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At 102, Brazil's foremost architect celebrates past achievements, looks to the future
Teaming with Le Corbusier, the famous Swiss modernist architect, he helped design the United Nations building. His enormous Copan apartment building in Sao Paulo has stirred filmmakers. He also designed the regal Mondadori headquarters in Italy and the offices of the French Communist Party in Paris. His influence can be seen in such U.S. projects as Lincoln Center in New York.
But more than anything, Niemeyer is best remembered - revered, in the case of Brazil for his role in helping create this capital, inaugurated on April 21, 1960. Lucio Costa, the urban planner, designed the grand avenues, the ceremonial axis and esplanade, all in the shape of a giant plane. Niemeyer provided the building design. The whole thing was completed in less than four years.
Today, Brasilia and what it symbolizes are particularly relevant as Brazil has emerged as an economic power with increasing diplomatic clout. It is as if Niemeyer's vision of a Brazil realizing its potential, evident in buildings that stretch to the heavens, has at last been realized.
"He knew what Brazil was and what Brazil could be," said Alfredo Gastal, an architect who oversees historic preservation in Brasilia for the federal government. "Oscar is a dreamer. He's somebody who looked at the future with a very special imagination."
'Dream of the president'
Recalling the unfolding project 54 years ago, Niemeyer said that at first he did not think much of Kubitschek's idea of putting the city in the middle of the Cerrado, Brazil's arid savanna. He also worried about Kubitschek's tight deadline.
"Brasilia seemed, to me, to be too far away," he said. "It was an empty and abandoned land, and it was not very pleasant to me."
But he added: "The dream of the president prevailed."
In a matter of months, Niemeyer designed a series of epic buildings, a half-dozen of which are considered audacious masterpieces. Arranged in careful symmetry, they feature broad ramps symbolizing the ties of government to the people.
The National Congress consists of two bowls - one up-turned, the other dome-like - and is one of the world's most easily recognized architectural projects. The foreign ministry is framed by high arches. Inside, an ultra-modern lobby has a circular staircase leading to giant meeting rooms that seem connected to the parade grounds outside. Then there is the cathedral, its nave filled with natural light and 16 columns coming together exuberantly like a giant flower.
Asked to name his favorite building, Niemeyer doesn't hesitate: the Congress.
"When Corbusier got up the ramp to Congress, he stopped and said, 'There is invention here,' " said Niemeyer, betraying a slight smile. "It was the praise I preferred."
Not everyone had kind remarks. Some visitors thought that Brasilia's apartment blocks were Stalinist. Others recoiled at the city's reliance on the automobile. Simone de Beauvoir, the French existentialist, asked, "What possible interest could there be to wandering about?"
Today, to be sure, Brasilia has big problems. With 2.5 million people, most living in the periphery, it has five times the population it was supposed to have. Its traffic jams are legendary.
There is also criticism of Niemeyer, who is accused of recently carrying out projects that have taken away from Brasilia's majesty. The National Museum and National Library, both of which he completed in 2006, have been called lesser works.
"I would love to say it still is Oscar, but it's not Oscar," said Gastal, the architect who oversees preservation here. "I love his work. I'm a fan of his work, but there is a limit for the human being."
Asked about the criticism, Niemeyer said: "They don't offend me when they are reasonable. I know what I want."
In the meantime, he said, he remains busy. Four years ago, he married his longtime assistant, Vera Lucia Cabreira. He is also designing: His most important project is a cultural arts center along Spain's northern coast that will be inaugurated in December.
"When I sit down to design, I have a vague idea about what will be done and know I want something different that creates surprise," he said. "I don't want to know about any other building that was made before. I want to work from scratch."