Oscar Niemeyer, best known for Brasilia, died at 105 – the UN moved into its Headquarter building in New York, signed off by him, 60 years ago. We also found that Niemeyer had suggested to save space and build 30-40 stories buildings for cities in the Israeli Negev.
Oscar Niemeyer – the architect who signed off the UN Headquarter building that is now in the process of its first renovation – died in Rio de Janeiro December 5, 2012 at 10 days short of 105 years of age.
He gave Brasílian Architecture Its Flair – tall buildings and curves. Earlier this year, Niemeyer supervised the renovation of the iconic Sambadrome, the “temple of Samba” which he designed 30 years ago, and where the raucous parades of Rio’s Carnival are held each year. He also had worked on building Brasilia – the capital of Brazil while standing up for the communist party of Brazil.
Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho – known as Oscar Niemeyer – lived in his beloved Rio de Janeiro (December 15, 1907 – December 5, 2012) was one of six children of a typographer and his wife. His father owned a graphic arts business, and a grandfather was a judge on the country’s supreme court. A precocious talent, Mr. Niemeyer was trained at the National School of Fine Arts, where he soon drew the attention of its dean, Lucio Costa. Costa was at the center of a small group of architects working to bring the message of Modernist architecture to Brazil.
The timing was ideal. Costa was then designing the Ministry of Education and Health’s headquarters in Rio, and he invited Mr. Niemeyer to join his firm as a draftsman. In 1936, the ministry hired the Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier to contribute ideas for the design. Le Corbusier was already a legend in architecture, and the building would become the first major public project by a Modernist architect in Latin America.
Mr. Niemeyer, one of several draftsmen assigned to the project, absorbed Le Corbusier’s vision of a modern world shaped by the myth of the machine, and drew on the master’s belief in an architecture of abstract forms enlivened by a sensitive use of light and air.
But Mr. Niemeyer was also a self-confident apprentice with a vision of his own; under Costa’s supervision, he made significant changes to Le Corbusier’s scheme. The columns supporting the building’s main office block were more than doubled in height, giving the structure a more slender profile. An auditorium that Le Corbusier had envisioned as a separate structure was tucked under the office block, creating a more compact urban composition.
Shielded from the sun behind rows of elegant baffles, the building had a clean, stripped-down style that made it a sparkling example of classical Modernism while heralding Brazil’s emergence as a vibrant center of experimentation.
Mr. Niemeyer’s name soon became synonymous with the new Brazilian architecture. In 1939, he collaborated with Costa on the Brazilian Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair. Three years later, he completed his first house, a simple modern box resting on slender columns on a mountainside overlooking the magnificent Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon. In these and other early projects, Mr. Niemeyer was beginning to develop a distinctive architecture of flowing lines, structural lightness and an open relationship to natural surroundings.
At the same time, he was becoming politically outspoken. Reared in a quiet upper-middle-class Rio neighborhood by his maternal grandparents, Mr. Niemeyer joined the Communist Party.
When the Brazilian government released hundreds of political prisoners, including Communists, as a gesture of good will in the 1940s, Mr. Niemeyer turned over the first floor of his Rio office to the party for use as a headquarters. To him, architecture’s social impact had its limits. “Architecture will always express the technical and social progress of the country in which it is carried out,” he once said. “If we wish to give it the human content that it lacks, we must participate in the political struggle.”
Yet the project that established him as a major architectural force was essentially a playground for the nouveaux riches in a wealthy suburb on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte, an industrial city. Commissioned in 1940 by a local mayor, Juscelino Kubitschek, who later, as president of Brazil, would hire Mr. Niemeyer to design Brasília’s major buildings, the project included a casino, a yacht club, a dance hall and a church arrayed around an artificial lake.
The casino was particularly striking. A concrete-and-glass shell, it was conceived as part of an architectural promenade that fused the complex with the natural landscape. The dance hall was distinguished by its free-form canopy made of cast concrete, its contours meant to suggest the flowing movements of the samba.
That project never functioned as planned. The casino was transformed into an art museum soon after gambling was outlawed by the Brazilian government in 1946. And the Roman Catholic authorities were offended by the church’s unusual curved concrete form and refused to consecrate it until 1959.
The complex’s bold, sweeping lines and snaking walkways, gently echoing the surrounding hills, suggested a subliminal hedonism that was at odds with the public’s image of mainstream Modernism as determinedly functional and emotionally cool. The design also heralded Mr. Niemeyer’s war against the straight line, whose rigidity he saw as a kind of authoritarian constraint.
THE UN BUILDING IN NEW YORK
Mr. Niemeyer’s international status was confirmed by the Brazil Builds exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1943, a show that also introduced his work to an American audience. Four years later, he joined Le Corbusier again, this time as an equal, when the two were selected to take part in designing the United Nations complex in Manhattan.
Supervised by Wallace K. Harrison, the United Nations design was a collaboration that also included international luminaries like the Soviet architect Nikolai D. Bassov and Max Abramovitz of New York. The final design was a compromise of sorts between Mr. Niemeyer’s concepts and those of his aging idol Le Corbusier and its final signature was by Oscar Niemeyer.
Set amid gardens and plazas, the slim, glass-clad Secretariat tower and the sculptural concrete General Assembly building remain testaments to the belief in rationalism as a means to resolve international disputes and disparities.
The United Nations Headquarters complex was constructed in New York City in 1949–1950 beside the East River, on 17 acres (69,000 m2) of land purchased from the foremost New York real estate developer of the time, William Zeckendorf. Nelson Rockefeller arranged this purchase, after an initial offer to locate it on the Rockefeller family estate of Kykuit was rejected as being too isolated from Manhattan. The US$8.5 million purchase was then funded by his father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who donated it to the city. The lead architect for the building was the real estate firm of Wallace Harrison, the personal architectural adviser for the Rockefeller family.
and a board of design consultants was nominated by member governments. The board consisted of N. D. Bassov of the Soviet Union, Gaston Brunfaut (Belgium), Ernest Cormier (Canada), Le Corbusier (France), Liang Seu-cheng (China), Sven Markelius (Sweden), Oscar Niemeyer (Brazil), Howard Robertson (United Kingdom), G. A. Soilleux (Australia), and Julio Vilamajó (Uruguay). Le Corbusier and Niemeyer together submitted the scheme which was built and is what can be seen brfore the remodeling that goes on now. The building was occupied in 1952.
The – History of the Le Corbusier – Niemeyer cooperation: Right after his arrival in New York, Niemeyer met Corbusier on his demands. He requested Niemeyer not to submit a scheme, but rather to collaborate with him on a project, on the basis that he could ‘create a commotion’. It was Wallace Harrison who tried to convince Niemeyer to move on his own.
50 designs were evaluated by the team, and Niemeyer’s project 32 was finally chosen. As opposed to Corbusier’s project 23, which consisted of one building containing both the Assembly Hall and the councils in the centre of the site (as it was hierarchically the most important building), Niemeyer’s plan split the councils from the Assembly Hall, locating the first alongside the river, and the second on the right side of the secretariat. This would not split the site, but on the contrary, would create a large civic square. George Dudley latter stated:
It literally took our breath away to see the simple plane of the site kept open from First Avenue to the River, only three structures on it, standing free, a fourth lying low behind them along the river’s edge. …He [Niemeyer] also said, ‘beauty will come from the buildings being in the right space!’. The comparison between Le Corbusier’s heavy block and Niemeyer’s startling, elegantly articulated composition seem to me to be in everyone’s mind…
Latter on the day, Corbusier came once again to Niemeyer, and asked him to reposition the Assembly Hall back to the centre of the site. Such modification would destroy Niemeyer’s plans for a large civic square. However, he finally decided to accept the modification:
I felt he [Corbusier] would like to do his project, and he was the master. I do not regret my decision.
Together, they submitted the scheme 23–32, which was built and is what can be seen today.
In his designs for Brasília, the capital city built in the vast undeveloped lands of the Brazil’s central region, Mr. Niemeyer got the opportunity to create his own poetic vision of the future on a monumental scale.
The city’s cross-shaped master plan, with repetitive rows of housing set around a formal administrative center, was designed by Costa, Mr. Niemeyer’s old mentor. But it was Mr. Niemeyer who gave Brasília its sculptural identity.
The speed with which the city was created, between 1956 and 1960, reinforced its image as a utopian dream that had sprouted magically out of a primitive landscape. Its crisp, abstract forms seemed to sum up the aspirations of much of the developing world: the belief that modern architecture and the faith in technological progress that it embodied could help create a more egalitarian society.
Arranged along a vast, grassy esplanade, Mr. Niemeyer’s buildings acquire a certain grandeur in their isolation. The most spectacular is the Metropolitan Cathedral, a circular, crownlike structure that splays open at the top to let light spill into the main sanctuary.
Yet much of Brasília’s beauty lay in an architectural balancing act. The simple twin towers of its secretariat, for example, play off the geometric bowl-like forms of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. The entire complex suggests a world in perfect harmony, even if the politicians and bureaucrats who work there are not. The languorous sensuality of Mr. Niemeyer’s designs are underscored in early sketches for Brasília. They often depict naked young women sunbathing on a vast empty plaza as his buildings recede in the background. It’s an image of romantic alienation that has more in common with the films of Michelangelo Antonioni than with the utopian aspirations of early Modernism.
“For me,” Mr. Niemeyer said years later, “beauty is valued more than anything — the beauty that is manifest in a curved line or in an act of creativity.”
Brasília was considered his greatest triumph, but he had little time to glory in it. In 1964, after a coup put the country in the hands of a military dictatorship, he was repeatedly questioned by the military police about his Communist associations. Although he was never imprisoned, commissions dried up.
YEARS OF INTELLECTUAL EXILE
With the generals in charge of Brazil and the anti-communism rampant in the US, he could work by proxy or limit himself to communism in Western Europe. He was chosen to design a business center on Claughton Island near Miami. But the United States, still in the grip of the cold war, denied him a visa. (Around the same time, he also designed a house in Santa Monica, Calif., one he never saw.)
Unable to find work in Brazil, Mr. Niemeyer fled to Europe, where he received commissions to design the Communist Party headquarters in Paris, completed in 1980, and the House of Culture in Le Havre, France (1982), with its low conical dome and a spectacular concrete ramp corkscrewing into the earth.
Modernism was by then falling out of favor with the architectural establishment. Brasília soon became a symbol of Modernism’s failure to deliver on its utopian promises. The vast empty plazas seemed to sum up the social alienation of modern society; surrounded by slums, the monumental government buildings of its center exemplified Brazil’s deeply rooted social inequalities.
Mr. Niemeyer addressed the criticism in a profile by the critic Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times Magazine in 2005. “You may not like Brasília,” he told Mr. Kimmelman, “but you can’t say you have seen anything like it — you maybe saw something better, but not the same. I prefer Rio, even with the robberies. What can you do?” He added: “But people who live in Brasília, to my surprise, don’t want to leave it. Brasília works. There are problems. But it works. And from my perspective, the ultimate task of the architect is to dream. Otherwise nothing happens.”
In 1965 Niemeyer traveled to France for an exhibition in the Louvre museum.In 1966, at 59, he moved to Paris – he travelled to the city of Tripoli, Lebanon, to design the International Permanent Exhibition Centre. Despite completing construction, the start of the civil war in Lebanon prevented it from achieving its utility.
He opened an office on the Champs-Élysées, and had customers in diverse countries, especially in Algeria where he designed the University of Science and Technology-Houari Boumediene. In Paris he created the headquarters of the French Communist Party, Place du Colonel Fabien, and in Italy that of the Mondadori publishing company.
In Funchal on Madeira, a 19th-century hotel was removed to build a casino by Niemeyer.
The Brazilian dictatorship lasted until 1985. Under João Figueiredo‘s rule it softened and gradually turned into a democracy. At this time Niemeyer decided to return to his country. During that decade he made the Memorial Juscelino Kubitschek (1980), the Pantheon (Panteão da Pátria e da Liberdade Tancredo Neves Pantheon of the Fatherland and Freedom, 1985) and the Latin America Memorial (1987) (dubbed by The Independent of London to be “…an incoherent and vulgar construction”). The memorial sculpture represents the wounded hand of Jesus, whose wound bleeds in the shape of Central and South America.
In 1988, at 81, Niemeyer was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most prestigious award in architecture. From 1992 to 1996, Niemeyer was the president of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). As a lifelong activist, Niemeyer was chosen as a powerful public figure that could be linked to the party at a time when it appeared to be in its death throes after the demise of the USSR. Although not active as a political leader, his image helped the party to survive through its crisis, after the 1992 split and to remain as a political force in the national scene, which eventually led to its reconstruction. He was replaced by Zuleide Faria de Mello in 1996.
OSCAR NIEMEYER AND ISRAEL – A NATURAL LOVE STORY.
In 1964 – thus before he settled in Paris – Niemeyer spent six months in Israel where he was brought by developer Yekutiel Federman and as per HAARETZ of today – www.haaretz.com/print-edition/bus… – he left behind at least two executed projects – the Kikar Hamedina – the large round-about in what was then North-Tel Aviv, and and the Haifa University, but the most interesting proposal was the planned city that was never built.
Niemeyer, who as a declared communist, was excited about the socialist settlements in Israel, and described the Negev city of his planning, undoubtedly with a certain amount of naivete, as “a new type of metropolitan kibbutz that grew, became broader and more up-to-date, without losing its human values – enthusiasm, solidarity and idealism.”
Niemeyer’s work in Israel is the subject of historical research conducted by the architect Zvi Elhayani for his master’s degree in architecture at the Technion. Among the central issues in the study, which Elhayani concluded last year, is an analysis of Niemeyer’s critical assessment of planning concepts in Israel. In Niemeyer’s proposal for the Negev city, Elhayani sees a clear expression of this critical outlook. According to the study, Niemeyer already identified the low and sparse construction in new cities, and multitude of small communities, as a mistake that Israel would pay for in the future with a loss of open spaces.
During his stay in Israel, which is described in detail in Elhayani’s study, Niemeyer toured the newly constructed cities in the Negev: Yeruham, Dimona, Kiryat Gat, Eilat and the new neighborhoods of Be’er Sheva. According to Elhayani, Niemeyer was impressed by the desert vistas and construction boom, but expressed his disappointment “from the spatial spread and wastefulness that characterized the new cities, and he began to formulate a completely different urban concept.”
The sketches for the new Negev city, as presented in Elhayani’s study, show that the city was planned as a compact and crowded community, where the residents could take a short walk of no more than 500 meters to get from their homes to their jobs, schools and places of entertainment. Covered and shaded walkways were planned along the roadways, with pedestrian traffic separated from vehicular traffic. Niemeyer declared that he was seeking “to create optimal conditions for people to communicate and appropriate environments for work, culture and recreation, with the help of technological advances.”
From the outset, Niemeyer was aware of the radical nature of his concept of the Negev city and the controversy it would stir in Israel. Still, he hoped that his plan would not be summarily rejected, “but rather would be stored for a time on the shelf and reexamined after a number of years … then I’m sure that the reasons we cite today will be accepted and it will be proven that this city is the inevitable result of progress, of technology and of the life force itself.”
Niemeyer’s plan envisioned a new city somewhere in the heart of the Negev, but no specific site was selected. A model of the plan, as presented at the time, was photographed on the Tel Aviv beach opposite the Dan Hotel, where Niemeyer stayed. Like most of his work in Israel, the Negev city was never built. Elhayani believes that its construction was unfeasible at the time for technological, cultural, social and economic reasons, and that even today it can only serve as an idea for critical review.
Nonetheless, Elhayani writes, the issues Niemeyer raised nearly 40 years ago are at the center of the debate on national planning in Israel today. The question of whether the Negev missed out on – or was saved from – Niemeyer’s ideas remains open.
The proposal by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in the 1960s to build a Negev city with 40 skyscrapers of 30 to 40 stories for tens of thousands of residents is the complete opposite of the settlement project for the Halutza dunes. While Nitzanit, Shlomit and other Halutza communities are planned to be built close to the ground, with low density and spread over a relatively large area per number of residents, Niemeyer’s utopian city was to be vertical, tall, crowded and succinct.
HIS REPUTATION RESTORED AND LIFE EXTENDED TO ITS FULLEST
Mr. Niemeyer is survived by his wife, Vera Lúcia Cabreira, whom he married in 2006; four grandchildren; 13 great-grandchildren; and six great-great-grandchildren, according to the newspaper O Globo. A daughter, Anna Maria, died this year at age 82, and his first wife, Annita Baldo, died in 2004, after 76 years of marriage.
Mr. Niemeyer lived long enough to see his international reputation recover and flourish.
After his return to Brazil in the early 1980s, his office was soon overflowing with new commissions.
At 89, his Museum of Contemporary Art in Niterói, near Rio, which opened in 1996, was celebrated for its bold saucer-shaped form. The building is cantilevered out from sheer rock hovered on a cliffside overlooking Guanabara Bay and the city of Rio de Janeiro.
A decade later, on his 99th birthday, he celebrated the opening of his National Museum and National Library along the Monumental Axis in Brasília, near his cathedral.
In his last years he e designed at least two more buildings in Brasilia, the Memorial dos Povos Indigenas (“Memorial for the Indigenous People”) and the Catedral Militar, Igreja de N.S. da Paz.
A growing number of people had begun to re-examine the legacy of postwar Modernism and appreciate his purist vision as a throwback to a more optimistic time.
In celebrating both the formal elements and social aims of architecture, his work became a symbolic reminder that the body and the mind, the sensual and the rational, are not necessarily in opposition. Yet he also saw sensuality and the brightness of dreams against a darker backdrop. “Humanity needs dreams to be able to survive the miseries of daily existence,” he once said, “even if only for an instant.”
MASTER BUILDER Mr. Niemeyer was among the last of Modernist true believers. More Photos »
A recent photo of Niemeyer looking out from a window in his office in Rio.
“Brazil lost today one of its geniuses,” Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, said in a statement issued Wednesday night.
“Few dreamed so intensely, and accomplished so much, as he did.”
Allied with the far left for most of his life, he suffered career setbacks during the rule of Brazil’s right-wing military dictatorships of the 1960s and ’70s, and he was barred from working in the United States during much of the cold war. As Modernism later came under attack for its sometimes dogmatic approach to history, his works were marginalized.
Still, Mr. Niemeyer never stopped working; he churned out major new projects through his 80s and 90s. And as the cold-war divide and architecture’s old ideological battles faded from memory in recent years, a younger generation began embracing his work, intrigued by the consistency of his vision and his ability to achieve voluptuous effects on a heroic scale.
Niemeyer was a close friend of Fidel Castro, who often visited his apartment and studio whilst in Brazil. Castro was once quoted as saying “Niemeyer and I are the last communists on this planet.” Niemeyer was also regularly visited by Hugo Chavez. Niemeyer was an atheist throughout his life, basing his beliefs both on the “injustices of this world” and on cosmological principles: “It’s a fantastic Universe which humiliates us, and we can’t make any use of it. But we are amazed by the power of the human mind … in the end, that’s it—you are born, you die, that’s it!”. Such views never stopped him from designing religious buildings, which span from small Catholic chapels, through to huge Orthodox churches and large mosques. He also catered to the spiritual beliefs of the public who facilitated his religious buildings. In the Cathedral of Brasília, he intended for the large glass windows “To connect the people to the sky, where their Lord’s paradise is.”
21st century and death
In 2003, at the age 96, Niemeyer was called to design the Serpentine Gallery Summer Pavilion in Hyde Park London, a gallery that each year invites a famous architect, who has never previously built in the UK, to design this temporary structure. He was still involved in diverse projects at the age of 100, mainly sculptures and readjustments of previous works.
On Niemeyer’s 100th birthday, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin awarded him the Order of Friendship. Grateful for the Prince of Asturias Award of Arts received in 1989, he collaborated on the 25th anniversary of these awards with the donation to Asturias of the design of a cultural centre. The Óscar Niemeyer International Cultural Centre (also known in Spain as Centro Niemeyer), is located in Avilés and was inaugurated in 2011.
In January 2010, the Auditorium Oscar Niemeyer Ravello was officially opened in Ravello, Italy, on the Amalfi Coast. The Auditorium’s concept design, drawings, model, sketches and text were made by Niemeyer in 2000 and completed under the guidance of his friend, Italian sociologist Domenico de Masi. The project was delayed for several years due to objections arising from its design, siting and clear difference from the local architecture; since its inauguration the project has experienced problems and, after one year was still closed.
After reaching the age of 100, Niemeyer spent several periods of time in hospital. In 2009, after a four-week period of hospitalisation for the treatment of gallstones and an intestinal tumour, he was quoted as saying that hospitalization is a “very lonely thing; I needed to keep busy, keep in touch with friends, maintain my rhythm of life.”
His daughter and only child, Ana Maria, died of emphysema in June 2012, aged 82.
Niemeyer died of cardiorespiratory arrest on December 5, 2012 at the Hospital Samaritano in Rio de Janeiro, ten days before his 105th birthday. He had been hospitalised with a respiratory infection prior to his death. The BBC‘s obituary of Niemeyer noted that he “built some of the world’s most striking buildings – monumental, curving concrete and glass structures which almost defy description”, also acclaiming him as “one of the most innovative and daring architects of the last 60 years”.
The Washington Post described him as “widely regarded as the foremost Latin American architect of the last century”.