Oscar Niemeyer, Architect Who Gave Brasília Its Flair, Dies at 104

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Oscar Niemeyer, the celebrated Brazilian architect whose flowing designs infused Modernism with a new sensuality and captured the imaginations of generations of architects around the world, died on Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro. He was 104.

The medical staff at the Hospital Samaritano in Rio, where he was being treated, said on national television that he died of a respiratory infection. Mr. Niemeyer was among the last of a long line of Modernist true believers who stretch from Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe to the architects who defined the postwar architecture of the late 1940s, '50s and '60s. He is best known for designing the government buildings of Brasília, a sprawling new capital carved out of the Brazilian savanna that became an emblem both of Latin America's leap into modernity and, later, of the limits of Modernism's utopian aspirations.

His curvaceous, lyrical, hedonistic forms helped shape a distinct national architecture and a modern identity for Brazil that broke with its colonial and baroque past. Yet his influence extended far beyond his country. Even his lesser works were a counterpoint to reductive notions of Modernist architecture as blandly functional.

"Brazil lost today one of its geniuses," Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's president, said in a statement issued Wednesday night. "Few dreamed so intensely, and accomplished so much, as he did." Allied with the far left for most of his life, he suffered career setbacks during the rule of Brazil's right-wing military dictatorships of the 1960s and '70s, and he was barred from working in the United States during much of the cold war. As Modernism later came under attack for its sometimes dogmatic approach to history, his works were marginalized.

Still, Mr. Niemeyer never stopped working; he churned out major new projects through his 80s and 90s. And as the cold-war divide and architecture's old ideological battles faded from memory in recent years, a younger generation began embracing his work, intrigued by the consistency of his vision and his ability to achieve voluptuous effects on a heroic scale. For his part, Mr. Niemeyer never wavered from a conviction that, as he once put it, "form follows beauty."

Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho was born in Rio de Janeiro on Dec. 15, 1907, one of six children of a typographer and his wife. His father owned a graphic arts business, and a grandfather was a judge on the country's supreme court. A precocious talent, Mr. Niemeyer was trained at the National School of Fine Arts, where he soon drew the attention of its dean, Lucio Costa. Costa was at the center of a small group of architects working to bring the message of Modernist architecture to Brazil.

The timing was ideal. Costa was then designing the Ministry of Education and Health's headquarters in Rio, and he invited Mr. Niemeyer to join his firm as a draftsman. In 1936, the ministry hired the Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier to contribute ideas for the design. Le Corbusier was already a legend in architecture, and the building would become the first major public project by a Modernist architect in Latin America.

Mr. Niemeyer, one of several draftsmen assigned to the project, absorbed Le Corbusier's vision of a modern world shaped by the myth of the machine, and drew on the master's belief in an architecture of abstract forms enlivened by a sensitive use of light and air.

A Vision Emerges

But Mr. Niemeyer was also a self-confident apprentice with a vision of his own; under Costa's supervision, he made significant changes to Le Corbusier's scheme. The columns supporting the building's main office block were more than doubled in height, giving the structure a more slender profile. An auditorium that Le Corbusier had envisioned as a separate structure was tucked under the office block, creating a more compact urban composition.

Shielded from the sun behind rows of elegant baffles, the building had a clean, stripped-down style that made it a sparkling example of classical Modernism while heralding Brazil's emergence as a vibrant center of experimentation.

Mr. Niemeyer's name soon became synonymous with the new Brazilian architecture. In 1939, he collaborated with Costa on the Brazilian Pavilion for the New York World's Fair. Three years later, he completed his first house, a simple modern box resting on slender columns on a mountainside overlooking the magnificent Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon. In these and other early projects, Mr. Niemeyer was beginning to develop a distinctive architecture of flowing lines, structural lightness and an open relationship to natural surroundings.

At the same time, he was becoming politically outspoken. Reared in a quiet upper-middle-class Rio neighborhood by his maternal grandparents, Mr. Niemeyer joined the Communist Party.

When the Brazilian government released hundreds of political prisoners, including Communists, as a gesture of good will in the 1940s, Mr. Niemeyer turned over the first floor of his Rio office to the party for use as a headquarters. To him, architecture's social impact had its limits. "Architecture will always express the technical and social progress of the country in which it is carried out," he once said. "If we wish to give it the human content that it lacks, we must participate in the political struggle."

Bucking Constraints

Yet the project that established him as a major architectural force was essentially a playground for the nouveaux riches in a wealthy suburb on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte, an industrial city. Commissioned in 1940 by a local mayor, Juscelino Kubitschek, who later, as president of Brazil, would hire Mr. Niemeyer to design Brasília's major buildings, the project included a casino, a yacht club, a dance hall and a church arrayed around an artificial lake.

The casino was particularly striking. A concrete-and-glass shell, it was conceived as part of an architectural promenade that fused the complex with the natural landscape. The dance hall was distinguished by its free-form canopy made of cast concrete, its contours meant to suggest the flowing movements of the samba.

That project never functioned as planned. The casino was transformed into an art museum soon after gambling was outlawed by the Brazilian government in 1946. And the Roman Catholic authorities were offended by the church's unusual curved concrete form and refused to consecrate it until 1959.

The complex's bold, sweeping lines and snaking walkways, gently echoing the surrounding hills, suggested a subliminal hedonism that was at odds with the public's image of mainstream Modernism as determinedly functional and emotionally cool. The design also heralded Mr. Niemeyer's war against the straight line, whose rigidity he saw as a kind of authoritarian constraint.

Mr. Niemeyer's international status was confirmed by the Brazil Builds exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1943, a show that also introduced his work to an American audience. Four years later, he joined Le Corbusier again, this time as an equal, when the two were selected to take part in designing the United Nations complex in Manhattan.

Supervised by Wallace K. Harrison, the United Nations design was a collaboration that also included international luminaries like the Soviet architect Nikolai D. Bassov and Max Abramovitz of New York. The final design was a compromise of sorts between Mr. Niemeyer's concepts and those of his aging idol Le Corbusier.

Set amid gardens and plazas, the slim, glass-clad Secretariat tower and the sculptural concrete General Assembly building remain testaments to the belief in rationalism as a means to resolve international disputes and disparities.

Harmony Meets Dissonance

In his designs for Brasília, the capital city built in the vast undeveloped lands of the Brazil's central region, Mr. Niemeyer got the opportunity to create his own poetic vision of the future on a monumental scale.

The city's cross-shaped master plan, with repetitive rows of housing set around a formal administrative center, was designed by Costa, Mr. Niemeyer's old mentor. But it was Mr. Niemeyer who gave Brasília its sculptural identity.

The speed with which the city was created, between 1956 and 1960, reinforced its image as a utopian dream that had sprouted magically out of a primitive landscape. Its crisp, abstract forms seemed to sum up the aspirations of much of the developing world: the belief that modern architecture and the faith in technological progress that it embodied could help create a more egalitarian society.

Arranged along a vast, grassy esplanade, Mr. Niemeyer's buildings acquire a certain grandeur in their isolation. The most spectacular is the Metropolitan Cathedral, a circular, crownlike structure that splays open at the top to let light spill into the main sanctuary.

Yet much of Brasília's beauty lay in an architectural balancing act. The simple twin towers of its secretariat, for example, play off the geometric bowl-like forms of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. The entire complex suggests a world in perfect harmony, even if the politicians and bureaucrats who work there are not. The languorous sensuality of Mr. Niemeyer's designs are underscored in early sketches for Brasília. They often depict naked young women sunbathing on a vast empty plaza as his buildings recede in the background. It's an image of romantic alienation that has more in common with the films of Michelangelo Antonioni than with the utopian aspirations of early Modernism.

"For me," Mr. Niemeyer said years later, "beauty is valued more than anything -- the beauty that is manifest in a curved line or in an act of creativity."

Brasília was considered his greatest triumph, but he had little time to glory in it. In 1964, after a coup put the country in the hands of a military dictatorship, he was repeatedly questioned by the military police about his Communist associations. Although he was never imprisoned, commissions dried up.

A few years later, he was chosen to design a business center on Claughton Island near Miami. But the United States, still in the grip of the cold war, denied him a visa. (Around the same time, he also designed a house in Santa Monica, Calif., one he never saw.)

Unable to find work in Brazil, Mr. Niemeyer fled to Europe, where he received commissions to design the Communist Party headquarters in Paris, completed in 1980, and the House of Culture in Le Havre, France (1982), with its low conical dome and a spectacular concrete ramp corkscrewing into the earth.

Modernism was by then falling out of favor with the architectural establishment. Brasília soon became a symbol of Modernism's failure to deliver on its utopian promises. The vast empty plazas seemed to sum up the social alienation of modern society; surrounded by slums, the monumental government buildings of its center exemplified Brazil's deeply rooted social inequalities.

A Reputation, Restored

Mr. Niemeyer addressed the criticism in a profile by the critic Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times Magazine in 2005. "You may not like Brasília," he told Mr. Kimmelman, "but you can't say you have seen anything like it -- you maybe saw something better, but not the same. I prefer Rio, even with the robberies. What can you do?" He added: "But people who live in Brasília, to my surprise, don't want to leave it. Brasília works. There are problems. But it works. And from my perspective, the ultimate task of the architect is to dream. Otherwise nothing happens."

Mr. Niemeyer is survived by his wife, Vera Lúcia Cabreira, whom he married in 2006; four grandchildren; 13 great-grandchildren; and six great-great-grandchildren, according to the newspaper O Globo. A daughter, Anna Maria, died this year at age 82, and his first wife, Annita Baldo, died in 2004, after 76 years of marriage. Mr. Niemeyer lived long enough to see his international reputation recover and flourish. He returned to Brazil in the early 1980s, and his office was soon overflowing with new commissions. His Museum of Contemporary Art in Niterói, near Rio, which opened in 1996, was celebrated for its bold saucer-shaped form, which hovered on a cliffside overlooking Guanabara Bay. A decade later, on his 99th birthday, he celebrated the opening of his National Museum and National Library along the Monumental Axis in Brasília, near his cathedral.

In the meantime, a growing number of people had begun to re-examine the legacy of postwar Modernism and appreciate his purist vision as a throwback to a more optimistic time.

In celebrating both the formal elements and social aims of architecture, his work became a symbolic reminder that the body and the mind, the sensual and the rational, are not necessarily in opposition. Yet he also saw sensuality and the brightness of dreams against a darker backdrop. "Humanity needs dreams to be able to survive the miseries of daily existence," he once said, "even if only for an instant."

Simon Romero contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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