Influential modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer dies aged 104

He was a towering patriarch of modern architecture who shaped the look of contemporary Brazil

Nick Clark
Thursday 06 December 2012 19:01

Oscar Niemeyer, one of the 20 century’s most influential modernist architects, has died at the age of 104.

Niemeyer’s work, famous for its sweeping curves and space-age look, was inspired by the landscape of his native Brazil and the women who sunbathed on its beaches.

The architect, who had been working right until the end, died on Wednesday at the Hospital Samaritano in Rio de Janeiro following a respiratory infection.

A memorial service was held yesterday at the presidential palace in Brasilia, while the mayor of his home city Rio de Janeiro declared three days mourning.

Niemeyer won a string of awards including the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1988 and the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) in 1998.

Tony Chapman, head of awards at Riba, said the Brazilian had created “a heritage. He had a huge influence, not all of it direct.”

When the Government decided to move the capital on Brazil’s central high plains from Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s, Niemeyer planned a series of buildings for the city. Brasilia was declared a World Heritage Landmark by Unesco in 1987.

In describing his architectural style, he wrote in his 1998 memoir The Curves of Time: “I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves.”

He continued: “The curve I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire universe, the curved universe of Einstein,” he said.

Chapman said Niemeyer’s influence could be seen in Zaha Hadid’s work “although she may not agree” adding there was elements of influence on David Chipperfield and Frank Gehry.

Metropolitan Cathedral in Brasilia

One of Niemeyer’s best known buildings is the Cathedral, with its “Crown of Thorns” cupola. The building, whose cornerstone was laid in 1958, was not completed until 1970. It has 16 poured concrete pillars with glass in between. Inside sculptures of angels are suspended over the nave with steel cables, while the altar was donated by Pope Paul VI.

The building, which won him the 1988 Pritzker Architecture Prize, is estimated to have close to 1 million visitors a year, the most visited tourist attraction in Brasilia. Tony Chapman, head of awards at Riba, called it an “extraordinary” building.

The Niteroi Museum of Contemporary Art

The flying saucer-shaped museum in Rio de Janeiro, which was completed in 1996, has stunning views over Guanabara Bay and Sugarloaf Mountain. Niemeyer worked with structural engineer Bruno Contarini to make the 16m high building, with a cupola 50m in diameter. His vision for the museum, originally sketched out on a restaurant tablecloth, was one of “rising upward, like a flower, or a bird.”

Mr Chapman said: “The museum does look like it was dropped from outer space.” While he does not rate the building as one of Niemeyer’s finest, he added: “It is in the most stunning location. The setting and the approach to the building are very dramatic.”

Palacio da Alvorada

The official residence of the president of Brazil sits by the banks of Lago Paranoa. The name Palacio da Alvorada is translated as Palace of Dawn, a quote from Juscelino Kubitschek, then president of Brazil: “What is Brasilia, if not the dawn of a new day for Brazil.” It was the first government building constructed in the city, completed in 1958. Mr Chapman hailed Niemeyer’s “origami style” and said the Palace was “quite incredible, the supports are so delicate and graceful.” The palace was restored to its original splendour in 2004, in a two year project that cost $18.4m.

French Communist party building in Paris

Niemeyer, who was a communist, left Brazil in 1964 following a military coup and opened an office in Paris. From his office on the Champs-Elysees, he developed the headquarters of the French Communist Party. The undulating building was constructed between 1967 and 1972 in the 19 arrondissement. Mr Chapman said: “You have to go inside to really appreciate the building. Unlike many of his buildings in Brasilia, this one is completely unchanged. It’s like stepping back in time.”

The architect waived his fee for the project, and he also designed the headquarters of the communist party newspaper L’Humanite in St Denis.

Ministry of Justice

At the north of the Esplanada of ministries sits the Palacio da Justica, was designed in 1957 and completed in 1963. Mr Chapman picked it out as one of his favourite of Niemeyer’s buildings in Brasilia, with its “wonderful design projecting watershoots, and the novel landscaping.” Water cascades out of the façade and into the pools below. The aquatic garden at the front of the building was created by Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. The palace was named after writer and former president of the Brazilian Bar Association Jose Bonifacio in 2006.

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