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At 102, Brazil's foremost architect celebrates past achievements, looks to the future

Considered by some to be the world's most famous living architect, Niemeyer designed hundreds of buildings the world over in a career that began in the 1930s.

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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 17, 2010; 10:39 PM

BRASILIA - Oscar Niemeyer, a towering figure in 20th-century architecture, is now 102, confined to a wheelchair, his vision faltering, his hand unsteady. It has been 50 years since his greatest accomplishment, designing the monumental buildings of a Brazilian utopia carved out of a distant outback.

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But ask about the city, created from scratch as capital of a country reaching for greatness, and he leans forward and lights up.

"Brasilia was President Kubitschek's dream, a pure gamble," Niemeyer said, recalling Juscelino Kubitschek's commissioning of Brasilia in 1956. "But the president's dream was such that he made Brasilia no matter what. I can still remember when we went there."

Considered by some to be the world's most famous living architect, Niemeyer designed hundreds of buildings the world over in a career that began in the 1930s. His estimated 800 works are a dazzling array of modernist structures conceived on an imposing scale. Some, shaped like eggs see-sawing on a pedestal, seem to defy gravity. Others are all curves, sheer whimsy punctuated by swoops and lumps.

He continues to generate awe today, if anything because he is still working.

Niemeyer said he designs about a dozen projects a year with his collaborators in Rio de Janeiro, where he has born and has lived most of his life.

In his personal studio, on the 10th floor of a building overlooking Copacabana's famous beach, the walls feature Niemeyer's doodles and over his desk is a poster of naked women.

There is a simple reason: What inspires him is not the right angle, the architect once wrote in his memoirs, but rather the "free-flowing sensual curves" of Brazil's women and its diverse geography.

In a rare interview, Niemeyer gave thanks to reinforced concrete, which he said "allows all solutions to me," and said he experiments because "architecture cannot just be a building that works well."

"The building, it has to be beautiful, it has to reach, in some ways like a masterpiece of art," he said.

Co-designer of the U.N.

A life-long communist whose friends include Fidel Castro, Niemeyer said his philosophy had been to make progressive, fanciful buildings that are people-friendly. "Life is more important than architecture," he explained.

Some of his most iconic buildings can be found outside the city of Belo Horizonte, where a series of 1940s-era structures set the architectural world abuzz. Perhaps his best-known is in Manhattan.


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