Architect Oscar Niemeyer, who died in Rio de Janeiro on Dec. 5 at age 104, was a mythical figure even when alive. In his home country of Brazil, he defined the approved look of a rapidly modernizing nation. And outside Brazil, at least for a decade or so, his buildings embodied what it meant to be modern.
Niemeyer's major works include the government complex and cathedral in Brasilia, Sao Paulo's Edificio Copan apartment complex, the headquarters of the French Communist Party, the University of Constantine, and a good portion of the United Nations' headquarters in New York.
His style was unmistakable: white platonic solids, curves, and black glass, all set on podia, aloof from the world. Nobody did Niemeyer like Niemeyer. But outside Brazil, he was not always taken seriously. European architects, most famously Swiss modernist Max Bill, thought his work both frivolous and inhumane, while Americans were uneasy about his lifelong communism. At home, despite his unassailable position with the political elite, there were quiet, but persistent, complaints about the quality of his later work. And throughout the world, as fashions in urban planning have come to favor walkability, environmental sensitivity, and organic growth, Brasilia has often become a buzzword for the impractical, utopian ideas of the past: a white marble monument to central planning surrounded by slums. Is there anything worth salvaging from Niemeyer's complex legacy?
I met Niemeyer in 2001 on a visit to Rio. A local friend put me in touch with him, and we secured an appointment at his Copacabana office. We were shown to a desk adorned with a large black-and-white photograph of two young women lying on their backs, naked. A tiny, prune-like man in a crisp shirt greeted us -- Niemeyer. Chain-smoking cigars throughout the meeting, he was charm itself. He showed us a funny animated film in which he arrived from outer space in a flying saucer that, on landing, became the new Museu de Arte Contemporanea in Niteroi. We talked about his latest work, jazz, beer, women (the inspiration for all those curves), and Brasilia. Brazil's capital was to be the centerpiece of my trip, and I'd planned a week there. A week? Niemeyer laughed. I was mad, he said. A day was quite enough.
The remark about Brasilia stayed with me because it revealed a strangely casual attitude toward the capital, the site of his greatest work. Brasilia's first phase was built from 1957 to 1960 in a frenzy of nationalist modernization. One of the world's largest-ever construction projects, Brasilia represented "50 years' progress in five" according to then-President Juscelino Kubitschek, the capital's chief advocate.
Niemeyer's diffidence about Brasilia was odd. Moreover, it seemed to suggest how little he thought about his buildings once erected. All architects have this fault to some degree, but Niemeyer was an exaggerated case. How his buildings performed in reality -- their condition, their maintenance -- was of little concern. He was an artist, and his job was to create new forms, which he did, prolifically. Unsurprisingly, given this attitude, his works can be problematic for those who have to use them on a day-to-day basis. In Brasilia, the famous cathedral, all glass in a city with one of the world's highest indices of sunshine, turns into a furnace, a literal hell, in summer (perhaps intentionally so -- Niemeyer was an atheist). The ministry buildings align perfectly so that one face is blasted by the heat in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Some high-ranking officials are said to have two offices, one for each part of the day.