I’m standing in the middle of the Caminho Nimeyer in Niteroí, just outside Rio de Janeiro. The Caminho is one of the architect’s last big projects, and remains unfinished. It’s a great concrete parade ground on the waterfront overlooking Rio, punctuated with (so far) three buildings that are unmistakably Niemeyer’s: a theatre with an undulating roof and angled walls; a small dome set at ground level, and a larger one with a serpentine ramp leading to an entrance above ground. All could have been built at any point since 1945. The theatre revisits the iconic chapel at Pampulha. The domes are Brasília. The ramps nod to the celebrated Museu de Arte Contemporânea a mile down the road. There are a couple of other less spectacular elements: a pretty gatehouse that could have been done by Richard Neutra in 30s Hollywood. And there’s a little information centre in black glass, a simple drum of a kind that you bump into all over Brasilia. From the ocean it looks fantastic, especially the theatre: crisp and bright against the industrial confusion of Niteroi (the city is a tangle of breaker’s yards, half-dismantled ships and oil rigs: a wonderful, dynamic chaos that is never the same twice).
If you actually make it through Niteroí’s traffic to the Caminho, however, the problem starts. It’s a familiar one for Niemeyer followers, namely the disjunction between the idea and the execution. At Brasília you rarely feel this is an issue, such is the quality of construction and maintenance. But here, it’s the main thing you feel. The ramp leading to the larger dome is a case in point. The idea is clear enough, a drawn line translated into concrete. It’s sweeping gesture in pen turned into 3D (I saw Niemeyer draw in 2001 or 2 and he signed a book for me – he was a wonderfully fluid draftsman). But the execution in concrete is all lumps and bulges which can be seen from a distance. Close up, the ramp has a highly irregular quality, and is in parts quite angular, a representation of the building process. The same is true of all the big buildings here: a pure form on paper in turns into a botched exercise in reality. It’s the future remade as a primary school art project.
The question is, does it matter? As far as I could tell in my conversation with Niemeyer it did not. To focus on the details was to misunderstand the scale of his imagination. His architecture was a representation of an ideal world that would come to pass at some indeterminate time in the future, and in which such minor details would be taken care of.
here’s another possible view, which is that the tension between idea and execution is actually part of the aesthetic, in the same way that (say) punk cultivated a wilful amateurism. You come to enjoy it, because it gives your imagination something to do.
I’m not sure this is the case with Niemeyer, though. Having seen just about everything he did in Brazil, my impression is of the most extraordinary variation in quality. If there’s a ‘punk Niemeyer’, you never know when you’re going to get it. The Niteroí project, prominent, state supported, built in his home town: well, it ought to be good, But it’s one of the worst, quality-wise, and incomprehensible in its present state to any other than hardcore fans.I enjoyed it, though. Its contradictions give you plenty to think about, and its air of shoddy decay produces some hilarious moments. There’s a funny ramp up to the theatre, half-finished and ambiguous in purpose. Was it for wheelchair access, we wondered? But it was angled at 30 degrees, suggesting, if anything a disposal chute. For unloved relatives? A wheelchair would reach quite a speed if let go…There are plenty more instances like this. In the sun, it’s a bizarre, inhumane place, treeless and baking. But its very inhumanity makes you laugh out loud (well, it did us). You have to admit that not much architecture does that.
Richard J. Williams, Brazil: Modern Architectures in History (London: Reaktion Books, 2009) is still available at around £15.00. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Brazil-Architectures-Richard-J-Williams/dp/1861894007