Brazilian architect Niemeyer dies at 104
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, has died 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.
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, 1950s and 1960s.
He is best known for designing the government buildings of Brasilia, 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 last 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 1970s, and he was barred from working in the United States during much of the Cold War era.
As modernism later came under attack for its sometimes dogmatic approach to history, his works were marginalised.
Still, 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 of architects 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, 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 December 15th, 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, 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 invited 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.
One of several draftsmen assigned to the project, Niemeyer 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 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.
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.