Cities dreamt and frozen in time can't serve modern needs

Earlier this month, a hundred-and-four-year old architect died in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro and was mourned as an epic figure in his country.

Among others commenting on the end of an era in a sense were architects all over the world. The Guardian’s obituary was titled ‘the Picasso of concrete.’

The internationally famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer dreamt, drew and designed an entire city in 1960, a new capital simply and appropriately called Brasília.

I lived in this rather unique city as the Indian ambassador for the last four years. This column is not so much a tribute to the architect or a commentary on his style and substance as I am acutely conscious that I not qualified to do either with competence.

It is more a reflection on how a city impacts the mind of the individual and the character of a community. There is also the question on whether a city can be frozen in time as seen in the attempts in Chandigarh or  Brasilia, or whether it can evolve with time gradually and gracefully as Paris or New York suggest, or descend into chaos as some of our cities including Bangalore seem to suggest.

Longevity in creativity

Niemeyer’s work lasted for nearly three quarters of a century, in itself a remarkable feat of longevity in creativity. The reference to Chandigarh above is deliberate. Niemeyer was heavily influenced by Le Corbusier, the creator of Chandigarh. These ‘modernists’ - the term used in the first decades of 20th century and therefore not necessarily modern now - thought differently about the cityscape.

Corbusier, a Swiss-French thinker and architect had a certain conception of the functioning of the modern city and today we should recognise that his vision was influenced by the possibilities of technology in  his day in the 1920 and 30s.
First, cement was malleable  and thus could be bent to human will which results for instance in his disciple Niemeyer’s curvaceous structures inspired by the curves of Brazilian women as he claimed.

 Second, cars were seen as a blessing and the aspiration was that every individual will have one and will traverse unhindered in clear roads responding to his need.

Third, the cities were to grow vertically, surrounded by neighbourhood parks and rooftop greening. There was also the inspiration from industrialisation and specifically automobile plants with a belief in distinctive zones say one for schools and another for hospitals and so on and a vast urban landscape in which people travelled to hubs and came back to their homes organised in neat clusters. These are some of  the principles originally at work in Chandigarh as drawn by Corbusier or in  Brasilia of Niemeyer.

State patronage

An ambitious artist, especially an architect, benefits by state patronage. Niemeyer was exceptionally lucky. In 1955, a new President in Brazil decided that he would in a time bound manner implement an obscure  feature in the constitution, the shifting of the capital from the city of Rio on the coast to the central areas of the vast country and in the middle of a shrub land.

Somewhat like the intentions of our own Muhhamad bin Tughaluq? But unlike Tughaluq’s failure, this one came to be realised and the architectural commission to build an entire city was given to Niemeyer, everything from the cathedral to Parliament to the Supreme Court. The city was envisaged to house 5,00,000 people, accommodate all the three powers i.e. the executive, the legislative and the judiciary, and in tune with its futuristic vision consist of loop roads, obviating the need for any traffic lights.

The project was actually completed and the brand new and ultra modern capital came into being in 1961. In an intellectual sense Niemeyer’s creation was inspired by some isms: modernism and its belief in shaping the future, communism of which he was an adherent, and nationalism in terms of  a proud belief in Brazil’s people and potential.
And today? It is said that ‘beauty is in the eyes of the beholder’ and it should be evident from my tone and tenor above is that with all due respect for a legendary figure, I have reservations about the city created by Niemeyer where I lived.

Essentially, he brought into being a very artificial construct and tried to impose a design and order on Brazilians who temperamentally are impulsive, spontaneous and fun loving. Today, the city and its environs has over 2.5 million  people with a large number living in the satellite towns of a a very different character from the idyllic original imagination.

Brasilia itself  does not have a live city centre, pedestrian areas, crowded civic spaces, a promenade along its long and beautiful man-made lake or attractions that make people come together. It does not have a football stadium with a fame; it cannot as it is a new city still. It is extremely comfortable for a resident, but also somewhat dull.

But my point is larger. How do cities impact on the mind and vice versa? Can a city be dreamt up and frozen in time expected to defy change and evolution? Or will it be buffeted by forces, especially demographic forces as most of cities in developing countries, whether Brazil, Indonesia or India. Can we realistically retain the classical character of Bangalore, a cool, calm, slow and meandering temperament, where to be called nidhanastha (slow going) was a positive attribute as the late Sharada Prasad had noted.

All evidence suggests that unless the man-land ratio is sustainable as in the case of say Paris, the idyllic vision of a city encounters and evaporates confronted with the frenetic reality whether in Bengaluru or Brasilia.
(The writer was till recently India’s mbassador in Brazil)

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