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Being born as the son of Brazil’s Federal Prime Minister, Oscar Niemeyer was living in a Portuguese colonial style house with beautiful tropical setting: “a wide carriageway, neatly lined with tropical trees, that curves along the broad seawall looking out to the dome of Pao de Acuacar guarding the bay’s mouth; lawn designed as formal gardens” Niemeyer obsessed over the landscape of his motherland Brazil. No matter how different his house designs vary through time, the element of landscape is always strong and evident. This essay focused on Niemeyer’s house designs.
Being an icon of modern architecture, Niemeyer pushed the limit of reinforced concrete and revealed the expressive charm of this artificial material.
The contemporary architecture was monotony. Niemeyer wanted to challenge it.
Niemeyer is well-known mainly because of his design for some of the most dominant governmental buildings in Brasilia, Brazil. As one of the early pioneers of modern architecture, Niemeyer opened up a unique approach to contemporary architecture using bold free-form curves in design. Some of his house projects were equally powerful in terms of his dramatic application of free-form. But other projects indicate more thoughts in Brazil’s colonial background and his own formal exploration throughout his career.
Niemeyer did a series of house projects with a huge time span from 1936 until now. Among the dozens of house projects, there are extremely luxury houses he designed for wealthiest Brazilians, there area also some house he designed for middle-class friends and family. Niemeyer also designed four houses for himself. One house, Casa das Canoas, was his most published and well-known work. Four houses designed in year 1942, 1949, 1953 and 1960 had varies characters and different concepts. As Niemeyer’s other house design sometimes have to fulfill his client’s requirements, his own house designs seems to be trademarks of his career, evolving through different phases.
The first house he designed for himself is located on a sloping site in Lagoa, Rio de Janeiro. Graduated from National Fine Arts School in 1934, Niemeyer was deeply influenced by Le Corbusier’s visit to Brazil in 1929. He joined Costa’s office in 1935, and from 1936-1942, he was working mainly on the Ministry of Education and health Building, on which, Le Corbusier was invited as project consultant. During this period, influence from the modern master was obvious and they got clearly reflected in Niemeyer’s first house.
The three story house was zoned with clear rationality. The main living room and bedrooms are clearly separated from the service area. A set of scissors ramp is just identical as the one appeared in Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in terms of its function as the only connection between different floors. The rectilinear upper floors sit on columns on the ground floor, with curvilinear walls direct the flow from entrance to garage and later towards the ramp. Horizontal openings on the facade give a clear indication of free elevation.
However, the house is not a simple duplication of Le Corbusier’s work. Niemeyer started to explore forms and material in the context of Rio, which is a humid tropical Brazilian city. A single direction slanted rooftop deals with the massive rain water during the monsoon season. A veranda on the second floor fully opens to the lake view. The material he used for the elevation is also unique. Different from his later larger public buildings which mainly deals with reinforced concrete, brick and wood was applied as elevation infill. On the top floor, the wall is composed with wood trims originally painted in blue. Wooden louvered panels were added to cover the veranda. Wood was also widely used as the material for interior finishes as well. The symbol of house as a machine, ramp, in Villa Savoye was no longer represented in cold metal frames and concrete finish. It was covered in wooden panels on the side and a wooden frame. On the ground floor, bushes were planted from the irregular site boundary towards the hose edge, defined by a hard pavement following the outline of the elevated second floor. In this project, although marks from Le Corbusier are clear through the use of free plan and clear zoning in a house project. Niemeyer’s awareness of context and site was already obvious. This prototype of dwelling on top of the landscape evolved and became one of the most frequently used prototypes in his later house designs.
In 1949, Niemeyer designed another house in Mendes, RJ. The house was built and later demolished. The house has a very dominant feature which was the slanting screens shelter the porches for living room and bedrooms. Different from his first house for himself, this house was located on a flat piece of land with the trees surrounding it and a stream runs in front of it. The setting is purely natural, not urban. The difference in the context led to a very different design solution. The single floor house is organized in a rectilinear order with all the rooms facing the screen and indoor garden in between. Here, a hint can be found between his modernist approach and traditional colonial architecture. The old colonial porch was transformed into a screened indoor garden, blending the artificial indoor and purer nature outside. This became a prototype which the landscape and the artificial indoor environment was articulated on the same level through a buffer garden.
In 1953, Niemeyer designed his most published house, Casa das Canoas. The design was open to the world and shocked the audience with its curvilinear roof. Just before the CIAM meet for the first time in Brazil in 1954, the house was finished. Niemeyer faced some of the most dominant figure in modern architecture with their critics on the house. Walter Gropius and Mies van de Rohe were both attracted to its beauty but pointed out the uniqueness of its geometry became he limit that it can not be multipliable.
“Faithful to his ideology of mixed ancestry and Antropofagist hybridization, Niemeyer proceeded to infect the classical pavilion with the organic, spontaneous architecture of the morros, mixing Western achievements in the field of domestic architecture with tropical exuberance and lessons from Brazil’s colonial past and popular present.” Case das Canoas is one example of Niemeyer’s treatment of continuity between the interior and exterior. Curve and landscape became the media that he utilized to achieve it. With the irregular curvilinear roof lines, the nature surrounding the house became closer and farther, varies according to the geometry. A large piece of rock placed right at the edge of the glass wall, penetrating the transparent façade and made it even less dominant. The warm wood finish of the interior partition wall conter-balance the rigidity brought by the steel frame of the glass façade. The white ceiling and black floor becomes the frame of the this transition between nature and artificial.
The exploration of the form continued and became more vigorous when he designed an unbuilt house in Tel Aviv, Edmond de Rothschild House. This time with the desert becomes the setting, the free-form geometry was reverted from edge of the house to its inside. A free-form garden is enclosed by a rectilinear volume.
Just at the time when Niemeyer’s free-form house design became a signature image. In 1960, he designed his house in Brasilia in a totally traditional colonial style. It creates a very strong contrast between the ideology of Brazil’s independence and its colonial historic roots. On the one hand, with the huge governmental projects, Niemeyer was creating the most powerful formal language, trying to declare to the world that Brasilia represents Brazil’s new future. On the other hand, he showed his respect very thoroughly to the colonial style, honest and modest. The houses feature a covered porch with red-tiled gable roof, whitewhased walls and regularly spaced windows.
More houses will be discussed following the category of the four houses Niemeyer designed for himself. These houses includes:
- Edmundo Cavanelas House
- Allvorada Palace
- Carmen Baldo House
- Burton Tremaine House
- Weekend house for Juscelino Kubitschek
- Cavalcanti house
“Overlaid with the complexities of Brazil’s history and stratified society, these scenes evoke contradictions that Niemeyer’s designs have always balanced: natural shapes created by artificial technology, structural logic and ecstatic emotions, simple forms and complex purposes”. Niemeyer’s house design showed his critical thinking and evolving career, just as strong as his public buildings. His public building may be restricted to their formal strength as a responsibility to speak for the nation. However, in his house design, there are clear trademarks of his weighing of traditional vernacular concept and modern formal exploration. Curves in Niemeyer’s house projects are more utilized as a mean to explore the relationship between nature and artificial, building and landscape, indoor and outdoor etc.
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