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Brazilian bravura

The Curves of Time: The Memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer Phaidon, 2000. 192pp. £14.95

Oscar Niemeyer is an individual - not a partnership, a firm, or a conglomerate - and his work stands for humane values that only an individual, it seems, can sustain.

The personality that emerges through these memoirs, however, is not assertive; rather it is clubbable and easy-going, if inclined to melancholy. Where is the steel that must lie behind his remarkable achievement?

Cariocas - natives of Rio de Janeiro, of which Niemeyer is one - are reputed to be uninhibited and pleasure-loving, and the whole book testifies to that, as does the freedom of his work itself; Gropius called him a 'bird of paradise'.

Niemeyer's long-standing membership of the Brazilian Communist Party, from which he resigned in 1990 without renouncing his beliefs, and which must account for his lack of work in America, seems to have been based on local rather than theoretical factors - his anguish over the immense disparity in wealth and opportunity that persists in Brazil.

As he admits, however: 'I have worked on very few projects of a social-welfare nature, and confess that when I have done so, I always had the feeling that I was conspiring with the demagogic and paternalistic objectives such projects represent: to mislead the working class which demands better wages and opportunities.'

The Curves of Time is more a portrait of the man than of his work. Only in the last few pages does Niemeyer attempt any extended discussion of his buildings - and for many people these will be the most interesting. The book is essentially a collection of transcribed tapes, recorded (on internal evidence) between about 1988 and 1998, and then ordered and annotated by others. The text is not divided into chapters, falling naturally into 'bites' of about two pages.

Frequent reference is made to friends and colleagues whose names, despite brief notes at the end, will mean little to a non-Brazilian readership. There are some photographs of his more familiar buildings, with a number of new line drawings that were perhaps easier to do than to retrieve original material.

With characteristic insouciance, Niemeyer writes: 'My dear friend Rodrigo M F de Andrade once gave me some advice: 'Get on with the writing, you can polish it up afterward.' So that is what I intend to do, dear reader.' As a result, his accounts of key episodes do not always clarify the picture, though this may be due in part to the translation. For example, on the question of Le Corbusier's role in the final design of the Ministry of Education in Rio (1936), on which Niemeyer collaborated, he writes: 'When the design stage was concluded, we sent Le Corbusier a photo of the scale model. Unhappy at being considered the chief architect for the building, he drew a sketch on the photo and had it published in a Swiss magazine.

The old master was going too far. . . .'

There is surely a 'not' missing after 'Unhappy at' - by means of the sketch Le Corbusier wished to establish his claim to authorship. But after describing a somewhat similar run-in with Le Corbusier over the United Nations building in New York, Niemeyer remains touchingly loyal to him: 'I remember him today with the same enthusiasm I felt the first time we met, when we went to pick him up at the airport. He seemed to be an architect-genius come down from heaven.'

One might similarly be grateful for Niemeyer himself and the example of his works.

James Dunnett is an architect in London

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