The Arty Semite

Oscar Niemeyer, Israel, and Two Jews Named Jacob

By Benjamin Ivry

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After a recent short hospital stay, the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer is back to work at age 102. Despite many reiterated online claims by Brazilian Jews to the contrary, Niemeyer is not Jewish.

Of mixed German-Italian ancestry, Niemeyer did work with the Brazilian Jewish architect Elias Kaufman on his most famous project, Brazil’s capital city Brasília, and has also collaborated with the Brazilian landscape architect of German Jewish origin, Roberto Burle Marx. Among Niemeyer’s other noted Brazilian Jewish colleagues are landscape specialist Rosa Grena Kliass, and architects Salomão Tandeta, Mário Bruno Fainbaum and David Reznik.

“Constructing a Sense of Place: Architecture and the Zionist Discourse” by Haim Yacobi of Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design (Ashgate Publishers) fascinatingly details Niemeyer’s design work in Israel in the mid 1960s, of which only Eshkol Tower at the University of Haifa was actually built.

In 1964, as a lifelong Communist activist, Niemeyer fled a military coup in Brazil, accepting an invitation from the Israeli hotel tycoon Yekutiel Federmann, founder of the lucrative Dan Hotel chain. Drawn to the socialist kibbutz ethos, Niemeyer strongly opposed what Yacobi terms the “sprawl and dispersal” which characterizes the “Zionist concept of space.” During six months in Israel, Niemeyer designed massive high rises for Tel Aviv, Haifa, and the Negev. His abortive plan for a Negev city included 40 skyscrapers of up to 40 stories each. Even Haifa’s Eshkol Tower was stringently redesigned by Israeli architect Shlomo Gilad after Niemeyer departed.

Still, Niemeyer has remained cordial to Jewish colleagues, which is why observers were astonished when in 2007 “O Globo” newspaper quoted Niemeyer as saying that all architects work for “judeus” (Jews), which merely garbles his actual statement, that all architects work for “governos” (governments). Another correction is timely, now that Phaidon Press has reprinted a clumsy, inaccurate translation of Niemeyer’s “As curvas do tempo: memórias” (“The Curves of Time: Memoirs”).

Twice in his original text Niemeyer discusses his fascination for the literature of science, especially works by “Jacob e Monod” or “Monod e Jacob.” The great French Jewish biologist François Jacob won a Nobel Prize for his cell research with Jacques Monod. Unbelievably, Niemeyer’s English translator repeatedly identifies the Jacob in question as “Max Jacob,” the French Jewish surrealist poet who died in Drancy deportation camp in 1944. For Niemeyer’s upcoming 105th birthday, Phaidon might commission an accurate translation of this valuable memoir.

Watch Niemeyer discuss architecture in 2009:

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