The name Niemeyer stands for one thing above all: curves. Whether undulating lines, soaring domes, or swooping pillars that repeat in perfect rhythm, his designs reject “the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man” in favor of “the curved Universe of Einstein,” as he wrote in his 2000 memoir The Curves of Time. Indeed, a late interview with him was headlined “the architect who eradicated the straight line.”
But what happens to an artist who becomes wedded to a certain philosophy of form and pursues it exclusively for decades; does it become restrictive? I wonder whether Niemeyer ever questioned his monogamous dedication to the curve. Perhaps a certain restlessness drove the uncharacteristically sharp-edged plan of the Tel Aviv house he designed for hotel magnate Yekutiel Federmann—or perhaps it reflects the political and personal upheaval of the moment.
During the 1964 coup in Brazil, when Niemeyer’s left-wing political affiliations made him a target, he spent six months in Israel and produced a raft of designs, though only one was ever built—and many were unpopular. In contrast to the low-rise, sprawling arrangements that predominated in Israeli cities, he wanted to put up skyscrapers, arguing that flat Tel Aviv needed landmarks and kibbutz-style social living (while furthering the entrepreneurial ambitions of his host).
The private residences he designed in the city, meanwhile, sat low and wide, with typical modernist flat roofs and glass walls, as well as his trademark concrete slab construction. But the Federmann design stands out as remarkably... square. In the original drawings (as modeled here in 3D by Archilogic), the only curved line is a single strip that extends over the front terrace and then bends down to support the entrance ramp, resembling the cabinetry of the era more than Niemeyer’s famous swoops.
It’s not all right angles, of course. Small triangular terraces slice into three of the bedrooms; though straight themselves, three striking pivoting walls beyond the terrace provide a kind of visual curve effect; and tilted supports beneath the raised terrace create a floating effect. A later iteration of the design added an upper level with a roof bending upwards, as well as striking tilted planes at the end first intended for the bedrooms—as if those pivoting walls had been upended and multiplied. But in this original conception, it seems as if Niemeyer challenged himself to find redeeming features in hard angles.
It’s an odd experiment. While the public end of the house is flooded in light, the light in the bedrooms is far more limited. Those glass doors are pointed directly at the entrance (and in one case, the living room and main terrace beyond—all clearly visible through floor-to-ceiling glass), which seems to intrude on their supposed privacy.
The Rothschild house, a design he started around the same time, shares this house’s pivoting walls, as well as the raised platform and tilted supports. But its dramatic curved roof and irregular swimming pool—strongly reminiscent of features on his own home, Casa de Canoas—provides the lyrical line we associate with his style. Niemeyer had of course just been forced to abandon that beautiful home, and was embarking on what would become decades in exile. Did he perhaps want to break with the past?
Since it was never built, the only way to explore this stylistic departure is through Archilogic’s model. Take a look for yourself and decide whether Niemeyer’s lyrical spirit is still apparent. Stage it with your favorite furniture designs and share your creations online.
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