At the grand age of 95, Oscar Niemeyer, the legendary architect of Brasilia, is still designing buildings that revel in, by his own definition, a freer kind of Modernism
The last of the legends of Modernism, Oscar Niemeyer uses a stubby black marker pen and reams of paper clipped to an easel to describe his architecture. On each sheet he draws only a few lines, but a recognisable shape emerges instantly. Niemeyer is not only the last major survivor of Mid-Century Modern, he is one of the most prolific architects of the last century and, it seems, of this one. His energy, creativity and verve should shame and inspire younger architects (everyone is a younger architect: Niemeyer is 95).
Halfway between artist and architect, the grand old man works in a studio in a voluptuous Deco apartment building on Copacabana Beach. The dazzling view is of the bay, of mountains and of the sparkling sea. The walls are bare white, adorned only by Niemeyer's drawings, drawn in black directly upon them. Niemeyer draws. He hands the drawings to those around him. From there, somehow, the buildings get built. And, remarkably, they look just like the original sketches. This year's Serpentine Pavilion (pictured, opposite below) is the perfect example.
In an inspired piece of commissioning from the gallery's director, Julia Peyton-Jones (whose previous invitations, Zaha, Libeskind and Ito, mark her out as the country's sharpest client), Niemeyer has created a piece of classic Niemeyer. 'I wanted to give a flavour of everything that characterises my work, ' he says. 'The first thing was to create something floating above the ground. In a small building occupying a small space, using concrete and few supports and girders we can give an idea of what my architecture is all about.'
And what is his architecture about? 'My work, for example that at Pampulha [a town where he designed the principal buildings in the 1940s], was a freer kind of Modernism.
And it was a success. Corbusier's architecture was heavier; he took the right angle while I was concerned with an architecture of curves, ' he explains. In fact, though, what comes out over the course of the interview is how Niemeyer (and he is not alone in this) believes that Corb was jealous of his young protégé's talent and, indeed, was influenced by him. He cites the curvaceous forms of Ronchamp, in particular.
Niemeyer seems to have had a curious relationship with the old Swiss master. He lovingly relates compliments: how 'Le Corbusier once told me that I design with the mountains of Rio in my eyes', and how when he saw the buildings of Brasilia he said 'there is invention here' (to which he adds 'that is what I would have wanted him to say'). Yet, in the course of anecdotes about the UN Building in New York (which both men were involved in) he bitterly reflects about how he was talked into accepting Le Corbusier's proposals, concluding 'what is built is very bad'. 'Corb was a great architect, ' he shoots a sly glance, 'but a small figure.'
Perhaps he talks so much about Le Corbusier because he is really the only competition in this vein of sculptural concrete Modernism. Both men dreamed of constructing planned cities of rigorous zoning and concrete monoliths - Corb had Chandigarh; Niemeyer Brasilia. And of that city he remains proud but saddened by its decline. Of its genesis, he says: 'When we went to design the city, I took a journalist, a poet and a doctor (who wasn't very good at his job) with me. I didn't want to talk about architecture all the time - an architect has to have a comprehensive feel of the world.
Architecture schools should lecture about literature, philosophy, history, so that students emerge with a knowledge of life - that there is misery, that there is more to life than architecture. We walked around looking for a site, the grass up to our knees. That was how we worked. We came up with a monumental plan, which is what a capital city should have. We should not be afraid of monumentality.'
And Niemeyer is patently not afraid of monumentality. The government buildings in Brasilia, from the late 1950s and early 1960s, are an extraordinary blend of grandeur, kitsch, structural invention and elegance - an inspired attempt to break free from the patronising platitudes of colonial style. When work dried up in the 1960s under the military regime, Niemeyer moved to Europe. 'Brazil was no longer the place for me, ' he says. 'I wanted to show what we could do. Brazil was a young, energetic country.We could do architecture better and faster.'
He has clearly not slowed into a comfortable old age, resting on past glories. His best-known recent work, the Museum of Modern Art in Niterói, is a stunning building. Remarkably like a flying saucer, it nevertheless sits perfectly in the dramatic bay, raised on a stalk 'in order to preserve views of the landscape from the ground'.
Entered via a sinuously winding Close Encounters-style ramp, it is one of the most daring, futuristic and beautiful buildings I have seen. It is also, quite possibly, the worst art gallery in the world, its architecture utterly overshadowing its contents. He draws a picture of a reclining nude to justify the shape and, despite a masterfully quick, fluent sketch, fails.
Inspired by the international success of the building, Niterói's mayor has commissioned an entire cultural quarter from Niemeyer. The architect has approached it just as he did Brasilia: no namby-pamby New Urbanism for Niemeyer, this is unreconstructed Modern - concrete objects in the landscape, green in between. The theatre, defined by its curvaceous concrete roof, is testament to a mind still active and original, his architecture paradoxically dated but heroic, stuck in an oeuvre that has become fashionable once more and looks unlikely to fall out of favour any time soon.
But none of this really matters to Niemeyer. 'Architecture, ' he tells me, looking down at the ground, 'is not really important.
It is necessary to work hand in hand and try to make the world better. I think we have to look up at the sky and feel that we are very small. Life lasts just a minute; it goes quickly.
Life is more important than architecture.'
And with a life as productive and long as his, he should know.