearts of his countrymen. At Pampulha, he designed a group of curving, glass-walled structures (yacht club, casino, restaurant). There he also built a Nissen-hut type of church so strange in design that the Roman Catholic arch bishop refused to consecrate it (TIME, May 13, 1946).

Extremist. Architect Niemeyer is a Communist and he works diligently at being a Communist. During last winter’s elections, he sold the Communist Tribuna Popular in Rio’s streets. It did not raise his stock with conservative President Eu rico Gaspar Dutra. Last week, Dutra was reported to have canceled a contract recently awarded to Niemeyer for a great aeronautical center near Sao Paulo—an air city with hangars, workshops, hospital, stadia, schools and apartments for 4,000.

But no battle in Brazil is settled until the last round. Niemeyer’s fellow and foreign architects are pressuring Dutra to reverse himself.

In New York, far from the quarrel, talkative, companionable Niemeyer will not speak of politics. With Old Teacher Le Corbusier (also busy on U.N. planning), he prefers to gawk at Manhattan’s cluttered masonry like any visiting fire man. The Niemeyer opinion of Rockefeller Center—”good”; of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.’s great 11,250-family Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town projects on the East River—”commercial, crowded, all brick and no glass.”

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