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The Great Gesture – The Unknown – Oscar Niemeyer in Algiers

By Andreas Rost

Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2015

ISBN: 9783869845593

The Great Gesture – The Unknown - Oscar Niemeyer in Algiers

Of the three titles of this book – The Great Gesture; The Unknown; Oscar Niemeyer in Algiers – I very much prefer the middle one.

The book contains a little over seventy photographs of the building complex of the Université des sciences et de la technologie Houari-Boumediene in Algiers, a complex designed by Oscar Niemeyer and completed in the 1970s. Although uncaptioned, each photo has been assigned a numeral (I to XII), allowing all of them to be mapped to a blueprint of the University on the inside back cover. For clarity’s sake, it should be mentioned that some of Niemeyer’s ideas and intentions – a design for a tower, for example – were not realized and so cannot be seen in the blueprint given here. He apparently abandoned the project late in its lifecycle and certain compromises were made before it was completed.

Oscar Niemeyer was a great architect whose work centred on public buildings. He designed many churches, museums and theatres. A characteristic of  his practice, always, lay in his use of concrete. In his hands, concrete possessed a miraculous, epic quality. It had solidity yet great versatility, assuming a wealth of geometric forms. He played with it as a child plays with plasticine.

Many of the buildings here look like alien pyramids. They stand in an antagonistic, yet fragile relation to the natural order. You could be looking at a survivalist colony on another planet, an uncertain imposition, a community under threat. Some few of Andreas Rost’s photographs show people, or at least signs of human life, yet the vast majority do not; and this brutal absence adds to their errie quality. It is as though on a beautiful sunlit day, long ago, a neutron bomb struck…

There are two things that I particularly like about Rost’s photographs. The first is that their viewpoints genuinely startle and surprise (surprise being, incidentally, the quality that Niemeyer prized most in great architecture) while collectively they reveal a cumulative vision, an artist’s eye. The second thing is that the photographs’ viewpoints are liquid enough as to never let you forget that architecture is at root an ecological art: when you walk by and through and into buildings, you look at them as you move. And when you traverse Niemeyer’s buildings in particular – I have had this privilege four times in my life – their solidity assumes a sort of propulsion. They seem to flow. Niemeyer’s well known comment that for him ‘the space is part of the structure’ seems apposite here.

Although Rost’s photograph’s are beautiful and fascinating and richly suggestive, you sense at the last that this architect’s work – at once roseate and epic, brutal and lyrically sculptural, rooted and anti-organic – resists disclosure. It will never fully reveal itself. It will always be unknown.

Andreas Rost’s website is here.

The publisher’s description of The Great Gesture – The Unknown – Oscar Niemeyer in Algiers can be read here.