Finding Niemeyer (Financial Times Weekend)

Aquim is a small, alluring, jewel-box of a chocolate shop on one of Ipanema’s most fashionable shopping streets. Inside, the usual bon bons and bars line the shelves. Behind the counter, there are several extravagant handmade oak boxes housing owner Samantha Aquim’s most rarefied chocolate: QO. Each set is numbered, with its own gold tasting fork, sliding drawer of chocolate discs and three pieces of Q0 shaped into an elegant, s-shaped wave, designed by Oscar Niemeyer. “It’s edible architecture,” says Samantha.

Niemeyer Foundation building, Caminho Niemeyer, Niteroi

If Niemeyer proposed a mid-century fantasy of what Brazil might look like in the 21st century, then Aquim is one of the results, a symbol of a booming economy with an insatiable hunger for luxury and high style: the Q0 box retails at a cool €1,000. It may not be quite what devout Communist Niemeyer wanted, but there’s now an economic energy that fits with his utopian architecture, and with the country already giddy on the endorphins of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, there’s new investment – literally – in Niemeyer’s vision. His work isn’t just a history lesson: though he turned 104 last December, he is still planning and realising new projects while older ones are renovated. At the same time, specialist tour operators, like Cultour in Brazil, sell architecture-themed trips, while the likes of Journey Latin America in the UK have noticed an upswing in requests for Niemeyer tours. “Most tourists still want to see the favelas,” says JLA tour guide Felipe as we drive across the bridge from Rio to Niteroi, its wild, flying saucer-shaped contemporary art museum fast approaching. “The more cultured, literate travellers want to see Niemeyer.”

An architour of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brazil is like a trip to Disneyland for aesthetes, covering eight decades of history, from his first meeting with Corbusier – alighting from the Graf Zeppelin in Rio in 1936 – to today. No single architect has forged such a seductive collection of reasons to visit a country before, while the vogue for modernist Brazilian design pervades the most flash corners of its cities, from the Diz chairs by Niemeyer’s peer Sergio Rodrigues on every balcony of Rio’s most fashionable hotel, The Fasano, to some of the same designer’s 1950s pieces at Alex Atala’s D.O.M restaurant in Sao Paulo. So many of the key reasons to visit Brazil – including carnival, held in the 1983 Niemeyer-designed Sambodrome – are intrinsically linked to modernist Brazilian design.

My Oscar tour took in very long weekends in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, an overnight stay in Curitiba, several days in Brasilia and an afternoon in Belo Horizonte, where I visited one of his earliest landmarks, the 1943 Church of Saint Francis of Assisi.  For such a committed atheist, Niemeyer has managed to craft some of the most dramatic places for worship in the world. Just as everyone should visit the chiesas of Florence for the Renaissance glamour, Niemeyer’s churches are incredible objects in their own right, with the impact and modern drama of the Tate Turbine Hall, amped up with stained glass.

The Belo Horizonte church is a tiny, cartoonish, Palm Springs-flavoured hint at a remarkable and giant career ahead. While the local archbishop once cursed it as looking like “the devil’s bomb shelter”, it’s actually very sweet and now much loved. In cool Mediterranean blues and white, it’s a doodle for the epic wigwam-shaped Cathedral of Brasilia that would be realised in 1958, at the heart of the city he invented from scratch with urban planner Lucio Costa. The wraparound glass and coloured light-filled space of that building is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. You enter via an underground passage, on a vivid Hollywood-red carpet An hour passes quickly, your attention captured by the play of shadow and colour on the floor and altar. It’s a celestial space.

Cathedral of Brasilia

A new church is on the cards for Niteroi, as part of the Caminho Niemeyer, an as yet unfinished collection of buildings intended to inject new life into the area but currently caught in local government red tape. Niemeyer inaugurated the most artful of the collection of buildings – the Oscar Niemeyer Foundation – on his 103rd birthday. When the front gates are unlocked, you can walk around its dome and its curved elevated walkways, but sadly nothing here is as yet ready and open for business. It’s still an emotional and rewarding experience; the Alphaville vacancy of the spaces here are vaguely sinister, and Niemeyer’s futurism has a charming naivety to it – the lines of the buildings predate the computer age, and you can see the hand-drawn imperfection of their curves. While Frank Gehry’s buildings in Bilbao and Seattle look like they’ve formed from pixels, Niemeyer’s clearly come from pencil and paper.

When I visited Niemeyer’s old Rio home, the Casa das Canaos, a short drive past the black steel tube of his Hotel Nacional (to be renovated and reopened for the World Cup), I had the place to myself, apart from the house’s guardian, José, who took charge of things when Niemeyer left the country in exile after the 1964 military coup. “He never came back, but I still work for him,” says Jose. “He’s an amazing man. He always treated me as an equal, never as an employee.” The house is a perfect 1950s time capsule, with white, kidney-shaped, curvilinear roof, glass-walled living room and the furniture that Niemeyer designed himself. It looks as if he left five minutes ago.

São Paulo might be as ugly as Rio is beautiful, but there’s a transporting quality to watching the sun set from the rooftop pool deck of the Hotel Unique. It’s an arresting, luxury-packed, postmodern landmark, designed by Niemeyer protégé Ruy Ohtake in the shape of a smile, with huge porthole windows. Anonymous tower blocks and transmitters light up in the distance through the twilight gloaming like a weird art installation – made all the weirder since the government banned outdoor advertising. The Unique is also the closest hotel to Nieyemeyer’s pavilions and sculptures in Ibirapueria Park, the most impressive of which is the Auditorium, with its snaking red tongue rising from a flat, angled white frontage, and its rear – a vast blinding white backdrop with an inset red screen. Against blue sky and green grass, it’s stark and powerful.

Brasilia is, of course, the main event – the UNESCO-stamped mid-century modernist theme park to end them all. At the same time, it’s the city that “no one goes to”, which is partly what makes it so thrilling. Arriving here is like touching down on a different planet – from the runway, Niemeyer’s new TV transmitter, completed in December and resembling a beguiling white triffid, is the first thing you see on the horizon. Wandering between the library, which looks like a giant, beautiful double-iPod dock, and the perfect Moonbase dome of the Honestino Guimarães National Museum, with the Cathedral in the distance, it’s wonderful to be able to take photographs without anyone else in shot. As white clouds part, and speed away, the iconic upturned and downturned domes and H-shaped structure of the National Congress fall into sharp sunlight, as if being hit with a row of theatre follow-spots. Dazzling white against vibrant blue – they’re magnificent.

There are also lesser known gems in Brasilia: the black and red interior rotunda of late president Juscelino Kubitschek’s mausoleum, with its sinister up-lighting, resembles a chamber from the Death Star. Then there’s the perfect curl of the acoustic shell outside the Ministry of Defence and the abandoned, narrow crescent of the open-air auditorium on the road towards the Palace. Close by sits the Brasilia Palace Hotel, one of only two functioning Niemeyer-designed hotels in the country (the other is Hotel Tijuco in Diamantina). Its proportions are long and narrow yet boxy, the bulk of the building elevated elegantly with stilts. Even though it’s always busy, you feel like the only guest. There’s a glossy, JG Ballard desolation to it that’s immensely memorable and strangely attractive. Sitting by its pool in the blazing sun, it looks like any era from the mid-1950s to the distant future.

The real draw of Niemeyer’s work for the tourist – from design nerd to the uninitiated – is the unbridled sense of fun and fantasy it has. He’s more of an artist than an architect: the steep inclines on his buildings often make you feel like the penguins who used to struggle with Lubetkin’s photogenic but impractical enclosure at London Zoo. And Niemeyer’s huge domes are impossible to segment into successful exhibition spaces. But as vast concrete sculptures, how exciting they are! They capture the essence of a time when the world was promised jetpacks. But there’s no melancholy in their nostalgia, just child-like wonder. In the Niemeyer-designed museum in Curitiba, inaugurated in 2002 and freshened up in December, there is a definitive collection of models of his work, as well as several fine collections of varied contemporary art and design. It’s a great destination as these things go, but the most exciting artwork by far is the immense black eye-shaped gallery itself. From last year, a local company began offering Segway tours of the city that culminate at the building. Zipping around the adjacent concrete ramps and walkways and racing around a huge open concourse, the sense of joy and liberation is incredible. This is entirely Niemeyer’s vision of the future, we’re just privileged visitors, invited along for the ride.

Juscelino Kubitschek's tomb and memorial, Brasilia

 

 

Mark C.O’Flaherty travelled as a guest of Air France, who fly from multiple destinations worldwide to Rio and Sao Paulo via Paris, connecting with local airline GOL in Brazil 0845 050 5871, www.airfrance.co.uk, and as a guest of Journey Latin America, who offer two-week holidays focused on tours of Oscar Nieyemer’s buildings in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Curitiba and Brasilia from £3,584 p/person including flights, transfers, excursions and breakfast. 020-8747 8315, http://www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk

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