The Death of a Prophet

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Oscar Niemeyer, one of the modern world’s most outstanding architects, died last December, ten days short of his 104th birthday. Brazil’s most famous architect started his career in 1936, when he worked together with La Corbusier on the design of the new Health and Education Ministry building in Rio de Janiero. La Corbusier, the leading modernist architect of his time introduced Niemeyer to the concepts and materials of modernism to which the budding architect added his own personal touch of curvaceous designs that would amaze the world.

Following his world debut in 1939, when he designed the Brazilian Pavilion in the World Fair at New York, he started working with Jucelino Kubitschek, considered today the father of modern Brazil, on a new neighborhood in the city of Belo Horzonte of which Kubitschek was at the time mayor. The outstanding complex that Niemeyer designed (called the complex of Pamphulha), included a lake, casino, church, golf club, hotel and a myriad of other buildings around the waterfront of the lake. “I am not drawn to straight lines”, Niemeyer said in an interview many years later “but I love the free contour, curving and turning, like the lines of the mountains of my country, the sensuality of its rives, the body of a loved women”.

In 1956, following Kubitschek’s elections as president, Niemeyer was put in charge of designing the new capital of Brazilia – followed by many more outstanding buildings.  Niemeyer, like Kubitschek was a socialist, and as that was considered an enemy of the military regime that toppled the socialist government of Kubitschek, with the clandestine aid of the CIA. Following the establishment of the military dictatorship in Brazil in 1964, Kubitschek was stripped of his civil rights and had to leave Brazil. He returned in 1967 and started to organize a group of ex-presidents of Brazil who were against the Americanization of the Brazilian economy. Kubitschek died in a mysterious car accident in 1976.

When the military took over the country in 1964, Niemeyer was in Israel. He stayed in the country, which he admired as a star of socialist endeavor, for 6 months, a period during which he designed some far sighted plans for the relatively new country. Today, half a century later, the prophecies and ideas of Niemeyer, are beginning to be appreciated. Typically none of his proposals were ever built.

Niemeyer was invited to Israel in 1963 by Yekutiel Federman, the owner of the Dan Hotels Corporation, in order to design a few real estate projects that Federman was involved in, mainly the Noridiya neighborhood in Tel Aviv, a semi-slum area that had been evacuated of its tenants and was waiting for a new design (eventually the Dezingoff Center mall and apartments would be built over the old neighborhood), and the addition of a wing to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Niemeyer, who was a great admirer of David Ben Gurion and wanted to meet him, had to postpone his plans to come to Israel time and again, but finally due to an invitation to design the new university of Ghana, the famous architect decided to combine a visit Ghana with Israel and set out on the journey. As he was afraid of flying Niemeyer took a ship to Europe, missed his port of disembarkation, and ended up eventually in Paris. After a month in Paris he made up his mind to fly to Ghana, from Lisbon, Portugal. While waiting for his flight, at the hotel in Lisbon, he heard of the military coup in Barzil. “The army took over the country and implemented the demands of the South American imperialists”, he wrote in his memoirs, “Oppression, arbitrariness, and informing took hold again among the people of Brazil”.

Depressed by the news Niemeyer decided to fly to Israel, a visit that would last for 6 months, partly because of work that he took upon himself and Israel and mainly because of the news that came from Brazil that the new regime was not favorable towards him. Niemeyer, a member of the communist party and a leading supporter of Kubitscheck was a declared target of the anti-socialist activities of the military regime, supported by the United States. His political rights were relinquished,  the police raided his offices in Barzilia and his house and office in Rio de Janiero, and closed down the magazine that he had founded .

Federman allocated a studio for Niemeyer in the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv, and the architect immersed himself in a working frenzy. During six months he designed the Nordiya complex and the Kikar Hamedina square in Tel Aviv, the university campus and panorama center in Haifa, a new wing for the King David Hotel, a concept for a new town in the Negev, and a few apartment buildings, villas and hotels in Caesarea and Herzliya. At the end of this six month period the designs were displayed at an exhibition at the Dan Hotel titled “Six months in Israel”.

Niemeyer was impressed with the Zionist Socialist enterprise of the 1960s and had a special appreciation for the desert landscapes of Israel. He visited Ben Gurion, living at that time on Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev, and was enthralled with the vision of the new country that had been created after 2000 years of exile. As for architecture and urban design in Israel he was extremely critical. In the trips that Niemeyer took around Israeli he asked specially to visit the new towns that were being built in the Negev: Beersheva and the new neighborhoods being built around it, Yeruham in the Negev Highlands, Kiryat Gat and Eilat, that were created from scratch. Niemeyer was totally against the Israeli town planners concept of few storied buildings, with large spaces between them, with the towns spreading out horizontally instead of vertically. This was a waste of land, he explained, which also created problems of infrastructure, parking, and municipal services.

Most of the buildings that Niemeyer designed in Israle were never built. The few designs that were eventually constructed, such as Haifa University and Kikar Hamedina Square, were built with major changes in the original plan.

Of special interest among the projects the Niemeyer designed in Israel was his  “Negev City” design,  that was commissioned by the then Israeli Minister of Housing,  Yosef Almogi. Neimeyer had designed two cities in his life: Brazilia, that was built and Negev City, planned for an non-specific site in the Northern Negev. As for the design of Barziliya, that was built in four years, Niemeyer had many reservations. The large spatial dispersion of the buildings, the large distances between various points in the city, and the neighborhoods around it. Negev City was a sort of tikkun. Like Barziliya the Negev City was to be built from scratch, a new site, at a distance, relatively, from any other urban center. In the plans for this new city in the desert Niemeyer invested all his utopian thoughts on  the place were modern people were meant to live their lives.

Niemeyer was asked to design buildings of four to eight stories, but he called for a city of multi-storied vertical towers. “Conservation of land allows for uncontestable economic advantages: less roads and doing away with hundred’s of blocs of apartment buildings spread out over vast areas, that create traffic problems and weigh on the water, sewage and electric grids… this project is an inevitable projection of the pulses of progress, technology and life itself” he wrote in the introduction to the plan.

Niemeyer’s Negev City, designed for a population of 50,000, was based on 40 skyscrapers, 30 to 40 stories each, built in such a way that the maximum distance that one had to go in the city was less than 500 meters – and on foot at that. The city was designed like a park, with a network of wide landscaped paths between the houses, with no roads and cars between them. Small pedestrian roads led to the service and entertainment centers of the city, and to squares and lawns outside the perimeter of the houses.

The city was built in a circle with the municipality, services and cultural amenities in the center, around them the apartment buildings, and on an outer circle the education and sport facitilites. The city’s outer perimeter is a circular boulevard for vehicular traffic, with tunnels leading from the ring road to a huge 10,000-car parking lot under the center of the city. In this underground center would also be located the central bus and train stations, the police station, restaurants and shops – all located on a lower level under the city center.

Niemeyer’s design expressed the ability to deal with the harsh conditions of the desert by having the center of the town planted with green and parkland, while the open expanses of the desert could be taken in from the windows and verandahs of the apartments. Niemeyer envisioned a kind of medieval city: the outer boulevard was the wall around the city, with the distances inside the walls shorts and easily covered on foot. “It would be a metropolital kibbutz of a new kind that could grow, expand and develop without losing its human qualities – excitement, solidarity and idealism”, was how Niemeyer described the city that he planned.

A solution for living together vertically, he wrote in his memoirs, “demands appropriate design that creates a feeling of a private house for each apartment. The entrance to the apartment has to be from a private garden that everyone seems to want. The living and bedrooms open up into the garden”. The apartment should not be uniform, wrote Niemeyer, and beyond that the apartments would be marketed as “open spaces for personal design… flexible as to afford unlimited variations, including inner levels”.

Niemeyer’s work in Israel was the subject of a historic research done by architect Zvi Elhayani for his masters degree from the faculty of Architecture at the Technion. In Niemyer’s plan for the Negev City Elhayani saw as an expression for his criticism against the city’s being built at the time in the Negev and the concept of urban design in SIrael. Niemyer pointed out that the low density building in the new cities of Israel together with the establishment of hundreds of new villages as a mistake that Israel will pay for by the loss of open spaces in the future. Even though the towns and villages were built in desert areas, open and seemingly endless, Niemeyer’s opinon was that eventually there will be a limit to the amount of open space that can be used for building together with a problem of spreading out endless networks of infrastructure.

Even when he presented his plan for the Negev City Niemeyer was aware that it would raise a lot of criticism, but he hoped that his plan would not be completely rejected, “but put away for a while and looked at again after a few years… than, I am sure that the reasons for my design will be appreciated and it will be proven that this city is the inevitable result of progress, technology and life”.

Niemeyer’s harsh criticism had no effect what so ever on urban planning in Israel or on the views of Israeli architects. “the Negev and the metropolitan area of Beersheva” wrote Elhayani in 2002 “that are today at the center of the development plans of Israel, develop in the last two decades in the opposite direction  of the Nieymeyer’s vertical and compact vision of the modern city. The construction of garden apartments on the 40th floor and copying the qualities of suburban life to  packed metropolitan environments  occupy the designs today of avant-garde  architects in other densely populated countries like Holland. In Israel, in the suburban and communal villages, the traditional design of detached private houses surrounded by a garden is still the norm”.

Like most of his designs in Israel Niemeyer’s Negev City was never built. Elhayani thinks that in the 1960s it wasn’t possible for technological, cultural and economic reasons. But, with all that, writes Elhayani, the issues that the plan raised 40 years ago are still at the center of the debate on the national master plan for Israel.

Niemyer’s design for the Nordiya center in Tel Aviv was also based on high rise buildings. In order to conserve as much open space as possible and still utilize the expensive real estate in the best manner he suggested building three 40 story buildings on the plot that would include a apartments, a hotel and office space, underneath them would be a two story shopping center. The same high-rise design with large open spaces he suggested for Kikar Hamedina square.

“Yesterday was the end of the world of the children of small Tel Aviv”, wrote Prof. Yoram Peri in 1965, at the time a journalist for the newspaper Davar following the approval of Niemeyer’s plan for Kikar Hamedina. “the only square that the hand of the construction worker has not touched yet, will have three 40-story buildings spring from it”. The project has still to be built. The Noridya plan was also criticized and never built. Finally , the Dizengoff Center shopping mall was built on it. Niemeyer’s plan for the single story Haifa university campus was built with many changes.

Niemeyer’s long stay in Israel left him with favorable impressions. “an amazing land full of contradictions and beauty”, he wrote in his memoirs “the life in Tel Aviv of young people, happy and without prejudice… night life and a culture of street life, in open air coffee houses”. But his main impression was of the desert: “Eilat… is a beautiful place, the most colorful and pure that I have known”, he wrote.

Niemyer’s ideas of economic use of land, high rise building and avoiding the building of new towns and villages vanished into thin air in the 1970s, when occupation of land turned into settlement mantra. But in the 1990s his ideas emerged again. Today it is clear that Niemeyer’s perception was very accurate. Less areas of infrastructure, less roads, personal planning space in the apartment and high rise building. The Master Plan for Israel 2020, that was designed in 1997, examined the population carrying ability of Israel in that target year, and suggested, that with a population that will exceed 10 million people, the only way to be able to preserve the landscape and open spaces would be by developing a densely populated center, avoiding the establishment of new villages and towns, and better utilizing the existing cities and towns by building high-rise buildings – exactly the three issues that Niemyer, half a century ago, pinpointed as the main design issues for the future of Israel.

Blessed be his memory.

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