Oscar Niemeyer and His Casa das Canoas

Oscar Niemeyer Sketch

This is a repost to this blog from other web locations, this is an essay I originally wrote in college circa 2000 while studying architecture and have updated some over the years:

Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer brought the International Style to South America, transforming and elaborating upon the movement in the process. Known primarily for his work designing the major civic buildings in Brazil’s massive public works project of the late 50s: the creation of the new capital city of Brasilia, Niemeyer has had the opportunity over his life to establish an architectural language for an entire country, and influence the course of the world’s architecture in the process.

Niemeyer’s version of Modernism shares the essential qualities of the eminent Le Corbusier and Mies, yet goes beyond the principles they established. The minimal steel-based structural systems, glass curtain walls, and clean lines that define the Modern and International Styles are a part of Niemeyer’s work, but additional qualities of cultural relevance and expression are also present.

The house that Niemeyer built for himself in 1953—now known as the Casa das Canoas—is an excellent example of Freeform Modernism, and an expression that could only exist in Brazil. While the thin, flat roof slab and floor-to-ceiling glass walls are certainly central elements of many classic Modernist buildings, particularly Mies’s Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s Glass House, the curvilinear outlines in Niemeyer’s residence are uniquely expressive of its Brazilian heritage. The Colonial Baroque architecture that dominated Brazil before is very curvaceous, as is it’s local artwork. Moreover; the eroded hills, winding rivers and shorelines, and rolling landscape of Brazil itself are a clear inspiration for the forms in Niemeyer’s work. As the architect himself states:

“Right angles created by man, hard and inflexible, do not attract me. What draws my attention are free, sensual curves- curves which I encounter in the mountains of my own country, in the sinuosity of its rivers, in the clouds in the sky and the waves of the sea. The whole universe is made of curves.”

In this way, Niemeyer has found a way to imbue a strict, universal, and impersonal architectural language with meaning, significance, and local cultural relevancy.

A sketch Niemeyer made of his Casa das Canoas residencemyplantopfloorbig
My rendition of the Casa das Canoas ground floor plan, with roof overhang

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye from 1928-31 is surely the most paradigmatic example of early Modernism. While it is clearly still a formative work of the at-the-time-new language, I find that it’s elements lack the significance of Niemeyer’s forms. While thin piloties are used in both houses, the curvilinear forms that Corb uses are taken from industrial forms, and not artistic or geographical inspiration. The drawback of this is that Le Corbusier’s forms are not tied to any one place or people, but only to technology. This style of building is only associated today with France because it was built there originally, not because it inherently contains an expression of the region’s culture.

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Photo credit to Flickr user End User.

Likewise, Mies van der Rohe’s use of steel and glass in the Farnsworth House of 1945-51 is surely an exemplary expression of a mature Modernism, but not a very humanistic gesture. The ultimately minimal and clean refinement of space in this building is quite sublime, but the neutrality and generic quality of the angular forms does not engage the environment (social or geographic) that the building is situated in. In this case, the architect has chosen to relate to the site by intruding upon it as little as possible. However, the few necessary components that do exist are made so devoid of feature that they do not appear to exist in the same reality as the site.

Farnsworth Sun n Clouds
Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. Photo credit to Peter Guthrie.

Niemeyer’s house takes a similar approach to interacting with the environment, yet with a crucial difference. Where the Farnsworth House becomes as neutral and generic as possible to aviod conflict with the environment, the Niemeyer House’s minimal remaining elements take the forms of the surroundings. This immitation of the surrounding forms helps the house blend more effectively into the environment. Niemeyer actually went so far integrating his house with nature as to allow a gigantic rock to penetrate the house’s membrane.

My illustration of the Casa das Canoas and its site
My rendition of the lower floor plan of the Casa das Canoas

Niemeyer’s House is nestled on a hill near Rio de Janeiro, surrounded by lush forests. A large concrete slab provides the tableu for his building, as well as hiding away a small lower floor. The curvy shapes of the roof slab match the shapes of the hill and the organic vegetation that surrounds the house. The roof is supported on thin piloties, negating the need for supporting walls. With this freedom, Niemeyer was able to open up almost the entire top floor to the natural surroundings with glass walls. Two slight cresent wall pieces provide retreat from the jungle if desired. The experience of being inside this house would be indulgent, to say the least. All of the comforts of an indoor setting are added to the exotic experience of sitting in the forest. As William Curtis phrases it: Niemeyer’s Modernism is “sensitized to the tropical way of life.”

a casa
Oscar Niemeyer’s Casa das Canoas. Photo Credit to Marina Moreira.
My rendition of an elevation cross-section of the Casa das Canoas.
Article and drawings by Jeff Hottinger, originally circa 2000 with minor edits in 2011.

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