As Brasília turns 60, it’s time to reassess the legendary modernist architect on a visit to the Brazilian capital and Rio de Janeiro
During a brief visit to Rio de Janeiro, taking in Sugar Loaf mountain, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and dutifully drinking cool caipirinhas, my heart was really elsewhere – 1,200km inland to Brasília in the central plateau to be precise. It wasn’t sand, samba and rainforests I was after, but clean modernist lines and reinforced concrete laid out on the Cerrado (the country’s vast tropical savannah).
I was first smitten by the great modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, who died eight years ago at the age of 104, when I saw pictures of his Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro, completed in 1996. With its red snaking access walkway and saucer-shaped gallery, it looks like something out of a 1960s sci-fi film. Niemeyer was a sort of Brazilian Le Corbusier (with whom he worked) and the more pictures I saw of his exotic modernism and the more I read about his socialist utopian vision, the more I wanted to see them. No one else has quite matched his free-flowing designs, their sculptural quality, the way they seem to float free of the ground. Niemeyer was all about the “sensual curve”, inspired as much by Brazil’s landscape as the female form. “Right angles don’t attract me. Nor straight, hard and inflexible lines created by man,” he once wrote.