'People Need Beauty': Architect Oscar Niemeyer Turns 100

By Carmen Stephan in Rio

Oscar Niemeyer, the last surviving founder of architecture's Modernist movement, turned 100 on Saturday. The grandfather of Brazilian architecture is a living legend, and plans to remain so for a while.

When Oscar Niemeyer comes into his office in the morning, his manner reveals a lot about his inner composure. The driver helps him out of his dark Mercedes, and then he walks, slowly and full of dignity, along the hallway to the elevator. He is almost 100 years old, and yet much about this man doesn't seem old at all, least of all his boundless determination.

The ramp of Brasilia"s National Museum, designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
AFP

The ramp of Brasilia"s National Museum, designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

Legendary architect Niemeyer is the sole partner in a firm that constantly receives major commissions. His designs are becoming more and more daring: a museum that looks like a giant eye; a chapel standing in the ocean; a square with an 80-meter (262-foot) concrete arch spanned across it. Even today, at such an advanced age, he pursues his ideas with deep conviction. This partly explains why Oscar Niemeyer is one of the world's greatest architects.

He is omnipresent in his office on Rio's Copacabana, even when he is nowhere to be seen. Niemeyer spends much of his time sitting in his small, windowless office, surrounded by books piled up around him like a tall hedge. His needs are simple: cigarillos, coffee, models and words. Vera, his secretary for many years and now his new wife, answers the phone with pride in her voice.

His assistant, Aurélio, moves through the office, quiet as a butler. In return for Niemeyer paying his tuition while he studies architecture, Aurélio is required to read one literary work every two months and write a short summary of it for his boss. Many worlds come together in this office, but the principal source of energy is the old man in his tiny office, where there is a model of Praça do Povo (Square of the People) in Brasília. Niemeyer, sounding as proud as a young boy, says that the concrete dome is big enough to cover an entire soccer field.

Niemeyer is a living legend in Brazil. President Lula da Silva, who visited him recently, has declared 2008 the Year of Oscar Niemeyer. In the December issue of Bravo!, a magazine about culture, the author of the cover story about Niemeyer confesses that she wept when she visited his former apartment building, the Casa das Canoas, recently. The building, she wrote, nestles into nature "like a human gesture."

Niemeyer has long been a darling of the art world. Photographer Terry Richardson recently published fashion photos with his buildings as the backdrop. Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid references him in her works. And everyone knows that the future will never look as good again as it did with the Brazilian architect's buildings.

His architectural era began in the 1940s in Pampulha, where Niemeyer created a style that was revolutionary at the time. While Le Corbusier paid homage to the right angle, Niemeyer chose the curve. A church he designed vaulted through the landscape like some giant skateboard track. The architect later became famous for his equation: "mountains/waves/women = curves." "Oscar thinks of higher or lower things, but never simply straight ahead," says one of his closest friends, the 73-year-old physicist Ubirajara Brito.

The high point for Niemeyer came in 1956, when he was granted the greatest commission of his life. The new Brazilian capital Brasília was built in three-and-a-half years in a landscape devoid of people, in the red dust of the Cerrado savannah region.

Almost stoically, Niemeyer constantly repeats: "You may like the city or not, but you will never be able to claim that you have seen anything like it before."

With his sculptural structures, he created something his huge country was lacking: an identity. Brazil would look different today without Niemeyer. He dreams of a more just world, a world in which rich and poor live side-by-side in the same apartment buildings. Niemeyer still pins his hopes on the great revolution. At lunch, he likes to raise a toast "against Bush," and he is wildly enthusiastic about his friend Fidel Castro. "The revolution was heroic," he says, "Cubans wear it in their hearts."

Death is the End

Niemeyer still has many plans. "I do the same things I did when I was 60, so I'm only 60," he says. "You have to keep your mind alive, work, help others, laugh, cry and experience life intensively. It only lasts for a brief moment." For Niemeyer, who is an atheist, death is the end, and its approach has the effect of visibly driving him forward. "He doesn't want to talk about death," says Brito. "Oscar doesn't believe that he will die."

He used to create his designs at the drawing board. But nowadays failing vision has forced Niemeyer to reinvent his creative process. When a new project is in the works, he withdraws quietly to his office. "Architecture is in your head," he says. Niemeyer pictures the building in his mind until he is convinced that he has found the right solution. Only then does he reach for a pencil and, with a few strokes, commit his idea to paper.

He is the patriarch of a large family in which everyone respects and admires him. A visit to the photography studio of his grandson, 53-year-old Kadu Niemeyer, in downtown Rio reveals the extent of his influence on his descendants. The balcony of the 12th floor studio has a view, across a jumble of buildings, of Niemeyer's soldiers' memorial on the shore. The drawings of women on the white walls of Kadu Niemeyer's studio could only have stemmed from the hand of his grandfather. Stacks of catalogues depicting vaulted, white buildings lie on the floor, yet another sign of Oscar Niemeyer's all-pervading influence.

All four of Niemeyer's grandchildren work for him, turning his ideas into reality and managing them. Kadu's job is to reproduce the work of his grandfather. He never studied photography, but his grandfather showed him the angles from which he wanted to see his works photographed.

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