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Oscar Niemeyer, architectural icon, dies at 104

A view of the footbridge designed by renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in the Rocinha slum in Rio de Janeiro December 6, 2012. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

RIO DE JANEIRO: Architect Oscar Niemeyer recreated Brazil’s sensuous curves in reinforced concrete. He built the capital of Brasilia on the empty central plains as a symbol of the nation’s future. Niemeyer died Wednesday. He was 104.

Elisa Barboux, a spokeswoman for the Hospital Samaritano in Rio de Janeiro, confirmed Niemeyer’s death, saying the cause was a respiratory infection. He had been hospitalized on various occasions this year suffering kidney problems, pneumonia and dehydration.

From Brasilia’s crown-shaped cathedral to Paris’ undulating French Communist Party building, Niemeyer shunned the steel-box structures of many modernists, finding inspiration in nature’s crescents and spirals.

His hallmarks include much of the United Nations complex in New York and the Museum of Modern Art in Niteroi – perched over Guanabara Bay looking to Rio de Janeiro like a flying saucer.

“Right angles don’t attract me. Nor straight, hard and inflexible lines created by man,” he wrote in “The Curves of Time,” his 1998 memoir. “What attracts me are free and sensual curves. The curves we find in mountains, in the waves of the sea, in the body of the woman we love.”

Niemeyer designed most of Brasilia’s important buildings. While French-born, avant-garde architect Lucio Costa crafted its distinctive airplane-like layout, Niemeyer left his mark in the flowing concrete of the Cabinet ministries and the monumental dome of the National Museum.

As the city grew to 2 million, critics said it lacked “soul” as well as street corners. Art critic Robert Hughes called it “a utopian horror.”

Niemeyer shrugged off the criticism.

“I search for surprise in my architecture,” he said in an interview with O Globo newspaper in 2006 at age 98. “A work of art should cause the emotion of newness.”

Late in life, Niemeyer was still striving for renewal. Living well past the century mark, his journey mirrored that of his beloved Brazil, and his restless modernism captured the developing country’s sweeping ambitions.

Oscar Niemeyer Soares Filho was born on Dec. 15, 1907, in Rio de Janeiro, and earned his architecture degree at Rio’s School of Fine Arts.

Working in Costa’s office in 1936, he helped design a Rio Education Ministry building that was a classic of functionalist horizontal and vertical lines. With modernist giant Le Corbusier, Niemeyer developed the “brise soleil,” a heat protector that enhanced the building’s grid design and became an architectural standard in the 1960s.

After teaming up with Le Corbusier in 1947 to design much of New York’s U.N. complex, he was already chafing at the limits of form-follows-function architecture.

His first solo project was the Pampulha complex, set on an artificial lake in the central Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte. For the first time, Niemeyer employed the curves and arches that would become his hallmark.

Not everyone was pleased. The St. Francis church, built in a series of parabolic arches resembling waves, was shunned for years by Catholics who considered it an offense to Christianity. Finished in 1944, the church wasn’t inaugurated until the late 1950s.

In the 1950s, Niemeyer was summoned by President Juscelino Kubitschek to design a new capital on Brazil’s empty central high plains. Costa became the project’s urban planner.

With the slogan of “50 years in five,” Kubitschek hoped to prod Brazil into a great leap forward – and inward, away from the coast.

Niemeyer rose to the challenge, testing new forms and technical limits for reinforced concrete. His cone-shaped Metropolitan Cathedral is a circle of curved concrete pillars set like tepee poles with glass mosaic in between.

“I didn’t want an old-style cathedral – dark, a reminder of sin,” he said in an interview in the 1990s. “I wanted something happier.”

Perhaps his best-known creation was the National Congress building, designed as two giant white bowls, one facing up and another facing down, with twin 100-meter towers rising between them.

In 1987, UNESCO declared Brasilia a World Heritage Landmark.

After a 1964 coup plunged Brazil into a 21-year military dictatorship, Niemeyer, a lifelong communist, decided to spend more time in Europe than Brazil. While living in France in 1965, he designed the headquarters of the French Communist Party. He also designed a modernist compound in Lebanon’s Tripoli, today’s derelict Rashid Karami Fairground.

He won the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architecture in 1970, the Pritzker Architecture Prize from Chicago’s Hyatt Foundation in 1988 and the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1998.

He never ceased working. He also never abandoned his faith in communism, befriending Cuban leader Fidel Castro. His Brasilia monument to Kubitschek, a statue in an elevated curve of stone, was criticized by the military regime for its similarity to the communist hammer-and-sickle.

Until the end, he saw architecture as a humanist endeavor and rejected criticism that his work was more enjoyable to look at than to live or work in.

“Life is more important than architecture,” Niemeyer wrote in a 2006 article for a Brazilian daily. “One day the world will be more just and will take life to a superior stage, no longer limited to governments and dominant classes.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 07, 2012, on page 16.

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