Modernist Buildings In a Fix

To devotees of modernist architecture, the futuristic style of Brasilia represents innovation and progress.

To others, this totally planned capital looks as if extraterrestrials landed on Brazil's central plateau.

That pyramid-shaped waffle? A theater. The crown-like spacecraft? A cathedral. The sideways glass harmonica with bowls on top? Ahh ... Congress. All of them divided by vast lawns and highways.

"The city was built to show off buildings, not for people to live in it," says Laurent Gabail, an architecture student visiting from Paris.

"There's just too much sky," complains Marcos Fernandes, a consultant.

"Everything's spread out," says Jose Miguel Pereira dos Santos, an office boy in the Congress building. "My feet ache from so much walking."

At its conception in the 1950s, Brasilia was to represent the modernist ideal of prosperity and equality. But that utopian optimism has faded. What's left are aging structures in need of repair.

Brasilia's decay, like that of many modernist buildings around the world, has raised the question: Why save?

"It's hard to get people excited about preserving late-20th century buildings," says Boston architect Ann Beha.

"Brasilia is in a critical state of renovation now. It's a place that maybe will evaporate in our lifetimes," says the head of Ann Beha Associates, a Boston architecture firm specializing in design of community buildings and landmarks.

The question is, Ms. Beha asks, should modernist buildings, which had their heyday from the 1930s to 1960s, be preserved for their historical value - despite the high costs - even if most people simply find them unpleasant?

Take, for instance, France's Radiant City in Marseilles, an apartment complex designed by Le Corbusier that has all the amenities of a small city. Residents reportedly complain they feel trapped by the design and that the building is an eyesore.

In Boston, some citizens are calling for what they consider a clunky, asymmetrical City Hall to be toppled rather than spend money to keep it up.

The greatest complaint about modernism's unadorned style is that it is overly formal and doesn't allow for spontaneity, says Claudio Kweiroz, director of the architecture department at the University of Brasilia. "But in my opinion these are superficial criticisms."

His says Brasilia's famed architect, Oscar Niemeyer (a life-long communist often referred to here as Dr. Oscar), designed "beautiful" buildings. "This doesn't mean they are pleasant but, rather, seductive - and they have good functional performance," he explains.

Mr. Niemeyer's reform-minded style is a "simple, direct, clear reduction on the societal value of ornamentation" that has inspired other august works, including the United Nations building in New York, with its spaceshiplike halls. But the public must ask itself, "Is it humanistically appropriate to where we are today as a society?"

Brasilia has been named a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO and is the only 20th-century city on the list. But the award doesn't come with funds to maintain the buildings. And with Brazil's economy in trouble, fixing the capital might be a low priority.

"Most international resources go to preserving Baroque architecture," says Brasilia's secretary of culture, Milton Perreira. "We're working with some banks and other companies to raise funds for renovation. If these buildings were in the States, you can be sure they would be getting a lot more attention."

And, as city architects are finding out, the buildings have some technical problems. Reinforced concrete is relatively cheap and easy to build with - but tough to maintain in Brasilia's savanna climate, says Mauricio Matta, an architect responsible for the Congress building.

The buildings expand and contract rapidly in the dry air, whose temperature can swing from 90 degrees F. during the day down to 40 degrees at night. This opens cracks in the building's base, allowing water to seep in. But Mr. Matta says the cost of treating the problem "is just a bit more than a good paint job."

"Dr. Oscar's style is in fact easier to maintain than other building styles, because it doesn't have any extraneous elements," says Matta."The cost of upkeep on a shopping mall is greater."

NIEMEYER, still working in Rio, must be consulted before major work is done on his buildings. To critics, he simply replies: "People may not like the monuments and palatial buildings I constructed at Brasilia, but no one can say that they have ever seen anything like them before."

Visitors to Brasilia have to get used to entering buildings on ramps and through underground passages. Some buildings, crouched on curved "legs," hardly appear to touch the ground. And there's all that open space, leaving pedestrians feeling exposed.

But many of the 800,000 people who live here say they are fond of its concrete curves, glass walls, and unexpected cascades of water.

"The buildings are weird, that's for sure, but they're beautiful too," says Ana Christina Silva, who works in the popsicle-stick-shaped electoral tribunal.

"Some afternoons I step out of my building, look around, and think, 'goodness, I can't believe I really live here.' "

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