Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Original Anti-“Howard Roark” Has Died At 104

IT’S ALMOST A SACRILEGE TO COMPARE AND CONTRAST the life of one of the greatest architects of the 20th and 21st Centuries, Oscar Niemeyer, who died last Wednesday at 104, leaving to us a wondrous legacy of beauty and poetic expression, to Ayn Rand's fictional Howard Roark, invented to feebly deny the monumental accomplishments of a giant as Niemeyer. Roark was a didactic character, a vehicle for Ayn Rand’s twisted, juvenile philosophy in The Fountainhead, perhaps her best novel. Rather than compromise his self-respect, Roark pursued an utterly unrealistic career path getting himself expelled from architecture school for refusing to copy the classical styles of the past. He even worked as a day laborer rather than compromise his futuristic designs. Eventually, Roark threw a hissy fit and blew up his masterpiece, a house built on a cliff.

Ironically, Rand’s knowledge of architecture was so perfunctory that her novel completely overlooked the creative explosion in design which was occurring right under her nose when The Fountainhead was published. One wonders why Roark felt compelled to go to such extremes before, say, paying a professional courtesy call on Frank Lloyd Wright. Or why he didn’t care to immerse himself in the myriad architectural movements, from modernism to Bauhaus, post-modernism, or the designs of Le Corbusier, an early influence on Oscar Niemeyer. The tyranny of classicism on which Rand hung her narrative was only manifested in the fascist dictatorships of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy when The Fountainhead was published in 1943 — hardly the United States or any of the world’s democracies, where modern art and futuristic architecture thrived.

The point is: Howard Roark, unlike Rand’s unrealistic Objectivist tome, had a huge menu of options to choose from before turning selfish terrorist, resorting to violence (a common theme for Rand’s heroes) and blowing up his own creation.

By 1921, Oscar Niemeyer was married to his teenage sweetheart, and would remain married to her till death parted them, decades later. (Here, they call it “family values.”) He worked until he died at 104, days shy of his 105th birthday. (Here, they call it “the work ethic” or America’s “Puritan values.”) And while Ayn Rand was milching off Social Security and Medicare, Oscar Niemeyer was working full hours at the office. Those Oscar Niemeyer most related to, Mitt Romney’s 47% — the Republicans’ “takers” and “slackers” and “moochers” — had seemingly little in common with the great architect, who by all accounts was emblematic of the American Right’s myth of self-determination, of picking oneself up by one’s bootstraps while pretending to have been born unto this world on a level playing field. Niemeyer had an answer for them. He said:
“Architecture evolves in function of technique and social problems. The day in which society becomes more horizontal, there won’t be palaces for the richest.

I’ve talked with teachers, academics, journalists, young architects—anyone who crosses my way and wants to “talk about architecture.” Pay attention, kids, you can’t graduate and just dedicate your life to being a good architect. That is bullshit. You need to find an original way to think and to be informed about everything daily. Read, read, read, and read.

I wouldn’t (recommend his own books about architecture) at all! I would tell people they should study philosophy and history to rediscover the great writers and thinkers. Anyone who is going to be an architect should invest part of his time in the knowledge of humanism. I spent my life at this desk, but I never fooled myself. I always knew that life is much more important than this—to feel is more important, to be nice to people is more important. To be useful is much more important to me than my architecture.

Architecture has always been directed to the upper class, and things haven’t changed. Nowadays there are almost no creative projects dedicated to improving the life of those who don’t have money.”
You see, Oscar Niemeyer was literally a card-carrying member of the Brazilian Communist Party. During the dark days of military dictatorship in Brazil, days of massive political purges, torture, and “disappearances,” being openly communist took much more courage than the selfish terrorism of Howard Roark. To be sure, the PCB (as it was known) was an enemy of the state but hardly an operational threat. Niemeyer was named a sort of honorary chairman or president. It was only his prestige abroad, and his crowning historic achievement in designing Brazil’s futuristic capital, Brasilia, from the ground up, which protected him from the violence of the fascist military regime. He was exiled to France, where he continued his brilliant designs, including the headquarters of the French Communist Party.

Here is part of Oscar Niemeyer’s legacy, the beauty he left us all to enjoy for as long as man and woman walks this earth. One little irony is that he also built his house on a cliff, a saucer-shaped museum overlooking Guanabara Bay and looking out toward the iconic Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. No one (in their right non-Objectivist mind) would ever dream of blowing up this building. A second irony, witness to a life of grand achievements, is that Oscar Niemeyer had more creative energy, brilliance, poetry, beauty and genius in his little pinkie than all the right wing extremists of this world ranting against “socialists” and “Marxists.”

Not bad for a communist.


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