Niemeyer’s Pavilion

Gillian Darley

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Ever since I read about Oscar Niemeyer’s death last week I’ve been wondering where his only British building has gone. In 2003, at the age of 96, he was given the commission to design the Serpentine Pavilion. The pavilions built each summer in front of the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park are strictly temporary and it is said that the sale of each helps finance the next one. The invitees are all world-class architects who have not yet built in this country.

Niemeyer’s contribution is still my favourite. With its asymmetrical M of a frontage, like two eyebrows working to different agendas, it was a typically jaunty response to the light-hearted (if sometimes fraught) commission. Visitors zigzagged up to it along a lengthy ramp, a mood enhancer in itself. Such wandering approaches had become a hallmark of Niemeyer’s work.

It was everything that a pavilion in a park should be; Niemeyer intended it to be ‘free and audacious’. And, planning wrangles aside, so it was. Stellar architects rarely do levity but Niemeyer did. His energy was unquenchable and he designed with wit. Anyone with a similar spirit and a very deep pocket would welcome the pavilion at the bottom of their (extremely large) garden. Or is it packed away in a warehouse somewhere?

To my regret I’ve never visited Brasília, but from all accounts the city, planned by Lúcio Costa and designed by Niemeyer, is infused by this brio, writ large. Set it alongside Chandigarh, le Corbusier’s sweating, beached Indian metropolis, and there seems little to compare between the two – though both have the civic blankness of the instantaneous city. Niemeyer had admired and worked with le Corbusier for a while, before stealing something of a march on him.

The University of Haifa was designed according to Niemeyer’s master plan but has just one major building from his hand, the Eshkol Tower. It sits like a great blocky lighthouse on the brow of Mount Carmel, the only high-rise building I’ve even seen on top of a mountain. Yet, just as the turf of Hyde Park set off the airy pavilion in 2003, the university tower thrusts up from its plateau to dramatic effect. It brooks no interruption and recent additions to the campus seem to keep well away from his masterstroke.

The third Niemeyer building I’ve known is the Communist Party headquarters in the 19th arrondissement. Niemeyer, a lifelong communist, exiled from Brazil after the 1964 coup, moved to Paris in 1966. The sinuous, glass-fronted block on place du Colonel-Fabien was a bold insert into the mongrel, mostly 19th-century urban fabric – rundown Belleville coexisting with a little hilltop garden suburb and the strangest park in Paris, the entirely manmade Buttes-Chaumont. Paris waited many years for Niemeyer. But not as long as London had to.


  • 12 December 2012 at 9:43am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    The Niemeyer style certainly caught the imagination but the execution of his sketches was not always effective. According to one report I heard, many of the buildings in Brasilia are designed to make a visual impression with huge glass surfaces giving uncomfortable working conditions inside. He was also given the task of designing the schools in Sao Paulo, which resulted in one single design in which internal walls were practically done away with, making working conditions in the building very difficult, to put it mildly. So the emphasis on visual effect that is pointed out here did not always mean that the building does what it was supposed to do.

  • 13 December 2012 at 6:53pm
    michael barker says:
    As a resident of Paris I was aware of Niemeyer's works in exile in France: his astonishing Communist Party HQ, his less well known theatre at Bobigny, his former offices for l'Humanité newspaper at Seine-St Denis (not particuarly worth going to see) and Le Volcan at Le Havre. Last year I went to Brasilia. Like most artificial new capitals,(New Delhi, Canberra etc), very spread out for the era of the motor-car, even today public transport is pretty dire. His buildings in Brasilia are truly unforgettable but whai is missing is a human scale. Most bureaucrats forced to work there escape at weekends to Rio de Janeiro (where Niemeyer lived and worked in a stylish Art Deco building facing the famous beach, with restaurants and normal city life close at hand). Like his mentor Le Corbusier, such architects press their grand projects on to others, but for themselves prefer more intimate personal houses.

  • 13 December 2012 at 7:52pm
    Milton Schwartz says:
    I have not visited Brasilia, but seen pictures of it. The plan seems swimming in space, so much so that there is no intimate relationship of buildings, nor other structures. I assume that Niemeyer expected "fill ins" as the community aged.Because of its location this never came to pass.