Niemeyer's communism had him fall foul of the authorities by the late 1960s. During the post-Kubitschek military dictatorship, he left for Paris, where he built the French Communist Party's headquarters -- partly, one suspects, out of revenge. After he returned to Rio in the 1980s following the fall of the dictatorship, Niemeyer's career developed a studied casualness. Pre-Brasilia, Niemeyer was photographed earnestly poring over drawings, brow furrowed, hard at work. Post-Brasilia, he was the artist-playboy, dabbling in poetry, sketching the girls of Copacabana, magically designing buildings before lunch. It was a good life -- and Niemeyer was supremely good at it -- but it did not always produce good buildings. Outside the now pristine capital, Niemeyer's work is frequently undermined by poor craftsmanship and materials or inadequate maintenance. (And boy does it need maintaining: Brazil's humid coastal climate does terrible things to Niemeyer's preferred material, concrete.) The 1996 Museu de Arte Contemporanea is a case in point. Lauded by the world's architectural press, it looks superb at a distance. Up close, it's a terrible bodge job, a first-grader's approximation of a flying saucer.
Niemeyer took no notice of such criticisms. In any case, by then he was decisively back in fashion. His species of sculptural modernism turned out to be perfectly suited for cities in our contemporary globalized economy, anxious to differentiate themselves through new icons. What Frank Gehry did with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1996 to such acclaim, Niemeyer had in fact been doing for years in Brazil. His understanding of architecture as icon was peerless, and a new generation of icon-builders, Zaha Hadid especially, has acknowledged Niemeyer as a prime influence. New professional honors followed, along with new commissions outside Brazil, including a spectacular 2010 cultural center for Avilés, Spain.
Meanwhile, Niemeyer went on building in the capital until the end of his life. His last buildings to be realized, both in 2006, were the National Museum and a branch of the National Library, both ostensibly functional buildings, but both in reality giant sculptures, located -- to the annoyance of many architects -- right in the middle of the Monumental Axis. A huge white dome and a great slab on pilotis, they are as spectacular as anything Niemeyer ever built, but literally and figuratively empty, signifiers really only of themselves. In many ways they represent the closing of the first chapter in Brasilia's history. As Niemeyer built, the city around him turned itself into a successful metropolis of 4 million. It is now a far larger, more complex, and frankly more interesting place than he ever imagined. Niemeyer's planned city is still the symbolic heart of Brasilia, but it has become a sort of modernist Upper East Side: wealthy, old, and rather dull.
Meanwhile, the satellite city of Taguatinga, originally home of the construction workers who built Brasilia and for years a bastion of poverty on the edge of the well-planned capital, has become the economic motor of the new metropolis. That's where the action is these days -- with a thriving private sector, cultural institutions, and vibrant neighborhoods growing outside the original core.
Niemeyer's Brasilia belongs increasingly to the past.