Oscar Niemeyer dies; famed Brazilian architect was 104

Oscar Niemeyer, widely regarded as the foremost Latin American architect of the last century, brought a daring and dramatic approach to public-works design through his glass cathedrals, cantilevered roofs and ovular-shaped buildings.

Mr. Niemeyer, who died Dec. 5 at age 104, conceived and built the futuristic federal buildings of the new capital city of Brasilia in the late 1950s. The project launched him to international attention and defined him as one of the most distinctive creative minds in his profession.

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Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer has died at the age of 104. He designed much of the United Nations complex in New York, as well as many signature buildings in Brazil's capital.

Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer has died at the age of 104. He designed much of the United Nations complex in New York, as well as many signature buildings in Brazil's capital.

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A spokeswoman for a hospital in Rio de Janeiro confirmed his death to the Associated Press but did not give a cause of death. Mr. Niemeyer was hospitalized in May 2012 for pneumonia and dehydration and more recently for kidney failure.

During a long career in which he received top professional honors, Mr. Niemeyer also helped plan the United Nations Plaza in New York and, as a lifelong communist sympathizer, designed the French party’s head office in Paris while in exile from Brazil’s military rulers.

Through his designs, Mr. Niemeyer protested the “orthodox functionalism” of modern building style that he thought left little room for sensuality. A bikini admirer, he often chose to link his work with Brazil’s shapely beach women. “Form follows feminine,” he said, twisting architect Louis Sullivan’s famous remark about function.

For inspiration, he drew on Brazil’s colonial heritage with its ornate, baroque architecture, and applied new building materials and methods of construction.

He favored reinforced concrete in an economy lacking in steel and created works of voluptuousness and space-age allure: smooth ramps leading to broad esplanades, domes shaped like soup bowls and entire buildings resembling flying saucers.

“This character that his work assumed is identified with the modern Brazilian identity. He’s not the only figure, but he’s the most important,” architectural historian Kenneth Frampton of Columbia University said of such graceful designs.

Much of Mr. Niemeyer’s reputation rested on the monumental Brasilia project. The city that emerged in 1960 from a barren savanna in central Brazil, thus abandoning Rio as the country’s administrative center, was more than a works project, President Juscelino Kubitschek said at the time.

Mr. Niemeyer was not only symbolizing a nation on the rise, Kubitschek said, but dealing in destiny by being for him “what Michelangelo was to Pope Julius II.”

Lucio Costa, once Mr. Niemeyer’s mentor, planned the cross-shaped city structure with its wide boulevards, and Mr. Niemeyer was left to create many of the “city-of-the-future” buildings that caught the popular imagination.

After the initial praise, functional problems arose. The buildings were burning hot in the tropical sun, and the cost of upkeep became a recurring concern. Poor ventilation systems made Brasilia’s presidential residence all but uninhabitable for years.

Diplomats assigned to live in Brasilia often fled to Rio for color and nightlife on the weekends. The city grew far beyond its expected capacity, creating pockets of poor shoved into ill-planned suburbs. Mr. Niemeyer said the satellite shantytowns were not his concern as the initial designer, calling such hovels a result of “the injustices of the capitalist society.”

Although Mr. Niemeyer had few direct imitators outside Brazil, his influence was one of visual imagination and inspiration to architects worldwide. In 2003, Financial Times architectural critic Edwin Heathcote wrote of Brasilia as “the apotheosis of the ambition of modern architecture.”

Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida de Niemeyer Soares was born Dec. 15, 1907, in Rio de Janeiro. His father was in the typesetting business.

In his memoir, “The Curves of Time,” the younger Niemeyer described a privileged and bohemian youth in which school was a distant priority. He excelled at soccer and drawing, and he frequented wharf-front bars looking for female companionship.

He graduated from the National School of Fine Arts in 1934 and then showed up on the doorstep of Costa, a force behind the restoration of Brazil’s historical buildings. From the start, he asked his new boss to include him on important projects.

Costa said he tolerated this behavior because of Mr. Niemeyer’s apparent skill, later writing that his protege “created variations and new solutions with local patterns which have a grace and subtlety until then unknown to modern architecture.”

He invited Mr. Niemeyer to work on the Brazilian Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, but his key early assignment with the Costa firm was the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Health building in Rio, built between 1937 and 1943.

The ministry project placed him alongside his idol, the Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, and their collaboration resulted in one of the boldest designs for any federal structure. Architect and writer Stamo Papadaki called the finished product “a balance between the useful and the poetic.”

Mr. Niemeyer contributed several elements, including a passageway created by raising the building on pillars and movable concrete shades called louvers. This accented a delicacy of design and, on a more practical level, the circulation of air in a tropical environment.

In 1940, Mr. Niemeyer was summoned to the office of Kubitschek, the new mayor of Belo Horizonte who rose to national politics and became the architect’s chief patron. Their great personal respect was reflected in the freedom he granted Mr. Niemeyer for a municipal project in the remote Belo Horizonte suburb of Pampulha. He was asked to build a casino, clubhouse, church and restaurant.

Calling this “the starting point of my career as an architect,” Mr. Niemeyer said he went about confronting “the monotony of contemporary architecture,” most explicitly with his design for Pampulha’s Church of Saint Francis of Assisi.

His concrete church had a series of undulating vaults that suggested airplane hangars. It also featured a colorful ceramic tile image of Saint Francis amid birds and fish by the Brazilian muralist Candido Portinari, whose work adorned several of Mr. Niemeyer’s projects.

The reaction was unenthusiastic among the clergy, with a local archbishop calling the result “unfit for religious purposes.”

A similar controversy arose years later with Mr. Niemeyer’s design in Brasilia for a glass-walled cathedral covered with thornlike spikes. Many saw a resemblance to an upside down crown of thorns.

Mr. Niemeyer, an atheist, once said he “avoided conventional solutions, which had produced the old dark cathedrals reminding us of sin.”

In 1947, New York architect Wallace Harrison invited Mr. Niemeyer to join a team of 10 international designers at work on the new U.N. headquarters site. Mr. Niemeyer made contributions that Harrison seemed to favor over Le Corbusier’s, which caused a rift between the two men. Although Mr. Niemeyer was unfailingly polite to a man he described as a giant, he said he found it hard to trust Le Corbusier again.

When Le Corbusier “saw the presidential palace at Brasilia, he said it was beautiful,” Mr. Niemeyer told the London Independent in 2003. “He said it was highly intelligent. But I was not fooled by this comment — it was just the politics of being neighborly. Le Corbusier is a major figure, but a small architect.”

After the 1964 military coup in Brazil, Mr. Niemeyer went into self-imposed exile. His first stop was Algiers, where dictator Houari Boumediene commissioned several projects. Because of funding problems, he was unable to see to completion a mosque design that he imagined jutting into the sea like a lily pad on a pond. This idea, as with many others, came to him in his sleep.

Based therafter in Paris, he worked all over Europe. One of the finest examples of his work during this period was the Milan-based headquarters of the Mondadori publishing company. The building was set in a pond and used arches of differing widths to bestow what he called “an unequal, almost musical rhythm.”

After Brazil’s military leaders declared a general amnesty in 1979, Mr. Niemeyer returned. He was now the elder statesman of his country’s architectural community. His assignments in the 1980s ranged from somber memorials to Rio’s Sambadrome, a stadium used during Carnival.

One of his last works to attract attention was the Museum of Contemporary Art in Niteroi, which opened in 1996 and was likened to a flying saucer that clutches melodramatically to a bluff across Guanabara Bay facing Rio. The museum became an enormous tourist draw, even if critical reception was mixed.

In 1988, he became the first South American to win the Pritzker Prize, his profession’s highest honor. He also received the Royal Gold Medal in 1998 from the Royal Institute of British Architects, which described his work as “poetry rather than prose, yet it always follows a certain logical path, which for him was never obscure but joyfully simple.”

His first wife, the former Annita Baldo, died in 2004 after 76 years of marriage. In 2006, he married his longtime secretary, Vera Lucia Cabreira, who is 38 years his junior. Survivors include his wife. His only child, a daughter from his first marriage, died in June 2012 at 82.

Because of his political sympathies, Mr. Niemeyer was barred from travel to the United States during much of the Cold War. A friend of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, he continued until his death to believe in the ultimate victory of communism over capitalism.

However, style trumped ideology when in 1963 he received the International Lenin Peace Prize in Moscow. “On the politics, I’m with you,” he said to an audience that regarded modernist architecture as decadent. “But your architecture is awful. Look, I didn’t come here to criticize, but you asked. It’s terrible.”