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

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.

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.

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."

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