Niemeyer: the future is LUMPY

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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. IMG_6083

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

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Review of Adrian Forty, Concrete and Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2012)

A version of the following review appeared in Sculpture Journal in 2013

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Everybody has a view about concrete, but few of these views are exactly the same: there is no material so contradictory and complex in its application and meaning. I myself became fully aware of concrete’s contradictions in Brazil, latterly accompanied by Forty’s edited book on the country’s modernist architecture (Brazil’s Modern Architecture, 2007). I had never seen so much concrete. But equally I have never been confronted with such a disjunction between aspiration and application. Standing outside Oscar Niemeyer’s MAC art museum in Niteroí, it was impossible to square the MAC’s futuristic form (a flying saucer) with the crudeness of its execution (all cracks and, lumps, like a primary school project). That contrast was really quite disturbing, as the official photographs of the MAC depicted a building of otherworldly sleekness whose construction was a mystery to earthly folk. I was alert to concrete’s contradictions from that point on.

Concrete and Culture deals precisely with those contradictions. It expands the thesis Forty set out earlier in Brazil’s Modern Architecture about another iconic building in that country, Vilanova Artigas’s Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU) at the University of São Paulo (1968). A giant concrete box on stilts, it is both exceptionally sophisticated as engineering, and exceptionally crude in finish (its surface these days is so decayed, you can easily mistake the building for a ruin). Forty argued that this tension was uniquely bound up with concrete itself, and was wholly intentional, a way of making public a set of anxieties about Brazil’s development at the time. It is simultaneously rich and poor, sophisticated and crude, old and new. The argument about FAU is expanded here to make a thoroughly global thesis about concrete’s contradictions. It is one of the key symbols of modernisation, but found naturally, and used by the Romans; it is an industrial material, but also a natural one; it is supposed to lead to efficiencies in the building process, but is dependent on a lot of low-grade physical labour; it connotes modernity in one place, historicity in others; it is simultaneously liquid and solid. And so on.

The book is organised around five key oppositions, represented in suggestively-titled chapters (‘Mud and Modernity’, ‘Natural or Unnatural’, ‘Heaven and Earth’, ‘Memory and Oblivion’). Other chapters explore concrete’s complex geopolitics, its equally complex relationship with industrial labour, and its representation in photography. Even concrete’s fiercest detractors would be hard pressed to deny its photogenic character, especially in monochrome at high ASA ratings. And as Forty argues, there are material similarities between the processes of building in concrete and taking a photograph. Film is a key reference point too:  there is a compelling account of the dry concrete bed of the Los Angeles river as a setting in John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967). Forty is particularly good in showing how a particular material detail might represent ideology. In the case of FAU, it’s the building’s strangely attenuated column give the impression of colossal weight supported by very little, a metaphor for Brazil’s underdevelopment. On the Economist Building in St James’s, London, familiar to British readers he alights on a tiny detail: at the base of the columns holding up the Economist tower, the Portland stone cladding is intentionally stopped a few inches from the ground, a ‘Brechtian trick’ in the words of the architects, making visible the structure. It is a ‘demure lifting of the skirt to reveal a glimpse of ankle’ writes Forty, a joke (he argues) you would never find in American concrete. On BBPR’s highly eccentric Torre Velasca (1958)in Milan, Forty writes of the subversion of the modern tower form. This one, with its rough, and now weather-stained surface and its bulging upper structure recalling the form of Renaissance palazzos, suggests a building as much of the past as of the future, in marked contrast with American skyscraper design. Here again is the contradiction of concrete in relation to history: a supposedly modern material here used to signify if not antiquity, an accommodation of the past. One chapter, on labour, departs from the general focus on the aesthetics of concrete. Here Forty makes clear the sheer amount of physical effort involved in concrete constriction. Again, I had myself reflected on this in relation to Brazil, where I recalled the communist architect Sergio Ferro’s account of the building of Brasília. Ferro detailed not just the long hours, and the brutality of the organisation (both well reported) but the peculiar horror of working with the steel reinforcing rods, their tendency to scrape and gouge limbs.

Forty sets out a range of evidence to argue that the use of concrete allowed the building process to be broken down into a much wider range of unskilled tasks, which in turn meant a greater possible reliance on cheap labour. Concrete explicitly didn’t mean automation, or prefabrication, but the strange sublimation of what were essentially craft skills. He reproduces an extraordinary diagram from 1912 by Frederick Taylor and Sanford Thompson detailed every stage in the manufacture of ‘anything’ in concrete. The table reproduced covers the mixing of cement, listing the time taken to cut the string on a bag of cement (0.11 min), ‘moving the bag about 2ft.’ (0.08 min) to lifting the bag of cement to the shoulder (0.30) and several other actions. The detail is mind-boggling. Reproducing it in the somewhat effete context of architectural history gives it the whiff of conceptual art (routine process repeated to absurdity, then documented). But it also makes clear the contradictions involved in concrete construction: a process commonly thought to save on labour compared with traditional forms of building in fact does nothing of the sort; and a process equally commonly thought to be advanced turns out to be dependent on the most rudimentary skills. Taylor and Thompson’s diagram in essence is the book’s argument: what is supposed to be modern, isn’t – and its irrationality borders on the surreal.

The last chapter of the book, ‘A Concrete Renaissance’, surveys the now-familiar revival in concrete’s fortunes in the world’s rich countries as a material for buildings whose clientele both understand and appreciate its contradictions. Peter Zumthor’s extremely refined work makes use of concrete’s rough character for aesthetic effect. The images here index what’s survived: the LCC architects’ South Bank arts complex, Bo Bardi in Brazil, Alvaro Siza in Portugal, Peter Zumthor in Switzerland. What has survived, and revived in these refined contexts is concrete as aesthetic rather than structure; it’s valued for what it looks like, much less for its structural qualities. Its capacity to stain and degrade has become a value, not a flaw (see also Herzog and de Meuron’s Rudin House, which looks permanently drenched).Forty is right to point to a renaissance of concrete’s fortunes in Europe, where a taste for concrete is now, at least in some circles, an indicator of cultural refinement. Concrete’s contradictions, explored in such depth in the book, are now, in Europe, its defining characteristic. Its flaws are cultivated; to appreciate its difficulties is a sign of taste. Of course this is a minority, essentially avant-garde taste: it can only build cultural centres and privately commissioned houses, no longer mass housing, schools or hospitals (or if it does build these things it must be hidden from view).

What Forty doesn’t discuss, nor to be fair, try to, is the cultural understanding of concrete in those places where it is most physically present. The ‘culture’ of the title is the culture of the rich world; he acknowledges that most concrete building actually exists elsewhere. In rich northern places, to build with concrete is a special sort of poverty chic. But in the global South, concrete carries quite other connotations. In Brazil, a country with a particularly acute concrete habit, concrete connotes everything. In Mendes da Rocha and Bo Bardi, it’s the avant-garde material, that looks outwards and backwards to Europe and European modernism. In Niemeyer’s work, it’s modernism again – but it’s also a way of making a curve that stands up. But it’s also the material of choice for Brazil’s ubiquitous high-rise condos and equally ubiquitous favelas, in both cases simply a way of making buildings strong and cheap. The same is true of Peru, and Pakistan to greater or lesser degrees. The anxieties about concrete that Forty describes so well are largely those of a world that has a choice about whether or not to use it. For the rest of the world, it means what ever it has to.

I Heart My City In The Summer: My Top Twenty.

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National Geographic Traveler has just posted its top 20 best things to do in cities around the world this summer. Here are mine, in reverse order:

20. Stockholm, Sweden Have a tour of the recent riots, taking in some great ethnic food along the way. Take the blue (T11) metro line to the northern suburb of Husby. Then top it off with a spot of nude sunbathing at Ågesta Beach (bus 742).

19. New York, United States Take a trip back in time on the famous New York subway, unchanged in 40 years. Has the US completely lost it? It’s 1973 down there. Lou Reed’s chewing gum, spat out as he left the Velvet Undrground’s session for Loaded in 1969, still visible at Spring St. station, SoHo.

18. Singapore, Singapore Play hide and seek with your kids in the smog (but do wear masks). Plenty of time left to do it: it’s going to last for weeks. Have a drink on the veranda at the Raffles Hotel afterward.

17. Edinburgh, Scotland Tour the the never-ending tram works on Princes St. Are they building it – or taking it to pieces? Your guess is as good as ours. Later on, take the Scottish DNA test courtesy those latter-day eugenicists at http://www.scotlandsdna.com/. Are you pure enough for Scotland?

16. Madrid, Spain Help remove the shanty town at El Gallinero, Madrid. Let’s clean this place up! Take the train to Collado Villalba, and get a cab from there. Great tapas back in Madrid. Try El Museo del Jamon, nr. Puerta del Sol.

15. Tehran. Iran Try a spot of flag-burning in Azadi Square to celebrate the election of President Hasan Rowhani (but not the Iranian one!). Check out the street food: ‘Mexican Corn Cup’ and boiled beets, available everywhere.

14. Doha, Qatar Visit the new Taliban Embassy. If you can find it. They’ve removed the sign.

13. Moscow, Russia Stand up for traditional family values in an anti-gay demonstration. Plenty of choice, free to participate. Then frozen vodka with Moscow’s jet set at Simachev’s, Stoleshnikov Lane.

12. Shanghai, China Take a refreshing dip in the Huangpu River. Watch out for pigs!

11. Paris, France Ever wanted to try your hand at being an air traffic controller? Now’s your chance. France routinely stops air traffic during the summer to let tourists have go at  guiding planes – but without the risk, because they ground them all. Try Paris Charles de Gaulle. It’s popular, though – be prepared for long queues.

10. Venice, Italy Biennial festival of Garbage. The mysterious Biennale attracts pilgrims from all over the world to worship displays of rubbish, and speak in mystical terms, guided by the enigmatic catalogo, a religious text. The origins of this rubbish-worship are obscure.

9. London, England Re-enact the spectacular looting of summer 2011. Just take a train to Clapham Junction (every five minutes from Waterloo), head for the Debenhams department store, and help yourself to whatever you like. Nobody minds. That buccaneering spirit is London’s gift to the world.

8. Detroit, United States Celebrate the city’s culture-led revival with a visit to the opera house. Free entry.

7. Toronto, Canada It’s party time – and boy, do Torontonians know how to let it all hang out. How about sharing a crack pipe with the city’s Mayor?

6. Limassol, Cyprus Check out the spectacular ruins of Europe’s banks, strangely compelling in the sunshine. Great Russian food.

5. Kabul, Afghanistan Model aircraft fans! You’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven. Actually…

4. Brasilia, Brazil How about some free-running (parkour) on the government buildings of the Monumental Axis? Very popular this summer. Watch out for teargas, though. Then try some authentic Lebanese kibbeh in the Bar Beruite, Asa Sul. Open late.

3. Athens, Greece Learn the ancient art of the moutza in Syntagman Square. Careful what you do with it once you’ve learned.

2. Istanbul, Turkey Meet the friendly local police at Gezi Park.

1. Sao Paulo, Brazil This summer’s hit. Where to start in the South American metropolis? A quarter-million-strong demo on the Avenida Paulista? Check. Blocking the main highway to Santos? Check. Looting of shops and banks? Check. It’s all to play for in summer 2013’s hottest destination.

Here’s the National Geographic’s selection: http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/author/iheartmycity/

The Disturbances in Brazil

Image from A Folha de São Paulo, 19 June 2013. A protestor sets fire to a World Cup mural

Image from A Folha de São Paulo, 19 June 2013. A protestor sets fire to a World Cup mural

The protests that have flared in Brazil in response to a 20-centavo rise in urban bus fares have produced some spectacular – and familiar – scenes. Brazil’s cities are no strangers to disorder, of both the licensed kind (Rio’s annual carnival) or the wildly unlicensed. For the latter, you only have to think back to the extraordinary events of May 2006 when a criminal gang, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) briefly took over the entire city of São Paulo. The novelist Teixeira Coelho described an extraordinary scene to me a few months later. After the initial violence, there was a period of utter, complete, silence during which this metropolis of 11 million souls appeared to have been abandoned. It was a state Coelho had experienced once before:  on a canoe in the middle of the Amazon. May ’06 was admittedly exceptional. But the streets of São Paulo, until recently at least, could give the visitor the impression of civil war, even when it was just football at stake. That impression of ‘undeclared civil war’ was much cultivated by local journalists, much as their counterparts did in 1920s Chicago. Brazil’s violence was (for more people than should have been the case) good for business. Good for traffickers in drugs and guns certainly, but also private security firms, developers of gated communities, and (sadly) novelists, and film-makers. The movie version of Cidade de Deus, about a Jacarepaguá slum, was a huge international hit in 2002.

The fact is, however, that Brazil’s cities had been getting safer at exactly the moment  artists were celebrating their violence. By the early 2000s, São Paulo was rather safer than most American cities. By 2006, its had Glasgow licked, at least by one measure. Whatever the statistics, there is no question Brazil’s cities felt safer. When I first visited São Paulo in 2001, my Carioca friends advised me to keep a boca fechada (mouth shut) at all times, lest I reveal myself as a foreigner, and therefore, a target. I duly obliged, locking my belongings away, rarely venturing out, and having a somewhat miserable time. Ten years, and as many visits later, I strolled the Avenida Paulista with impunity, bearing a laptop, camera, I-phone, and a pocket full of cash. Just like (it seemed) everyone else.

Brazil has got a lot richer, especially during the pragmatic and assured presidency of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. Its middle class got visibly bigger, and more confident. It even started to make some progress on the intractable problem of slum housing. The favela-bairro projects showed how it was possible, with imagination and money, to create viable low-rise neighbourhoods that could easily attract middle class residents given a couple do decades of stability. I saw several of these, including the hugely impressive Paraisópolis, abutting the São Paulo suburb of Morumbi. I could see this, no exaggeration, as an incipient urban village. Lula invested heavily in education, too, and could make so decent claims about widening opportunity. There were big infrastructure projects, especially in the cities, and a rush of investment in the state-owned Petróbras to capitalise on the discovery of offshore oil. It was going fantastically well. Brazil looked as if it was – finally – starting to realise the ordem e progresso  emblazoned on the national flag.

What happened was (first) a period of economic slowdown that looks distinctly European. It has barely grown as an economy in two years. And there was much talk, inside and outside Brazil, of o custo brasileiro – ‘the Brazilian cost’ – the sheer expense of doing business in the country. Brazil has not been a cheap country for decades. Now, however, it is a distinctly expensive one – as well as bureaucratic, slow and awkward.
Therein lies the problem. It has become rich. It is, measured by GDP per capita, certainly a middle-income one, comparable with the newer states of the EU. Its uneven wealth distribution conceals the existence of a vast urban middle class who live, and spend, like the richest 10% in London or New York. There is serious money here, and lots of it.
This wealth – and more to the point, the sense that wealth is now within reach – has arguably created new tensions. Public services have undoubtedly improved, but now Brazilians expect them to be better. And for the most part, they are bloody awful. You smell Rio de Janeiro long before you see it; the untreated sewage around the aeroporto Tom Jobim produces is of the world’s great stenches. In São Paulo, hopeless drains mean summer rains invariably bring the city to a standstill in minutes. Outside the cities, highways are often dirt tracks. The trans-Amazon highway, built by the military in the mid-sixties, has become impassable. And so on.
The architects of Brazil’s recent boom, Lula and before him, another Marxist-turned-neoliberal Fernando Henrique Cardoso (‘FHC’) would argue, with justification, that economic progress is never smooth. They would point to the success of Brazil’s brewers, or its excellent low-cost airlines, or its plane-maker Embrarer. Building a stable, democratic economy takes time. The problem for Brazil’s residents, wherever they are in the country’s social constellation, is whether they have that time. The super-rich have the benefits already. The rest – in short anyone who depends on public services – will have to wait. They had got used to expecting very little from government except corruption and violence. Now government has raised its game, but in so doing it’s raised expectations. That’s why Brazil’s cities have blown up.

Richard Williams’s book, Brazil: Modern Architectures in History was published by Reaktion in 2009. For more, see: http://www.reaktionbooks.co.uk/display.asp?ISB=9781861894007