Oscar Niemeyer, the architect, who has died aged 104, was best known as the designer of Brasilia, the daringly futuristic capital city of Brazil completed in 1960.
Niemeyer’s buildings in Brasilia are a tour de force of sculptural and technical invention. Combining modernist geometries with lyrical fantasy, their curves and clean white lines often seem to defy structural logic.
The parliament consists of two gleaming white saucer shapes, one upturned and the other downturned; the presidential palace is supported by arched columns so slender that the building appears to float above the ground; and the city’s cathedral, supported by a ring of elegant, curving white ribs, resembles nothing so much as a crown roast of lamb.
All of these were built of poured reinforced concrete, painted white to stand out against the crisp blue Brazilian sky, and were the result of Niemeyer’s close consultation with structural engineers to push the use of free form concrete to its limits.
A short, suave-looking man with swept-back hair and a gravelly voice, Niemeyer was a diehard communist with the heart of a romantic. From 1992 to 1996 he was president of the Brazilian Communist Party.
Brasilia, set out around a stark city plan conceived by the architect Lucio Costa, was envisaged as a utopian city of the future in the mould of one of Le Corbusier’s most visionary schemes — Ville Radieuse, a city of uniform towers sitting in an open space.
Before construction began in 1957, the site of Brasilia was no more than a featureless and hostile desert without even a road — “the end of the world”, as Niemeyer described it. Within four years an entire city had been constructed.
But although Niemeyer’s communism lay at the heart of his architectural commitment, Brasilia, like many attempts to reform society through building, was only a partial success. The city never developed into a genuine mixed community, and still today is principally the home of bureaucrats who catch the plane back to Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo for the weekend.
Meanwhile, the workers who service the bureaucrats — the cooks and cleaners to whom Niemeyer was most politically sympathetic — live in shanty towns surrounding the model city.
Niemeyer himself recognised Brasilia’s shortcomings, describing it later as a city “constructed as a showcase of capitalism — everything for a few on a world stage”. But, as he pointed out, such a grand project “was a positive thing for the Brazilian people, because it gave the world the idea that we could do many things. It seemed like a miracle.”
His dictum that “architecture is invention” was amply borne out in the capital city: “When someone goes to Brasilia, I warn them: ‘You may like it or you may not, but you’ll not be able to say you’ve ever seen something like it before.’ ”
Oscar Niemeyer Soares Filho was born on December 15 1907 into a middle-class family in Rio de Janeiro. His father, Oscar Niemeyer Soares, was a businessman; his mother died when he was a baby.
As a child he was regularly taken to Mass by his grandfather, a minister of the Supreme Court who nevertheless died poor, and who had a strong influence on his grandson. “I learned humanism from him,” Niemeyer recalled, “and the importance of not getting rich.”
Oscar was more interested in sport than in learning, but his love of drawing led him to study Architecture at the School of Fine Arts of the University of Brazil in Rio. Shortly before graduating in 1935, he went to work in the office of Lucio Costa, then a promising architect, five years his senior. They became friends, and Costa became his young assistant’s mentor.
The next year Niemeyer worked under Costa on designs for Brazil’s Ministry of Education and Health building, for which Le Corbusier was the consultant. The resulting skyscraper, faced with blue, louvre-like brise-soleils (sun breakers), instantly became an architectural milestone.
In 1939 Niemeyer worked with Costa to design the Brazilian Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair (Costa had won the competition to design the pavilion, but he preferred Niemeyer’s scheme, which came second, and persuaded the jury to use it instead).
Before long Niemeyer was producing his own plans. In 1941 he was given his first major commission by Juscelino Kubitschek, then mayor of Pampulha, a new suburb near Belo Horizonte in Brazil.
The resulting buildings, which included a yacht club, a restaurant and a church, showed the influence of Le Corbusier, as well as Niemeyer’s own love of free-flowing form. The hangar-like church, however, proved too adventurous for the local archbishop, who rejected it as “unfit for religious purposes” — it was 16 years before the building was consecrated.
In the late 1940s Niemeyer was one of the group of architects who collaborated on the designs for the UN buildings in New York, and it was his plan that was selected as the basis the project as a whole.
Niemeyer was a prolific designer, and hundreds of buildings were built to his designs, ranging from small roadside shrines to a vast, curved apartment hotel at Petropolis housing 5,700 families.
Brasilia came about after Juscelino Kubitschek was elected President in 1956, and vowed to keep his election promise of creating a new inland capital to open up the country’s underdeveloped interior.
In 1957, mindful of their fruitful partnership at Pampulha, he chose Niemeyer to design the buildings for the new capital. Niemeyer agreed, but proposed a national competition for the city’s master plan. Lucio Costa won the competition. Barely fours years later, the government moved to Brasilia from Rio de Janeiro.
In 1964, following a Right-wing coup in Brazil, Niemeyer’s politics forced him into exile. He returned in 1970, but then suffered from the government’s hostility until democracy was restored in 1985.
Despite this, or perhaps as a result, he was revered in Brazil. His appearance at the Sao Paolo Biennale in 1993 drew crowds of more than 80,000 people.
During his years abroad Niemeyer lived in Algeria and France, with occasional visits to his own country. He designed buildings all over Europe, though his only proposal for Britain — a plan for St Anthony’s, Oxford, in 1973 — was never constructed. He stated late in his career that “Brasilia is not the most important thing in my work. More important projects were realised abroad.”
Niemeyer created an office building for Renault in France, and designed the Mondadori editorial office in Milan and the FATA office building in Turin. In Algiers, he designed the Zoological Gardens, the University of Constantine (now Mentouri Constantine University) and the Foreign Office.
In 1996 he completed the new Museum of Modern Art at Niterói in Rio de Janeiro, an enormous white concrete saucer set “like a flower” on a concrete stem. The building turned unfashionable Niterói into the city’s most popular tourist spot.
In all, Niemeyer created more than 500 buildings, and he continued to work into extreme old age. In 2002 his Oscar Niemeyer Museum complex was opened in the city of Curitiba, Paraná. In 2003, when he was 96, the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, commissioned him to design its temporary summer pavilion. In early 2011 a vast cultural centre costing £40m and designed by Niemeyer opened in northern Spain; six months later, however, it was shut for several months as regional Spanish authorities cut budgets.
Among his many awards, he received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1963, the Pritzker Prize in 1988 and the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1998. In 2001 he published a memoir, The Curves of Time.
Oscar Niemeyer married his wife Anita, with whom he had a daughter, when he was still an architecture student. She died in 2004, and in 2006 he married his longtime assistant, Vera Lucia Cabreira, who survives him.
Oscar Niemeyer, born December 15 1907, died December 5 2012
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