On Wednesday, December 5th, Oscar Niemeyer passed away – at the age of 104. He was Brazil’s greatest architect, and responsible for creating some of the world’s most daring and unusual building. Niemeyer brought a huge amount of geography into his designs, interpreting the curves he saw everywhere in Brazil in the mountains, in the rivers – and also in the women, into his urban creations. His unique style led to his nickname of ‘Picasso of Concrete’.
Niemeyer was a student of modern architecture’s French pioneer, Le Corbusier. The two designers were not just interested in buildings, but applied their philosophies to urban planning in an attempt to improve living conditions and create a better society. Niemeyer was possibly best known for his design of Brasilia – a new capital city for his country build from scratch on a wasteland. Before construction began in 1957, the site was just a featureless desert without even a road – but within 4 years an entire city had been constructed.His new city was meant to be shared by people of all classes (Niemeyer was a communist) and it’s expansive squares, leisure facilities and public spaces were designed to give all residents a high quality of life.
Although the idea of planning the perfect city is not as fashionable as it was, it is still a useful exercise to attempt with students. Our geography scheme of work includes a unit titled ‘sustainable planning’, which compares urban areas in different parts of the world. It includes a visit to a local housing estate and a discussion with an architect followed by some creative design work. In their research, many students have come across Niemeyer and have been inspired by some of his creations.
The general feeling amongst planners today is that cities need to evolve organically, and those set out on rational lines will never feel fully human. Indeed, Brasilia has often been referred to as a ‘fantasy island’, lacking in soul. Students who attempt their own designs of complete cities can be challenged with this idea, and asked to justify how their plans might improve quality of life and better meet the needs of potential residents. Also, Asking them ‘Would you want to live in Brasilia?’ has been an interesting lead in to a research and evaluation exercise.
There are case studies nearer to home to link to Niemeyer’s ideals – back in the 1960s, Milton Keynes was designed and built as a fully planned city. In this case, a number of different architects were involved, including the likes of Norman Foster. This is the largest of Britain’s so called ‘garden cities’ – self-contained communities built around a concentric pattern of parks, wide boulevards and open spaces. Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City New Towns are both built according to these principles. The concept has also been influential in urban planning for suburban areas in New York and Tennessee in the USA.
Niemeyer was responsible for a number of stunning individual buildings, and some of his designs can provide a useful lead in to a homework task asking students to think of one building that has a major impact in their own area. They can ‘review’ their chosen building, and explain the role it has in their own life and in their own community.
Brasilia A Success? – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20632277