Mon, 8 April 2013
Recently, one Brazil's most renowned architects, Oscar Niemeyer, passed away. He died on December 5th, 2012, ten days before what would have been his 105th birthday. I learned of him on my very first visit to Brazil in the 80s when he was already an old man, and every time I returned to Brazil and saw him turn up in the news, I was always astonished to learn he was still alive. Now I'm just as surprised to hear of his passing.
He is most known as the great architect who designed the governmental buildings in Brazil's capital city of Brasilia under President Juscelino Kubitschek in the 1950s, as well helping to design the United Nations building in New York City. But back in the 40s when Kubitschek was the mayor of Belo Horizonte, Niemeyer was already known to him and was contracted by him to design buildings for a newly-created man-made lake in the Pampulha district of Belo Horizonte, the city where I now live. One of those buildings is the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, which is today considered one of the most well-known icons of Belo Horizonte, as well as the most popular postcard image for visitors to that city.
But it wasn't always that way. Although construction of the church was completed in 1943, its unique architectural style was so reviled by the Catholic Church that it refused to consecrate it. In response to Niemeyer's remark that he had been was inspired by French Poet Paul Claudel's statement that "A church is God's hangar on earth," the archbishop of Belo Horizonte said it was more like the devil's bomb shelter and unfit for religious purposes. The church does, in fact, bear a striking resemblance to a miniature aircraft hangar, being the first architectural structure, besides actual hangars, to use a parabolic arch as a roof, making it radically different in appearance from traditional Catholic churches. The fact that Niemeyer was a professed atheist did nothing to help the situation.
The Church also took issue with some of the artwork, done by Brazilian Painter Cândido Portinari that was incorporated on both the exterior and interior of the building, such as this image, showing St. Francis with a dog. It is a reference to a story about him using the power of God to pacify a wolf that had been attacking villagers and their livestock. In gratitude, the people of the village agreed to feed and care for it, and it lived peacefully with them for many years thereafter until its death. It was a domesticated wolf, so the artist chose to portray it as a dog. Other images portrayal additional legends of St. Francis interacting with animals. Here he can be seen preaching to the birds. And here he is giving a sermon to the birds and the fish (although he appears to be stepping on one of the fish.)
The dog can be seen again on a large mural within the main part of the building. Smaller paintings signifying the Stations of the Cross hang at eye level on the cherry wood walls at either side. To the left is one of two confessionals. These were never used, since it was discovered after construction was completed that they do an excellent job of projecting the voice of a speaker within out to the entire room, making private conversations rather difficult.
Despite resistance by Church officials and an attempt by a later mayor to have the building demolished, it remained. As Niemeyer achieved greater fame for his architectural work in Brasilia, as well as the United Nations building in New York City, and as Portinari achieved ever greater recognition, eventually becoming one of the most renowned Brazilian painters, the artistic merit of the Church of Saint Francis became much harder to deny. In 1959, 16 years after construction, it was finally consecrated by Auxiliary Archbishop João Rezende Costa, who said, "Now we can feel the wonderful art created here in homage to the Creator."
--Meditation Impromptu 03 by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
--UN Complex: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license from www.WorldIslandInfo.com
--Lake Panorama: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license from Wikipedia user Andreborgeslopes