The Dancing Curves of Oscar Niemeyer’s House at Canoa

Styliane Philippou

As the pre-eminent figure of one of the most innovative and irreverent national interpretations of architectural Modernism, and radical critic of orthodox Modernist aesthetic formulae and moralizing ideologies, Oscar Niemeyer (1907–2012) occupies a unique place in the history of architecture. Conjugating architectural, structural and topographical events to achieve a ‘free-flowing style’ and ‘lightness’ – all qualities in excess of the functionalist fulfilment of programmatic requirements – Niemeyer prioritized the sensual reality of the architectural experience. His pioneering leisure complex on the lakeshores of Pampulha (1940–43) led L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui to declare in 1946 that he was moving away from ‘the triumph of the straight line’ and ‘the monumental Cartesianism’ of the ‘Corbusian school’, towards ‘the affirmation of his own originality’ in ‘the triumph of the curve’. Niemeyer spoke of his ‘tropicalization’ of all he learnt from Le Corbusier, and of a ‘Brazilian Architectural Movement’ with a ‘dashing creative spirit’ and a repertoire of voluptuous curves and tropical motifs imagined as eminently Brazilian.

A book Niemeyer published in 2005, entitled Casas onde morei (Houses Where I Lived), visits the houses he has inhabited during his long life.(1) In his memoirs and other texts he refers frequently to these houses, of which he has fond memories, weaving together memory and spatial experience, nature and architecture, evoking what Stamo Papadaki refers to as ‘the taste for the “good life” which permeates Brazil’, where ‘nature is not an enemy and man’s earthly condition does not depend wholly on his inevitable death’.(2) Niemeyer’s tropicalization of the modern house went a long way beyond the early Brazilian Modernist addition of tokens of tropical vegetation to conjure instead a dwelling with fragile, dissoluble boundaries between nature and building.

Niemeyer quotes Le Corbusier with approval: ‘The ideal thing is a shack with a pool beside it.’(3)  Perched high on a dramatic steep site between the towering mountains of the Serra do Mar, with magnificent views downhill towards the ocean, the Casa das Canoas (Rio de Janeiro, 1952–54) – the second house he designed for his family and undoubtedly his domestic masterpiece – appears at first sight to consist of no more than a concrete, free-form marquise with a pool amid a tropical garden that merges seamlessly with a fantastic landscape. Niemeyer describes the house as ‘modest, without entrance hall, simple as...they should all be’.(4) His conscious decision to inhabit Brazil’s chaotic and undomesticated natural landscape did not involve an attempt to tame it: ‘I did not touch the terrain,’ Niemeyer insists.(5) He has also said of the house: 

My concern was to design this residence with complete liberty, adapting it to the irregularities of the terrain, without changing it, and making it curved, so as to permit the vegetation to penetrate, without being separated by the straight line. And I created for the living rooms a zone of shade, so that the glazed walls wouldn’t need curtains and the house would be transparent as I preferred. (6)

Obliged to leave the car at a parking bay, the visitor enters the shady tropical garden on foot, through a gate, then turns left to descend a gently curving ramp towards what appears to be a clearing cut into the mountainside. Typically, the approach to the house is neither direct nor axial. Water, a huge granite boulder and the low horizon of the thin roof slab configure a Carioca landscape in miniature, beckoning from a distance and anticipating the wondrous spectacle that lies still out of sight. Moving into the porch under the meandering canopy, the visitor passes through a casual opening in the glazing into the relatively dark interior of the house, to be drawn by the light out again through the rear opening diagonally opposite, into a second, smaller porch and on to the large veranda, where a spectacular view awaits the initiated and holds them captive. As in other houses by Niemeyer, there is no marked, solid ‘front door’ defending the interior and representing the private owner. Niemeyer’s rejection of the traditional, easily identifiable, assertive front door embodies a rupture with the Brazilian past of the patriarchal mansion, while also proposing a daring adaptation of modern European models to the conditions of the tropical environment, allowing the landscape to penetrate the house and the house to flow freely out into the garden. It symbolizes the conscious denial of the ultimate artificial defence mechanism against a nature that is not perceived as obstacle or threat but is welcomed as the desirable place to dwell in the tropics. 

In the vein of the Casa do Baile (1940–43) and more successfully than at the Alberto Dalva Simão House (1954), both at Pampulha, the house at Canoas is defined by the floating concrete canopy, which neither encloses space nor determines spatial hierarchy. The openness, spatial fluidity, slender steel columns piercing the ceiling, subdued luxury, reflective surfaces and, most notably, the horizontal axis of symmetry that renders the plane of the ceiling a reflection of the floor betray Niemeyer’s debt to Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion for the Barcelona International Exhibition of 1929. The horizontal symmetry captures the viewer’s attention when standing by the shallow pool looking through the Canoas pavilion between the curve of the roof and the sharp line of its shadow underfoot. Mies’s project for a 50 x 50-foot square glass house (1950–51) and his Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois (1946–51), and Philip Johnson’s Glass House at New Canaan, Connecticut (1949), the last two exhibited at the first São Paulo International Art Biennale in 1951, are the other obvious precedents of the house at Canoas, amazingly free of Corbusian recipes. 

Rather than producing a house that represents a rendering of the topographical profile, Niemeyer exploited the site’s contours, disposing living and sleeping quarters on separate floors. Pulling the external membrane of the mountain over the house’s private quarters, he concealed this lower level and formed a straight-edged terrace with uninterrupted sea views. To the side of the house, the terrace edge and lower-floor plan follow the contours of the ground. Effectively, Niemeyer adapted both terrain and programme to the requirements of his design. The architecture is not directed against nature, but neither is the natural landscape incorporated as found in the design. Reverence towards nature and perceptive engagement with topography do not imply unquestionable submission: ‘Man intervenes in Nature,’ Niemeyer says, ‘turning it into the theater of his illusions.’(7) At Canoas, the semi-transparent pavilion owes its apparent simplicity to the fact that it is displayed on a new, artificial terrain, simpler than the natural one. This new, planar ground economically effects a transformation of both topography and programme. The sophisticated simplicity of the composition and the majesty of the site conspire to invest the particular house with archetypal resonance.

Under the floating marquise, to the left of the entrance opening, an ovoid curve embraces the sitting area, the darker and most intimate area of the house, delimited by a rectangular, beige-coloured rug. The view to the sea is wittily framed on this wall: a small vertical opening is positioned at sitters’ eye level, perhaps a token homage to Le Corbusier. This is the only opaque external wall, rendered and painted green on the outside and internally panelled in streaked peroba do campo wood, polished to a warm red-brown finish. The same material is used for the shallow arc to the right of the rear opening, which defines an alcove for a round dining table of Niemeyer’s design (1972), with Thonet model no. 9 chairs on a circular green rug, evoking a similar arrangement at Mies’s Tugendhat House. 

The concern to reveal external walls and internal partitions as independent planar elements rather than constituents of volumes is satisfied with tectonic confidence. The dining arc screens off the two enclosed spaces: a kitchen, contained within the western loop, which also embraces a staircase, and a toilet positioned between kitchen and dining alcove so as not to compromise the impression of a free-standing, curving plane. Perforated hollow-brick zigzag screens define sitting areas in the porch and rear veranda, also screening off a small court for the kitchen (the veranda screen was later replaced by a solid, white, low curved wall). The kitchen wall by the internal stair is also defined as an independent plane, its full thickness revealed as it protrudes beyond the point where it meets the perpendicular white wall with the door to the kitchen. It is highlighted with a dark green-blue polished plaster that reflects the surrounding thick green foliage and the silhouette of Alfredo Ceschiatti’s reclining figure at the top of the stairwell beside the granite boulder. This wall is the only vertical element in the composition, linking the two levels of the house. 

In contrast to the Farnsworth House, at Canoas transparency has not been achieved at the cost of privacy but neither has it been compromised. The cave-like, cellular, lower floor that is kept out of sight contains four bedrooms, three bathrooms and a small study area at the bottom of the stair, which is devoid of views, lit as it is by a narrow vertical slit and a row of high circular clerestory windows. The walls of the bedrooms are painted oxblood red. Three bedroom windows project out of the rear wall, emphatically imposing a double frame on views towards thick foliage. According to Underwood, they present ‘a parody of the Corbusian approach’, but they are more likely inspired by Alvar Aalto’s bedroom-window bays for his Villa Mairea in Noormarkku (1938–41).(8)

Making the house porous, at Canoas, Niemeyer allowed a huge grey granite boulder to syncopate the curve of the pool, penetrate the glass wall and intrude into the living space and stairwell, lifting a structural column on the way. Shade-loving plants grow by the rock and by the glass wall, outside as well as inside the house. Refuting Adolf Loos’s notion of the house as a defence perimeter, Niemeyer opted for an architecture that collaborates with rather than harnessing nature’s irrational forces. The trees planted around the house ‘completed’ the composition, Niemeyer says, framing the hovering concrete roof slab, and intensifying the effect of the house as a minimal, horizontal, free-floating, sheltering plane.(9)  Although nature has been permitted to inhabit the Canoas House, it is not allowed to run wild; Burle Marx’s hand is clearly visible. While Ceschiatti’s figure reclines inside the house, many other sculptures inhabit the garden. An abstract architecture of improvisation and spontaneity is balanced by figurative sculpture.

The domestic ideogram of Canoas brings to mind Mies van der Rohe’s saying: ‘We have taken away … everything we could take away, and what is left, sings,’ or, in Niemeyer’s case, ‘dances’.(10)  Forging the architectural equivalent of polyrhythmic samba, Niemeyer set his curves in multiple metres, apparently unrestricted by geometry, utility or gravity. Samba has been described as ‘a complex dialogue in which various parts of the body talk at the same time, and in seemingly different languages. The feet keep up a rapid patter, while the hips beat out a heavy staccato and the shoulders roll a slow drawl.’(11)  Similarly at Canoas three separate, interacting rhythms are articulated in the walls, white roof slab and black structural columns, which appear to be scattered at random inside or outside the house. The zigzagging lines of the black-tile floor follow yet a different rhythm, allowed to overflow onto the stone pavement, enhancing the effect of fluidity and confirming that all limits have been dissolved, all devices of separation made penetrable. The strong beat sounded by the sinuous roof slab is suspended in the ‘zone of shade’ underneath it, where the weaker beats of the tubular steel columns, curved and straight screens and floor patterns are accentuated. The polymetric, vertical layering of rhythmic lines in open-ended dialogue sets the composition in perpetual motion, ‘pushing the plan libre to new extremes of freedom’, achieving a hitherto unknown lightness.(12)  The shadow cast by the roof slab introduces yet another, ever-changing rhythm that follows the path of the sun and brings to the fore the dimension of time. 

The Architectural Review of October 1954 reported that Niemeyer’s new house was at ‘the centre of discussion in Sao Paulo’ among foreign visitors at the 1953 Art Biennale. (13) In his 1956 monograph, Papadaki wrote that their experience as guests [at Canoas] must have been unbearable…the result was thunderous. We heard about ‘incoherent relationship between the ground floor and …,’ ‘poorly ventilated mezzanine,’ the lack of similarity to a ‘Pompeian house,’ up to a definition that ‘Art consists in making an idea as clear and objective as it can be made,’ obviously referring to the technique of writing military dispatches. (14) 

‘The air was still full of Max Bill’s accusations,’ Mrs Gropius recalled when she and her husband visited the house.(15) Walter Gropius resorted to the animalizing colonialist trope, naming Niemeyer ‘Paradiesvogel’. He may have been alluding to King Vidor’s filmic North American–indigene romance Bird of Paradise (1932), in which a South Seas native woman (Dolores del Rio) embodies a land both idyllic and dangerous for mortals, and an infernal punishment awaits the transgressive exotic.(16)  Gropius also criticized the house for not being ‘multipliable’.(17) He probably saw Niemeyer’s experiments as no more than ‘masterful distractions, not subject to reproduction outside the remote reality in which they have their roots’, exactly as Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co saw Alvar Aalto’s work.(18)  Lewis Mumford, too, who saw Niemeyer’s house at the 1955 Museum of Modern Art exhibition on Latin American Architecture Since 1945, found its ‘adventurous’ architecture unconvincing. He criticized ‘its too fluent periphery’, and thought that the whole house ‘has been sacrificed to the upstairs living room; so much was given up for the sake of aesthetic whimsery that the result may not be sound architecture,’ he opined.(19)

Ernesto Rogers also visited the house at Canoas in 1953 and described it as ‘a confession of [Niemeyer’s] sins’: I doubt that I shall ever forget that scene: the sun was just dipping below the horizon, leaving us in a dark sea of orange, violet, green and indigo. The house repeated the themes of that orgiastic countryside (incense and the hum of insects): a vast rhapsody beginning in the roof vibrated down the walls and their niches to finish in the pool, where the water, instead of being neatly dammed up, freely spread along the rocks of a kind of forest pool.(20)

The European visitors of Canoas were accustomed to an architecture that may be seen to reflect the predominant harmonic and melodic progression of European music, and were not used to practising a synchronic reading of simultaneous patterns that appear to contradict each other. They found the polymetric architecture of this unique house incomprehensibly complex, arbitrary and incoherent, echoing European perceptions of the simultaneous patterns of polymetric Afro-Brazilian music. Barbara Browning’s comment on European perceptions of cacophony applies to both music and architecture: ‘The problem’, she suggests, is ‘not the indirection of the music but the misdirection of the listening.’(21) For Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the house at Canoas represented ‘the most extreme statement of [Niemeyer’s] special Cariocan [sic] lyricism’.(22)  Like the Casa do Baile, the Casa das Canoas put forward rhythm and dance as the ultimate transgressions of utility. Its emphasis on movement constitutes its most notable departure from its precedents. With few lines and a precise choreography, it fully exploited Niemeyer’s innovations of the previous years, while in some ways it also looked forward to his future work in Brasília.

 

(1) Niemeyer, Oscar, 2005, Casas onde morei (Rio de Janeiro: Revan).

(2) Papadaki, Stamo, 1960, Oscar Niemeyer (New York: George Braziller), p. 9.

(3) Niemeyer, Oscar, 1994, Oscar Niemeyer and Brazilian Free-form Modernism (New York: George Braziller), p. 29. Niemeyer says this was a statement Le Corbusier made once when they were together in New York.

(4) Niemeyer, 2005, p. 24.

(5) Oscar Niemeyer, in Wajnberg, Marc-Henri, 2000, Oscar Niemeyer: un architecte engagé dans le siècle (Paris: ARTE France and Panic Productions; Brussels: RTBF, Télévision Belge Francophone, and Wajnbrosse Productions, São Paulo: Polo de Imagem). 

(6) Oscar Niemeyer, quoted in Underwood, David, 1994, Oscar Niemeyer and the Architecture of Brazil (New York: Rizzoli), p. 79. 

(7) Niemeyer, Oscar, 2000, The Curves of Time: The Memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer (London: Phaidon), p. 123. 

(8)  Underwood, 1994, p. 79.

(9) Oscar Niemeyer, in Wajnberg. 

(10) Mies van der Rohe, quoted in ‘‘Mies in America: An Interview with James Ingo Freed Conducted by Franz Schulze’, 1989, in Mies van der Rohe: Critical Essays, ed. Franz Schulze (New York: Museum of Modern Art)’, p. 193. 

(11) Browning, Barbara, 1995, Samba: Resistance in Motion (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), p. 2. 

(12) Weston, Richard, 2002, Twentieth-Century Residential Architecture (London: Laurence King), p. 108. 

(13) ‘Report on Brazil’, 1954, Architectural Review 116, no. 694 (October), p. 235. 

(14) Papadaki, Stamo, 1956, ‘Notes on Brazilian Architecture’. In Stamo Papadaki, Oscar Niemeyer: Works in Progress (New York: Reinhold), p. 69. 

(15) ‘We did not think them quite justified,’ she added; Gropius, Walter, and Mrs Gropius, 1954. In ‘Report on Brazil’, p. 236. 

(16) See Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam, 1994, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London: Routledge), p. 143. 

(17) Walter Gropius, quoted in Niemeyer, Oscar, 1985, Oscar Niemeyer, ed. Hélio Penteado (São Paulo: Almed, bilingual edition), p. 72. 

(18) Tafuri, Manfredo, and Francesco Dal Co, 1976, Modern Architecture (Milan: Electa, London: Faber and Faber), p. 338.

(19) Mumford, Lewis, 1956, ‘The Sky Line: The Drab and the Daring’, The New Yorker 31, 4 February, pp. 84–85. 

(20) Rogers, Ernesto, 1954. In ‘Report on Brazil’, p. 240.

(21) Browning, p. 10. One German critic went as far as to talk of Niemeyer’s house as ‘kitsch’; Klotz, Heinrich, 1982, ‘Die röhrenden Hirsche der Architektur, Kitsch in der modernen Baukunst’ (1977). In Oscar Niemeyer: Selbstdarstellung, Kritiken, Oeuvre, ed. Alexander Fils (Münsterschwarzach: Benedict Press, Frölich & Kaufmann), p. 107. 

(22) Hitchcock, Henry-Russell, 1955, Latin American Architecture Since 1945 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, exhibition catalogue), p. 170.

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