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Oscar Niemeyer: 1907-2012

Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect whose curved concrete creations helped shape 20th Century architecture has died at the age of 104

Niemeyer, who was due to turn 105 next week, had been battling with Kidney failure since the beginning of November. The Modernist master who worked well into his 90s died of a lung infection in a hospital in Rio de Janeiro, the city where he was born in 1907.

Niemeyer could be held responsible for bringing modernism to Brazil, and creating the buildings now so synonymous with the country.

A winner of the 1988 Pritzker prize for Chicago’s Hyatt Foundation and the RIBA gold medal ten years later, Niemeyer was a national treasure in Brazil where his contemporary ‘space-age’ designs helped define the look of the country’s new capital, Brasilia.

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer studied at the National School of Fine Arts in Rio and after graduating in 1934 began work as a draftsman in a number of architectural firms.

Spanning over half a century Niemeyer’s career began in the 1930s when he interned with Lucio Costa, collaborating on the Ministry of Education and Health, in Rio. This began a relationship that would span Niemeyer’s career and the pair worked again together when Niemeyer was invited to design the collection of government buildings in the new city of Brasilia, which had been planned by Costa. It is this collection of buildings which are thought by some to be Niemeyer’s biggest achievement.

Niemeyer was also greatly influenced by Le Corbusier, whom he worked with on the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio. But unlike the Frenchman, Niemeyer had a hatred for right angles, telling the Los Angeles Times: ‘He posited the right angle. I posit the curve.’

Other world-famous buildings by the architect are New York’s UN Secretariat and the Communist Party headquarters in Paris, the latter being an apt memorial to a man who was a committed communist and life-long friend of Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

President Dilma Rousseff described Niemeyer, whose body will lie in state at the presidential palace, as ‘a revolutionary, the mentor of a new architecture, beautiful, logical, and, as he himself defined it, inventive.’

Richard Rogers’ tribute

Oscar Niemeyer was one of the last great modern masters alongside Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. He was an artist and poet and concrete was his natural material, allowing him to interpret his designs and free flowing ideas.

The last Niemeyer building I visited was his Serpentine pavilion in Hyde Park which although small, was a seminal building. It communicated optimism, simplicity and beautiful proportions; it made one realise how over complex modern buildings are today. His influence was felt around the world and nowhere more than his native Brazil, where his buildings represent the perfect marriage between architecture and the nature and culture of the country and its people.

Oscar’s National Congress building has become a totem which represents democratic Brazil; it is an internationally well known image symbolising the country’s parliament. In a strikingly different manner, his Edificio Copan represents a great curving residential block in the centre of Sao Paulo, this sinuous and graceful building has inspired a generation of artists, writers and filmmakers.

Oscar had strong social beliefs and was involved in the leftwing politics of the time. Sadly, I never had the chance to meet this great master, it was always one of my ambitions. The architectural community has lost a creative and cultural man today but his legacy will live on.

Norman Foster’s tribute

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Oscar Niemeyer. He was an inspiration to me – and to a generation of architects. Few people get to meet their heroes and I am grateful to have had the chance to spend time with him in Rio last year.

For architects schooled in the mainstream Modern Movement, he stood accepted wisdom on its head. Inverting the familiar dictum that ‘form follows function’, Niemeyer demonstrated instead that, ‘When a form creates beauty it becomes functional and therefore fundamental in architecture’.

It is said that when the pioneering Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin visited Brasilia he likened the experience to landing on a different planet. Many people seeing Niemeyer’s city for the first time must have felt the same way. It was daring, sculptural, colourful and free − and like nothing else that had gone before. Few architects in recent history have been able to summon such a vibrant vocabulary and structure it into such a brilliantly communicative and seductive tectonic language.

One cannot contemplate Brasilia’s crown-like cathedral, for example, without being thrilled both by its formal dynamism and its structural economy, which combine to engender a sense almost of weightlessness from within, as the enclosure appears to dissolve entirely into glass. And what architect can resist trying to work out how the tapering, bone-like concrete columns of the Alvorada Palace are able to touch the ground so lightly.

Brasilia is not simply designed, it is choreographed; each of its fluidly-composed pieces seems to stand, like a dancer, on its points frozen in a moment of absolute balance. But what I most enjoy in his work is that even the individual building is very much about the public promenade, the public dimension.

As a student in the early 1960s, I looked to Niemeyer’s work for stimulation; poring over the drawings of each new project. Fifty years later his work still has the power to startle us. His contemporary Art Museum at Niteroi is exemplary in this regard. Standing on its rocky promontory like some exotic plant form, it shatters convention by juxtaposing art with a panoramic view of Rio harbour.

It is as if − in his mind − he had dashed the conventional gallery box on the rocks below, and challenged us to view art and nature as equals. I have walked the Museum’s ramps. They are almost like a dance in space, inviting you to see the building from many different viewpoints before you actually enter. I found it absolutely magic.

During our meeting last year, we spoke at length about his work – and he offered some valuable lessons for my own. It seems absurd to describe a 104 year old as youthful, but his energy and creativity were an inspiration. I was touched by his warmth and his great passion for life and for scientific discovery – he wanted to know about the cosmos and the world in which we live. In his words: “We are on board a fantastic ship!”

He told me that architecture is important, but that life is more important. And yet in the end his architecture is his ultimate legacy. Like the man himself, it is eternally youthful – he leaves us with a source of delight and inspiration for many generations to come.

 

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