Architect, 101, denied chance to add final flourish to city he created

By David Usborne
Tuesday 10 February 2009 00:18

It is probable that at 101 years old, Oscar Niemeyer, the guru of modernist architecture whose greatest project was the city of Brasilia, is old enough to withstand disappointment, even as large as the one he has just suffered. He thought he was on course to adorn the city’s skyline with one last flourish. But now, suddenly, he isn’t.

Brasilia, widely considered an architectural masterwork and an unparalleled urban catastrophe, will turn 50 next year and it had seemed natural that it should fall to Niemeyer, who is still working at the cusp of his second century, to come up with a suitable new monument to mark the occasion.

Thus was born his blueprint for the “Plaza o fSovereignty”, involving two structures bang in the middle of Brasilia’s main ceremonial avenue, the Monumental Axis. As drawn by Niemeyer it consisted of a 1,000ft curving spike resembling the fin of a spaceship, and a low building before it in the shape of a shallow new moon. It was classic Oscar, a bold gesture of bombast and supple curves in concrete and cement.

To call Niemeyer beloved in Brazil is to get nowhere near describing his stature. An exile in Europe for 21 years during his country’s military dictatorship and still today a self-described communist, he was honoured by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who declared 2008 the Year of Oscar Niemeyer to mark his centenary.

But no sooner had the master architect unveiled his plan, than the complaints started. On blogs, in newspapers and magazines, fellow architects and preservationists fretted that the Plaza would just not do.

It would block the sightlines of central Brasilia and might violate regulations about the preservation of open space between the buildings, many of which Niemeyer designed, including theBrasilia Cathedral and the Ministry of Justice.

Acampaign was launched to protect Niemeyer from himself. “What we normally see is an architect interfering in the work of another architect,” said Sylvia Fischer of the University of Brasilia. “In Niemeyer’s case, he is interfering negatively in his own work. It will be Oscar Niemeyer fighting Oscar Niemeyer.”

In the 1950s, President Juscelino Kubitschek ordered the construction of a new capital on open, unpopulated savannah at 3,500ft, fulfilling a constitutional requirement that the government leave Rio de Janeiro. The task of conjuring the new city fell to the French-born urban planner Lucio Cost, who turned to Niemeyer to provide the plans for myriad buildings, from ministries to housing blocks.

Though now populated by more than two million, Brasilia was condemned by many for being pretentious but inhuman, shortcomings described by Simone de Beauvoir who attended its inauguration in 1960. “What possible interest could there be in wandering about?” she asked. “The street, that meeting ground of … passers-by, of stores and houses, of vehicles and pedestrians … does not exist in Brasilia and never will.”

Theblueprint for the Plaza of Sovereignty was presented to the governor of Brasilia, Jose Roberto Arruda, two weeks ago. “The monument will have a triangle shape to show progress the country has achieved,” Niemeyer said then. “It is designed to perplex whoever looks at it.”

Yet by last week, word was coming from the governor’s office that there was no money to build the Plaza, nor had there ever been. And in a letter to the Correio Braziliense newspaper, Niemeyer said he was ready to give up on ever building the Plaza. But forgive an old man for feeling frustrated.

“In my last visit,” he wrote, “I could feel with clarity the need to create a plaza on a compatible scale with the capital of a country so admired such as our own.”

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