REVIEW | Books on Architecture :: »Oscar Niemeyer Houses« ::: Text Alan Hess, Photos by Alan Weintraub

This book is a revelation of sorts, for Oscar Niemeyer tended to keep the homes he built for his wealthy patrons (and assorted relatives) under wraps, away from the prying eyes of photographers and critics.

Californian architecture critic Alan Hess’ text therefore stands out as an important document to these other, lesser-known, domestic works from Brazil’s master architect.

Alan Weintraub’s beautifully composed photographs of the 22 selected residences add immensely to our appreciation of Niemeyer’s overall oeuvre.

Looking though Alan Weintraub’s beautiful photographs (homeporn, really – his photos have been featured in Architectural Digest), makes one wonder why Oscar would keep these residences “private” and separate from his huge body of public architecture. For these are beautiful homes. With the possible exception of his very early work (when he was too slavishly engaged in Corbusian “machine for living” thinking), these homes often paralleled or preceded the public architecture that followed. And Hess does a fine job of making the connections between the “private Oscar” and his more public persona.

Take Brasília, for instance. The first major building to be constructed there was the Presidential Palace, the Palácio da Alvorada (the poetically-named “Palace of the Dawn”). Starting from this incredible piece of domestic architecture, Niemeyer found his groove for the other buildings that followed in his City of the Future. The Alvorada is one of Niemeyer’s finest, most iconic, buildings.

Fotos > Domingos Tadeu

Hess gives us plenty of details about this particular work of domestic/national architecture: how it came to be, what materials were used, President Juscelino Kubitschek’s appraisal of it, etc. (see separate post, below). As I read the text, I kept thinking, “I can’t wait to turn the page and see the interior.” Alas, the palace must have been off-limits to Weintraub’s lens — the Palácio do Alvorada is written about, not shown — the book’s biggest letdown.

Oscar Niemeyer Houses is a companion to the later (2009) Oscar Niemeyer Buildings (both published by Rizzoli), written and photographed by the same team.

Houses is an important monograph and much more than a beautifully illustrated coffee table book. Hess knows his stuff and gives the reader a concise, yet detailed, history of Niemeyer’s career, quoting liberally from the architect’s own memoir, Curves of Time and other sources.

This is much more than a book about houses. It is an excellent primer on how Niemeyer became Brazil’s most important and distinguished architect.

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Hess gives us intriguing details such as Walter Gropius’s comment about the home Niemeyer built for himself, the Casa das Canoas: “Your house is beautiful but it is not multipliable,” Gropius told Niemeyer during the above-mentioned CIAM meeting in Brazil in 1954. Here we have the rational-minded Gropius (always searching for the prefabricated home ideal) in contrast to the sensualist Niemeyer and his “non-replicable,” one-of-a-kind forms.

Hess tells us why Niemeyer was attracted to concrete in the first place (for its malleability and the fact that labour was cheap in Brazil):

They [Mies van der Rohe and Gropius] talked about ‘purism’ — about ‘the living machine,’ the ‘less is more,’ ‘functionalism,’ etc. — without understanding that all this would be lost when faced with the plastic liberty which reinforced concrete allows. It was contemporary architecture vanishing in its repeated glass cubes.

– Niemeyer in My Architecture, p. 17

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I’ve made my pilgrimage to the Casa das Canoas and found it exceptional, though perhaps a bit dark for my taste (the bulk of the house is below entry level).

After reading this monograph, the one Niemeyer home that I would love to visit is the residence he built in the 1950s for Edmundo Cavanelas in Pedro do Rio, north of Rio de Janeiro.

This house, designed at roughly the same time as his own house at Rua Carvalho de Azevedo, Estrada das Canoas, in São Conrado, shows Niemeyer’s quest for form was rather limitless. Here, in Pedro do Rio, his suspended roof looks totally unique and still incredibly fresh more than half a century after it was built.

I wonder what Gropius and Mies thought of this home, so unlike what the European Modernists were aiming for in their quest for a modern domestic architecture.

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The 1954 Cavanelas House … shows a different side of Niemeyer’s creativity. The site is a valley floor … Its roof uses long light-weight steel trusses like ropes, not poured concrete. Its plan was rectilinear, not free form.

Here the roof is hung from four corner pylons, its curve imitating the natural droop of a piece of cloth. It gives the house the festive, temporary quality of a tent. The underside is clad in wood boards to give a consistent plane throughout the house and outdoor terraces. The roof’s curve is not symmetrical; the larger half, with the living roof, is a flatter slope, while the smaller bedroom/kitchen side flips subtly upward. Covering much more area than the enclosed portions, the roof creates shaded porches and frames distant views.

Once again, the [Roberto] Burle Marx landscaping complements and completes the architecture by creating a platform designed as carefully as the structure. The entry approach on one side of the house is landscaped with enormous splashes of overlapping colors in Burle Marx’s voluptuous planting beds. But on the other side of the house the rectilinear modern forms continue out into the landscape, first in the house’s stone partition walls extending past the roofline,

and then in a remarkable checkerboard grid of varied-tone grasses. This lawn surrealistically references the Modern machine age grid, and also contradicts it by rendering it in the colors and textures of plant life. This startling contrast and blending of nature and machine is supremely Brazilian and supremely artful. The line between man and nature, machine and organism is consciously blurred in a surreal design that approaches the ecstatic. Grass as incongruous and stimulating as concrete that turns into the shapes of flower petals.

– Alan Hess, Oscar Niemeyer Houses. New York: Rizzoli, 2006 : 33

RESIDÊNCIA EDMUNDO CAVANELAS: 22° 19′ 46.55″ S 43° 7′ 1.85″ W

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I highly recommend this book. The two Alans have done a remarkable job of exposing Niemeyer’s private buildings to a wider audience. And they’ve done it with élan. Oscar shouldn’t have kept these treasures under wraps for so long.

designKULTUR: BRASÍLIA | THE BUILDINGS :: PALÁCIO DA ALVORADA (PALACE OF THE DAWN)

designKULTUR: VIDEO | ARCHITECTURE + MUSIC :: SIMPLY RED @ OSCAR NIEMEYER’S CASA DAS CANOAS, RIO

Official website: Alan Hess, Architect

ARCAID Images: Alan Weintraub

Alan Weintraub: Books

New bookCasa Modernista: A History of the Brazil Modern House by Hess and Weintraub (release date: 5 October 2010)

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