Oscar Niemeyer Talks About Brasilia, Communism, Regrets

Oscar Niemeyer , Designer of UN Building, Brasilia
Architect Oscar Niemeyer smiles during a meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at Planalto Palace on Dec. 11, 2008 in Brasilia. Photographer: Evarista Sa/AFP/Getty Images

Oscar Niemeyer has spent 70 years designing buildings around the world, from the United Nations in New York to many of the key edifices of Brasilia, Brazil’s capital. He’s not the retiring type.

Now 97, the famed architect still goes to work every morning at his spacious Rio de Janeiro penthouse studio. There, he has a panoramic view of Copacabana Beach and Sugar Loaf Mountain. In the distance, you can see his distinctive flying-saucer-like building on a pedestal that is part of a cultural complex in Niteroi that was built in the mid-1990s and is still expanding.

Niemeyer is so beloved by Brazilians that for the 2006 Carnaval, the samba school Viradouro will celebrate his career. Festive floats and costumes representing his buildings will be paraded through the Sambodromo Carnaval stadium, itself one of Niemeyer’s creations, before tens of thousands in the stands and millions more watching on television.

Michael Luongo spoke with Niemeyer in his office, where he teaches architecture and urban planning students and supervises his staff of nine. Magic-marker graffiti cover the walls -- images of some of his most famous buildings, interspersed with phrases, hands with flowers, and every so often, a highly stylized face of a woman.

Typical Day

Luongo: I am sure that most people are amazed when they find out that, at the age of 97, you’re still working. When do you come into the office, and what is your typical day like?

Niemeyer: I enter my studio at 9 a.m. I have lunch here, I return right away to my work and I go out to dinner at 8 p.m. My daily tasks vary very much. Sometimes I lose a whole morning waiting on journalists and other people who look for me. But I always find some time for reading, talking to my friends and feeling what is happening in this world.

Luongo: How did you start your career in architecture?

Niemeyer: It was the drawing that led me to architecture, the search for light and astonishing forms. And I was lucky. I was working for Lucio Costa in his office, and when he was working on Brasilia, I was called to work on this. Brasilia was an adventure that was successful, a moment of optimism when people are conscious that a lot of things can be accomplished in so contradictory a world.


Luongo: You have worked on buildings all over the world, and some of them mark signature achievements in your career. Looking back, do you have any regrets, or is there anything you would do differently?

Niemeyer: My desire was to create a wide United Nations square. Aiming at such a goal, I located the councils (Secretariat) in a low and huge block near the river, and the volume of the big (General) Assembly became smaller, permitting the solution I desired.

The project pleased everybody, and it had been selected. The day after this choice, Le Corbusier begged me to transfer the big assembly to the center of the site. I was too young and I accepted his proposal. Today I deplore to have consented. The United Nations square has disappeared, and the project has been definitely damaged.

Luongo: Do you have a favorite building or work?

Niemeyer: It is difficult to choose my favorite project among so different buildings. But telling people that I have designed them with the same enthusiasm makes me tranquil.

Architecture, Communism

Luongo: Among the comments often made by people who study your work is that it strongly reflects a philosophy of communism. Your political affiliation with communism is well known and was the main reason why you sought refuge in France after the military dictatorship took over Brazil in 1964. Do you believe that communist ideals or political philosophies are reflected in your work?

Niemeyer: It is not with architecture that one can disseminate any political ideology. Nevertheless, I say that the important thing is not architecture, but life itself, the struggle for a better world; I manifest myself with indispensable clearness. I am a man like any other one, who struggles against social injustice, with the same conviction born 70 years ago.

Luongo: With Brasilia such an important achievement and defining project in your career, why do you live in Rio de Janeiro?

Niemeyer: I am a Carioca (native of Rio). I like the sun, I like Rio -- its beaches, the mountains, the people.

(Michael Luongo is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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