There was a story told by the mayor of the town of Niteroi, across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, that expresses perfectly the epic stature of the Brazilian architect Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares, who has died aged 104. In the spring of 1992, after Niemeyer’s first visit to the seafront site chosen for the town’s new museum of contemporary art, Mayor Jorge Roberto Silveira took Niemeyer and his colleagues to a restaurant for lunch. During the meal, Niemeyer described his vision of the museum “rising upward, like a flower, or a bird.” This satisfied everyone except Silveira, who requested a clearer idea in the shape of a drawing, and asked a waiter to bring Niemeyer some paper. The waiter was on his way back with a notepad when he was intercepted by a colleague who had overheard their conversation. “Boy,” he cautioned the first waiter. “This is the man who built Brasilia. Go and get something bigger.” Thus the first sketches of the Niteroi Museum of Contemporary Art were made on a tablecloth. It was to be another four years before the elegant, cantilevered concrete dish was opened in 1996, to universal acclaim. Like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which opened the following year, the Niteroi museum marked a surprising success for unrestrainedly expressionistic architecture. But where Gehry employed titanium alloy and a battery of computers, things were done differently at Niteroi. Not only was Niemeyer’s project much smaller (as was its budget), but its materials and methods belonged to another age. Where 3D computing in Bilbao permitted unprecedented precision, Niteroi, located on a promontory with the sea on three sides, featured low-tech concrete work, ill-fitting glazing and cheap polycarbonate balustrading.
In terms of timeless architecture, such disadvantages are unimportant, for Niteroi is a modern triumph, something that deserves to be considered alongside such great buildings as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater; Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnworth house. Using one basic material, plus daring structural engineering, Niemeyer turned poured concrete painted white into an expressionist masterpiece.
Le Corbusier’s influence
Niemeyer, the son of a graphic artist and one of six children, was born in the Laranjeiras district of Rio de Janeiro. He was raised by his maternal grandparents — his father’s family was of German descent — and at the age of 23, he enrolled at the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio to study architecture, graduating in 1934. Early on during his studies, he found unpaid work in the office of the architect and town planner Lucio Costa, one of the few modernists practising in Brazil at that time.
Coincidentally, Costa had been among the group of Brazilian architects who had invited the celebrated Swiss modernist Le Corbusier to Rio in 1929 and then again in 1936. By the time of the second visit, Costa had promoted Niemeyer to the team formed to design a new ministry of education building. As a result, Niemeyer spent much time with Le Corbusier and was permanently influenced by his vision of a new architecture.Niemeyer swiftly learned to design according to Le Corbusier’s five principles: full-width strip windows; rigid sun shading; roof gardens; pilotis (columns raising a building above the ground); and, most important of all, free-forming plans within a grid of columns.
Working for nothing and reliant on his family, Niemeyer transformed the Corbusier scheme into the serene, high-rise building that adorns Rio today. A national monument, it has since been renamed Capanema Palace. . In 1944 he was the star of a New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition and book entitled Brazil Builds , and was subsequently invited to contribute to the design of the United Nations building in New York.
The scale and invention of Niemeyer’s work expanded with the growth of the Brazilian economy, and when in 1955 Kubitschek rode to power as president on a wave of trade union and Communist party votes, Niemeyer found himself on the brink of the greatest commissions of his life. The event was the realisation of a dream enshrined in the 1891 constitution, to transfer the capital from Rio to a location on the central plateau some 600 miles to the north-west and 3,000ft above sea level. The new capital would be called Brasilia, and Kubitschek decreed that it would have a population of 5,00,000 and would be built in four years, before his term of office expired.
In 1956 Costa won the competition for a masterplan of the new capital, and Niemeyer was commissioned to design all the principal public buildings. Within two years, the city was employing a workforce of 40,000, and an epic series of modern public buildings designed by Niemeyer was under construction. These included the Square of the Three Powers, the National Congress building (with the twin towers of the secretariat, the dome of the senate and the bowl of the lower house), the diaphanous lakeside residence of the president (better known as the Alvorada Palace), the high court, the national theatre and the endless rectangle of the Brasilia Palace hotel.
In his memoirs, The Curves of Time , published in 2000, Niemeyer declared: “I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire universe, the curved universe of Einstein.” In an interview with Architectural Record , he said, “My work is not about form follows function, but form follows beauty or, even better, form follows feminine.” Niemeyer made modern architecture sensual and alluring, even in the great red desert-like plains of Brasilia, far from ocean and mountains.
In 1987 Brasilia was made a Unesco World Heritage Site. In 1988 Niemeyer was awarded the Pritzker prize. The Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, the most prestigious British award, followed 10 years later. In 2003 he designed his first British building, the Serpentine Gallery’s summer pavilion in Kensington Gardens, London.
Niemeyer had joined the Communist party in 1945 and, unwavering in his support, was its president from 1992 to 1996. He was awarded the Lenin peace prize in 1963. His close friends included Fidel Castro who, in later years, joked, “Niemeyer and I are the last communists of this planet.” While his political allegiances led to the ransacking of his office in 1965, following the coup d’etat the year before that brought the military to power under General Castelo Branco, Niemeyer remained a well known and popular figure among ordinary Brazilians, to whom he was always “Oscar”, and evidently adored, although younger generations of Brazilian architects have inevitably felt hidden in his shadow.
His first wife, Annita, whom he married in 1928, died in 2004. Their daughter, Anna Maria, died in 2012. He is survived by his second wife, Vera Lucia Cabriera, his former assistant, whom he married in 2006. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012
The architect of Brazil’s capital made modern architecture sensual and alluring