Brazilian architect Niemeyer dies at 104
The languorous sensuality of Niemeyer's designs are underscored in early sketches for Brasilia. They often depict naked young women sunbathing on a vast empty plaza as his buildings recede in the background. It's an image of romantic alienation that has more in common with the films of Michelangelo Antonioni than with the utopian aspirations of early modernism.
"For me," Niemeyer said years later, "beauty is valued more than anything - the beauty that is manifest in a curved line or in an act of creativity."
Brasilia was considered his greatest triumph, but he had little time to glory in it. In 1964, after a coup put the country in the hands of a military dictatorship, he was repeatedly questioned by the military police about his Communist associations. Although he was never imprisoned, commissions dried up.
A few years later, he was chosen to design a business center on Claughton Island near Miami. But the US, still in the grip of the Cold War, denied him a visa. (Around the same time, he also designed a house in Santa Monica, Calif., one he never saw.)
Unable to find work in Brazil, Niemeyer fled to Europe, where he received commissions to design the Communist Party headquarters in Paris, completed in 1980, and the House of Culture in Le Havre, France (1982), with its low conical dome and a spectacular concrete ramp corkscrewing into the earth.
Modernism was by then falling out of favor with the architectural establishment. Brasilia soon became a symbol of modernism's failure to deliver on its utopian promises. The vast empty plazas seemed to sum up the social alienation of modern society; surrounded by slums, the monumental government buildings of its center exemplified Brazil's deeply rooted social inequalities.
A reputation, restored
Niemeyer addressed the criticism in a profile by the critic Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times Magazine in 2005. "You may not like Brasilia," he told Kimmelman, "but you can't say you have seen anything like it - you maybe saw something better, but not the same. I prefer Rio, even with the robberies. What can you do?"
He added: "But people who live in Brasilia, to my surprise, don't want to leave it. Brasilia works. There are problems. But it works. And from my perspective, the ultimate task of the architect is to dream. Otherwise nothing happens."
Niemeyer is survived by his wife, Vera Lucia Cabreira, whom he married in 2006; four grandchildren; 13 great-grandchildren; and six great-great-grandchildren, according to the newspaper O Globo. A daughter, Anna Maria, died this year at age 82, and his first wife, Annita Baldo, died in 2004, after 76 years of marriage.
Niemeyer lived long enough to see his international reputation recover and flourish. He returned to Brazil in the early 1980s, and his office was soon overflowing with new commissions.
His Museum of Contemporary Art in Niteroi, near Rio, which opened in 1996, was celebrated for its bold saucer-shaped form, which hovered on a cliffside overlooking Guanabara Bay. A decade later, on his 99th birthday, he celebrated the opening of his National Museum and National Library along the Monumental Axis in Brasilia, near his cathedral.
In the meantime, a growing number of people had begun to re-examine the legacy of postwar modernism and appreciate his purist vision as a throwback to a more optimistic time.
In celebrating both the formal elements and social aims of architecture, his work became a symbolic reminder that the body and the mind, the sensual and the rational, are not necessarily in opposition. Yet he also saw sensuality and the brightness of dreams against a darker backdrop.
"Humanity needs dreams to be able to survive the miseries of daily existence," he once said, "even if only for an instant."
New York Times