How Brasília Turned Me On to Modern Architecture’s Sexy Side

JEWELED CROWN Inside Oscar Niemeyer’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasília.
JEWELED CROWN Inside Oscar Niemeyer’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasília. Photo: Alamy

SOME COUPLES spend holidays on beaches. My husband and I bond over journeys to often-barren areas, visiting works by mostly dead architects.

When we were engaged in Rio de Janeiro 17 years ago, we vowed to someday visit Brasília, some 700 miles away, the planned metropolis which became the nation’s new capital in 1960. Championed in 1955 by democratically elected President Juscelino Kubitschek and conceived by urban planner Lúcio Costa with fellow-Brazilian and architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012), the city was intended to embody optimism, progress and civic engagement. When it was inaugurated five years later, its modernist structures upended all notions of functional architecture. “I feel I have just disembarked upon another planet, not Earth,” Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin said upon first seeing Brasília.

In the decades since our engagement, my husband and I renovated four apartments, each more modernist than the last, but never to our total satisfaction: Leather Poul Kjaerholm chairs read too masculine, guests could injure themselves on the many right angles. We decided it was time to visit Brasília.

As we rode in from the airport, a skyline awash in white arose from the red savanna. Within the city of 2.5 million, waterfalls flowed from concrete troughs cantilevered off the Palace of Justice’s facade. Twin stone towers—clearly kin to the United Nations Secretariat in New York, of which Niemeyer was a primary architect—soared behind the horizontal main building of the National Congress. The presidential Planalto Palace seemed to glide atop a moat, its flat roof held up by structural beams that, to Niemeyer’s eye, mimicked falling feathers.

Niemeyer’s National Congress Palace has become a symbol of Brazil.
Niemeyer’s National Congress Palace has become a symbol of Brazil. Photo: Getty Images

Nearby, 16 stark-white paraboloid beams supported the Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasília like a crown of thorns. Inside, sculpted angels dangled from the ceiling’s apex, and indigo light flooded the house of worship as it filtered through windows patterned with blue and green waves. Niemeyer once wrote, “I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves…that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean and on the body of the beloved woman.” Standing beneath those arches, I grasped that faithful modernism can include color and curves, and I made a mental note: Get some throw pillows.

Brasília’s sense of postwar possibility still pervades the planned city. I found myself literally skipping along the Monumental Axis. “There is an irony to these palaces,” said Patricio del Real, assistant professor of art and architecture at Harvard University. “They express an anti-monumentality that makes us question the need for heaviness and grand statements in civic settings at all.”

Perhaps I’ll need more than pillows. I’ve been outbid (or chickened out) many times when pondering the purchase of the Rio Modern Chaise (shown below). It and other furnishings by Niemeyer and contemporaries such as Sergio Rodrigues, Joaquim Tenreiro and Lina Bo Bardi continue to climb in value. But newer designers offer fresh takes on the Brasília aesthetic. Alain Gilles’ just-released W8 side table for Ligne Roset nods to Niemeyer. “The stone weight at the base has a concave shape that can be found on buildings such as the National Congress,” said Mr. Gilles, while the curve of metal supporting the tablet recalls the Planalto Palace.

Since returning, my husband and I have softened our over-disciplined apartment. Any day now, a sensual orange Vladimir Kagan Serpentine sofa will arrive. The throw pillows I’d pledged to buy brighten the kids’ couch. A new sense of levity warms our home. “It isn’t enough to just be rational,” wrote Niemeyer. “It must also be beautiful.”

CURVES AHEAD / Non-Linear Designs to Round Out Décor
How Brasília Turned Me On to Modern Architecture’s Sexy Side

Clockwise from top left: Reflect Pillow, $80, cb2.com; Alain Gilles W8 Occasional Table, $850, Ligne Roset, 212-357-1036; Gert-Jen Soepenberg Vase #1, $214, ateliergertjan.com; Global Views Corona Candle Holder, $199, perigold.com; Oscar Niemeyer Rio Modern Chaise, $27,410, 1stdibs.com

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