(December 15, 1907 – December 5, 2012),
Like Tadao Ando, Niemeyer’s minimal concept drawings included only the bare essentials required to communicate his iconic forms.
After complications from a previous kidney condition Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer has passed away at Rio de Janeiro’s Samaritano Hospital.
For 104 years, Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares (December 15, 1907 – December 5, 2012) lived a life of “intensity.” Born in Rio de Janeiro, he is best known for helping to design the United Nations Headquarters in New York in 1947 and for designing much of the city of Brasilia. As he described his style: “I consciously ignored the highly praised right angle and the rational architecture of T-squares and triangles in order to wholeheartedly enter the world of curves…” He received the Pritzker Prize in 1988.
Niemeyer was one of those few architects who is recognized and admired by people from all walks of life, especially by those in his native Brazil, where he is considered an icon. Indeed, always motivated to design for his fellow man, Niemeyer was a Brazilian first, and an architect second.
In Niemeyer’s words: “It is important that the architect think not only of architecture but of how architecture can solve the problems of the world. The architect’s role is to fight for a better world, where he can produce an architecture that serves everyone and not just a group of privileged people.”
Oscar Ribiero de Almeida de Niemeyer Soares Filho, architect, died on December 5th, aged 104
Dec 22nd 2012 | from the print edition
His whole universe being curved like this, it was little wonder that he seldom embraced the right angle, the straight line or the square. He wriggled away from those aspects of modernism as soon as he took up architecture, under the tutelage of Lúcio Costa, in 1935. Typically, his buildings—scattered all over Brazil’s principal cities, and reaching their apogee in the new capital, Brasília, built between 1956 and 1960—were curved or hollowed forms that seemed weightless, floating in the landscape or reflected in water. The Alvorada Palace in Brasília, the Palace of the Dawn, appears to dance on points beside an ornamental lake; the church of St Francis of Assisi at Pampulha in Belo Horizonte, where he did his first work in 1942 for Juscelino Kubitschek, then mayor and later president, is a succession of lightly arching vaults; the art museum at Niterói, across the bay from Rio, grows out of the landscape on a stem like a flower. Even an apartment block in São Paulo, the Edifício Copan, could be turned into poetry, meandering languidly through the stern verticals of the city and pierced with sun-screens into leaf-like light and shade.
All this was made possible by the material he chose, reinforced concrete, which could be poured into any shape: a home-produced substance for a rapidly industrialising country that yearned, from the 1930s onwards, to cut its own self-sufficient style in the modern world. Concrete could be painted in luminous colours or decorated in native ways, with shells or palm fronds or azulejos, the blue-and-white tiles inherited from the Portuguese. He loved it for its plasticity, but also for the fact that it demanded unskilled labour, just when migrants were pouring from the countryside into the city slums. For Mr Niemeyer, whose other passion was to change “this unjust world” and make it more “horizontal”, concrete meant the liberation both of buildings and men.
He became a communist early and unfalteringly remained one, even heading the party briefly in the 1990s. It scuppered his chances in America, although both Harvard and Yale invited him; and he was relieved to have left Brazil, driven out by criticism of his work, in 1961, just before the generals came to power. Among his friends were Fidel Castro, who sent him boxes of the small cigars that wrapped him in pungent clouds as he drew, and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, for whom he designed a rocket-like Bolívar monument angled towards Washington.
Saucer and begging bowl
The rich and famous gave him work, so he refused to be embarrassed by his palace-and-casino-building. But he was prouder of the 300 schools he designed in Brazil, all different, to surprise and inspire the poor with beauty. His own house at Canoas, with trees above and rocky outcrops flowing through it, included—scandalously at the time—no separate entrance for servants, and its red roof and yellow walls were his homage to the shacks of the favelas. He even built churches full of the comforting light of the people’s heaven, though he himself didn’t believe in it for a minute.
In practice he doubted that architecture was important, or could change much. Brasília, Kubitschek’s great shout of progress, built on a site 700 miles from Rio “at the end of the world”, was intended (by Niemeyer and Costa, at least) as a socialist Utopia in which rich and poor would live in identical apartments. To his frustration, that never happened; bureaucrats lived in the middle of the city, the poor on the edges. Cynics joked that his design for the National Congress (pictured), with an inverted saucer for the Senate and a larger “begging bowl” for the lower house, symbolised mostly the greed of politicians. He often remarked that his best work—the Mondadori headquarters near Milan, or the Maison de la Culture in Le Havre—had been done outside his own country.
None of it, however, could have occurred without the curves of Brazil. Well into grand old age he would go to his office each morning to argue, as he put it, with the simple but clever beach bum inside him who knew what architecture should be. Fast and easy, as ever, his pencil darted across the paper. The walls were covered with scribbles of naked women, “baroque buttocks” round which he would draw surprising buildings. Beyond his window lay the Sugar Loaf while below, on Copacabana, the long beach rippled with white surf and girls. And above them, brief as a man’s life, swam the clouds, forming and reforming into galleries, cathedrals, ministries, palaces and houses in the air.