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Oscar Niemeyer, 1907—2012

By Raul Barreneche
December 11, 2012
Photo © Alan Weintraub/arcaidimages.com
Niemeyer's design for the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Oscar Niemeyer died in Rio de Janeiro on December 5th, just ten days shy of his 105th birthday. One of the last living links to the founding generation of Modernist architects, Niemeyer indelibly shaped Brazil’s architectural identity, immortalized in the monumental government buildings he created for the new capital, Brasília. He became a household name there, if not a national hero. Fittingly, Niemeyer’s casket lay in state at the presidential palace, which he designed, before a funeral worthy of a political leader.

Photo © Ricardo Fasanello
Niemeyer.
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As a young draftsman Niemeyer met Le Corbusier who came to Rio in the 1930s to work with Lucio Costa and others on the seminal Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro. Later Niemeyer was one of the team, which included Le Corbusier, that designed the United Nations headquarters (1950). Niemeyer reinvigorated Modernism by taking the chill off its rigid, dogmatic Bauhaus approach, imbuing its rationality with sensuality, optimism, and a joie de vivre that struck a chord with the Latin psyche. His buildings fully opened themselves to the light, warmth, and lushness of Brazil. To experience the exquisite brises-soleil of the Ministry of Education and Health (completed in 1943), the winding ribbon windows of the architect’s home in the forested hills above Rio (1953), and the dance of pilotis and balustrades in his Bienal de São Paulo pavilion (1951), was to understand how Niemeyer brought to life the elements of Le Corbusier’s “Five Points” in the tropics. His work was not just photogenic; it was transporting.

Those aspects of Niemeyer’s architecture that set him apart from the modernist mainstream clouded his legacy through the years. In the preface to his rambling but entertaining 2000 memoir The Curves of Time, Niemeyer avowed, “I am not attracted to straight angle or 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.” The book is filled with sketches of topless women frolicking and sunbathing, meant to make clear a connection to the bulbous curves of such Niemeyer buildings such as the National Congress in Brasília (1960) and the Nitéroi Contemporary Art Museum (1996) near Rio, sketches of which are interspersed with sketches of frolicking nudes. “Form follows feminine,” he declared, rather unnecessarily. A journalist friend who visited Niemeyer around the time of the book’s publication affirmed that the spry nonagenarian was still very much interested in discussing the shapely women with him—though for all his cheeky rhetoric, Niemeyer remained married to his first wife, Annita Balo, for 76 years. After Balo’s death in 2004, he wed longtime assistant Vera Lucia Cabreira, who was 39 years his junior, at the age of 98.

Such chatter of backsides and hillsides surely detracted from Niemeyer’s profile–at least outside Brazil. Yet Niemeyer’s commitment to communism was more detrimental to his career than his wandering eye. His Communist Party membership caused him to be denied visas to teach at Harvard and Yale in the 1940s, derailed his nomination as dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1953, and cost him jobs at home and abroad during the Cold War. But he did get to design the French Communist Party headquarters in Paris (1981), where he lived in exile in the 1960s and 70s during Brazil’s right-wing military dictatorship. Even after returning to Brazil, Niemeyer continued to pal around with Fidel Castro, who later commented, “The only two communists left in the world are myself and Niemeyer.”

The architect worked until a few days before his death at his studio overlooking Avenida Atlantica and the sumptuous curves of the Copacabana beachfront, from which he took great inspiration. “Form follows beauty,” Niemeyer declared. His architecture made the world, especially Brazil, a more beautiful place.

Raul Barreneche is a New York City-based designer, writer, and author of eleven books on architecture and design.

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