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Brasilia architect Oscar Niemeyer wins Gold Medal

Oscar Niemeyer, architect of Brasilia, is the RIBA Royal Gold Medallist for 1998. Niemeyer, 91, has beaten names thought to include Frank Gehry and Cesar Pelli. His merits were debated by a jury chaired by institute president David Rock and including Sir Michael Hopkins, Professor Peter Carolin, Ian Latham, Amanda Levete, Stuart Lipton and Professor Robert Maxwell.

'I am very happy, ' Niemeyer said of the news. 'I have spent my entire life at the drawing board, just thinking about architecture.'

An 'unassuming and humble man' according to 1996 Gold Medal winner and one-time colleague Harry Seidler, Niemeyer was inspired by Le Corbusier. He worked with him on designs for the Ministry of Health and Education Building in Rio de Janeiro. Corb told him, 'Architecture is invention.'

That collaboration continued in 1939 with the Brazilian pavilion at the World's Fair in New York, and between 1947 and 1952 when the pair were on an international team working on the United Nations Building, again in New York. But he is best known for his buildings in Brasilia, where he worked with masterplanner Lucio Costa. This is where Niemeyer's civic buildings lie - the Presidential Palace, the seat of government, the Federal Supreme Court and, most spectacularly, the National Congress with its twin towers, dome and inverted dome. Other buildings of special note include the Communist Party Headquarters in Paris (see News in Pictures, pages 10-11) - he himself was a communist for most of his working life - his own house in Rio, the Cultural Centre at Le Havre (1972) and the University of Constantine in Algeria. This last 100m-long building showed his interest in technology - in extending to the limit the tensile strength of reinforced concrete - as well as demonstrating the artistry in his work cited by the RIBA jury.

'It is quite proper to refer to an art of architecture with Niemeyer, since he has never had any doubt about what the architect has to do, ' the jury said. 'His buildings have no need of our rhetoric, their forms communicate directly. They express beauty, elegance, daring, innovation and function.' The citation added that his vision was of architecture as 'inspired structure', with a duty to satisfy needs and then meet aspirations: 'poetry rather than prose'.

Niemeyer is currently working on a cultural centre in Barra da Tijuca in Rio and a museum in Niteroi. He is planning to come to this country to accept the award, although his intense fear of flying - down to Rio or beyond - may be a hindrance.

Honorary fellows, page 19

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