Oscar Niemeyer, Designer of UN Building, Dies at 104

Oscar Niemeyer, Designer of UN Building, Brasilia
Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer poses for a photo in Rio de Janeiro in 1950. Photographer: Kurt Hutton/Getty Images

Oscar Niemeyer, the prolific Brazilian architect who helped design the United Nations headquarters in New York and major public buildings in Brasilia, his country’s modernist capital, has died. He was 104.

He died yesterday at Hospital Samaritano in Rio de Janeiro, according to a spokeswoman at the medical center who spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to speak to the press. She didn’t give a cause of death. Niemeyer was treated at the hospital for two weeks in May for pneumonia and dehydration, and readmitted for another two weeks in October for dehydration, the Associated Press reported.

Rio de Janeiro Governor Sergio Cabral declared three days of official mourning in the state to honor a “genius of world architecture.”

In a career that lasted more than 75 years, Niemeyer was credited with bringing billowing imagery and tropical exoticism to the stark and angular lines common in modern architecture.

Coming to prominence in the 1950s as Brazil’s leaders sought to remake their rural agricultural nation into an urban, industrialized power, Niemeyer was given artistic license that few architects have enjoyed, said Zeuler Lima, a professor of architectural history at Washington University in St. Louis.

“He was talented and skilled at a very important moment in Brazilian culture, and art was given the chance by politicians to help them express a vision of the future,” Lima said.

That era, which peaked with the inauguration of Brasilia, a capital built from scratch between 1958 and 1960 in the country’s sparsely populated central highlands, coincided with the advent of the Bossa Nova music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto and the ascent of Brazil’s soccer star, Pele.

World’s Fair

Niemeyer began his career in Rio de Janeiro in the 1930s as a pupil of Lucio Costa, later his partner in the creation of Brasilia, and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, also known as Le Corbusier, the Franco-Swiss modernist pioneer. He first gained attention as part of a group that designed the Brazilian pavilion at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, Lima said.

In 1943, Niemeyer’s Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, a collection of concrete arched rooms adorned with abstract tile mosaics in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, was considered so radical that the Catholic Church at first refused to sanctify it, according to the website of the Oscar Niemeyer Foundation, a Rio de Janeiro-based organization dedicated to preserving the architect’s work.

The project resulted in Niemeyer’s friendship with the city’s former mayor, Juscelino Kubitschek.

Soon after Kubitschek became Brazil’s president in 1956, he picked Niemeyer and Costa to realize his dream of moving Brazil’s capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia.

‘Utopian Horror’

While Costa designed the new city’s layout -- a series of neighborhoods, commercial districts and government areas plotted in the shape of an airplane -- Niemeyer designed Brazil’s presidential palace and national cathedral as well as buildings for the Supreme Court, Congress and major ministries.

While his Brasilia buildings were Niemeyer’s main achievement, the city itself is scorned by many critics for its grey, drab exteriors that evoke Eastern Europe in the 1970s. Manufacturers, hotels and clubs are grouped into separate neighborhoods.

Brasilia is a “utopian horror,” said Time magazine’s former art critic Robert Hughes.

Niemeyer joined the Communist Party in 1945 after meeting Luis Carlos Prestes, an early 20th century insurgent who aimed to topple the ruling oligarchy and aid the underprivileged. He left the party in 1990, yet he still followed the ideas of Marx and Stalin.

Communist Ties

“Coming from a Catholic family, I forgot the old prejudices and the world seemed to me unjust, unacceptable. I joined the Communist Party, embracing the thoughts of Marx, which I follow until today,” Niemeyer said.

Fidel Castro, the former president of Cuba and a close friend, once said that he and Niemeyer were the last living communists. Niemeyer, in turn, said Castro is Latin America’s only great leader, and often complimented the former Cuban president for his views against capitalism and the U.S.

Niemeyer’s communist ties made his life difficult when Brazil’s generals seized power in 1964. His offices were ransacked, and he went into exile to France.

Architecture critics were another problem at times. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman described a museum Niemeyer designed in the 1990s in Niteroi, a city outside Rio, as something that looked “like a flying saucer.”

Design Revolution

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, in a statement lamenting Niemeyer’s passing, praised him as a “genius” and “revolutionary” who fought to instill a new style of design that upended the conventions of his time and was motivated by the goal of a more equal society.

Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho was born on Dec. 15, 1907, in Rio de Janeiro, the son of a typographer. He spent much of his early adulthood enjoying the city’s bohemian pleasures and didn’t finish high school until he was 21, according to the Niemeyer Foundation’s website.

He married Annita Baldo, a second generation Italian-Brazilian, who prompted him to seek a career. He worked in his father’s business and studied engineering and architecture at Rio’s School of Fine Arts, graduating in 1934.

In 1988 Niemeyer was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious architecture awards, along with American Gordon Bunshaft.

Niemeyer said he loved his native city more than any other place in the world, working even after his 100th birthday from his penthouse overlooking Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro.

Last Projects

His dominance in winning commissions to build important structures half a century after Brasilia was inaugurated spurred concern that Brazil’s architectural scene had stagnated.

Niemeyer kept at it, designing at age 102 the ambitious project for the so-called Administrative City -- a group of five buildings that house state government offices -- in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil.

He remained professionally active until near the end. Slouched in a wheel-chair at his 104th birthday in his office, he discussed three projects he was working on: a museum in London, a theater in a Rio de Janeiro park and a university in Foz do Iguacu, named after the nearby world-famous waterfalls.

One of his last concluded projects -- a cultural center in Spain’s northern city of Aviles inaugurated early in 2011 -- was mired in controversy when a new local government temporarily shut it down and threatened to strip his name off the building, alleging public money had been misspent.

Niemeyer paid little heed to his detractors. “I’m not interested in what people say,” Niemeyer said in a 2005 interview. “I won’t talk to people who know nothing about architecture.”

He was married to Baldo for 76 years until her death in 2004. They had one child, Anna Maria. In 2006, at age 99, he married his long-time secretary, Vera Lucia Cabreira.

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