Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1907, Oscar Niemeyer has long been considered as one of the world’s most fiercely original architects and the central figure of Brazilian architectural Modernism. The prolific architect believed that architecture is invention and under this prism, he always searched for beautiful, expressive, and surprising solutions while doing his projects. He transgressed orthodox modernist aesthetic doctrine, subverted hegemonic cultural models, and left the world with more than six hundred works after his death in 2012. Here is a crisp look into his first project in Europe: the French Communist Party Headquarters in Paris – a city so uniformly elegant that sometimes you just cry out for a building that breaks the mould. Needless to say, this building designed by Niemeyer successfully achieved it.
The 1988 Pritzker laureate was commissioned by the French Communist Party to design the Party Headquarters in Paris after he relocated to Europe in 1964. His prevailing intent for the project was to create a conscious balance between the open space and the architectural volume. The idea was materialized by opening the ground plane and thereby preserving the openness of the sloping site, avoiding excessive occupation of the premises, and maximizing green space for both the client and the city’s residents.
The complex comprises a secretariat block, a plaza, and a subterranean level. Carefully supported on five pairs of columns, the undulating six-story secretariat block houses a series of party’s administrative offices separated by demountable partitions and a restaurant. The entire block is sheathed in a tinted glass curtain wall designed by Jean Prouvé, a French architect and designer. Operable glass panels have been integrated within the grid of the façade to minimize the need for additional air conditioning systems.
As the plaza slopes up to meet the tower, the pavement becomes a flowing ramp that leads visitors to the main subterranean entrance under the white floating canopy projecting from the sweeping block. The principal access to the offices above is through a separate circulation tower which is tucked behind the main block.
The subterranean level has a vast lobby with exhibition spaces, a reception hall, TV Studio, lounge, cafeteria, bookshop, conference rooms, meeting areas, and a 450-seat auditorium whose irregularly shaped concrete dome extends above the ground, providing the iconic white mound set off against the glass facade beyond.
Sleek curves abound but the board-formed concrete walls bring texture to the basement interiors. In contrast to the vertical secretariat block which evokes a sense of openness, the subterranean spaces seem cavernous and enveloping. Further, the area is clad in vibrant green carpeting which recalls the natural conditions of the site above and the architect’s intention to preserve it.
While the rich carpeting continues into space, the futuristic airlock-style sliding doors set into the sloping walls along the perimeter of the auditorium open to reveal a 36-feet-high dome clad in aluminum blades which turn the entire ceiling into a glowing nebula of diffused light. Under the dome are curved rows of delegate seating which face a low platform stage. A large white concrete canopy, similar to the one above the main entrance, folds up from the dome’s wall to frame and enclose the stage. Surrounding the auditorium are several break-out spaces with the iconic Alta lounge chairs around coffee tables designed by Niemeyer and his daughter, Anna Maria.
The complex presents itself as an excellent example of how architecture can be used to create an integrated urban space with the whole site. It is also interesting to look at how the relationship between volumes and open spaces, so often forgotten, has been respected by Oscar Niemeyer. When the project was completed, even the right-wing politician and former President Georges Pompidou had to admit that the building “was the only good thing those Commies had ever done.” (Niemeyer, The Curves of Time, 96.)