Niemeyer at 97
Posted: Tue Mar 29, 2005 4:13 pm
LOS ANGELES TIMES
March 29, 2005
He's Still Shaping a Legend
Brazil's Oscar Niemeyer has long since cemented his place in architecture. At 97, he continues to build on it, with a vast new project.
By Henry Chu, Times Staff Writer
RIO DE JANEIRO â€” He was eligible for retirement before man set foot on the moon.
He received the highest honor in his field, the Pritzker Prize, months after his 80th birthday. One of his most celebrated works, the Museum of Contemporary Art outside Rio, was inaugurated in 1996, when he was pushing 90.
Â His fluid Modernist structures have left an indelible mark on the world and how it conceives its urban spaces. Now Oscar Niemeyer â€” architect, bon vivant, lifelong Communist, living legend â€” is closing in on the century mark. Most of the Brazilian's contemporaries and, more satisfyingly, his critics have died.
But this is not a time for resting on his laurels, even at an age when most overachievers would be lucky to be resting in bed. At 97, Niemeyer is eagerly watching one of his most ambitious projects take shape, a mile-long seafront esplanade of buildings and open space in Niteroi, Rio's sister city across Guanabara Bay.
When completed, Niemeyer Way will house two cathedrals, a theater, film institute, plaza, ferry station, memorial and a foundation named after the architect. Situated on enough land for 15 football fields, the promenade will be Niemeyer's biggest creation after Brasilia, the sleek, futuristic capital he designed in the 1950s and that remains his magnum opus.
When the walkway is finished, Niemeyer will probably be in his early 100s â€” and enjoying every minute.
"I take pleasure in working with architecture," he said recently, seated in the airy Copacabana Beach penthouse that has served as his studio for the better part of 50 years. "A man who lives does what he likes â€” nothing more."
The description is deceptively modest for someone who has had a profound influence on architecture since his first solo commission 68 years ago. Along with Le Corbusier, who pioneered the Machine Age aesthetics of Modernist design, Niemeyer ranks among the genre's greatest masters, an artist working in reinforced concrete.
He is one of Brazil's most famous and beloved icons, and one of the planet's most famous Brazilians. With the death of American Philip Johnson in January at 98, Niemeyer is the world's oldest practicing architect of international stature. I.M. Pei, 87, is but a younger brother; Frank Gehry, 76, is a mere stripling.
Hunched over and a step slower now, Niemeyer still goes to the office every day, sitting down to think beautiful thoughts at his cluttered drafting table. His hands shake slightly, but he designs from 9 to 5, and usually a good deal later than that. He savors red wine, smokes slender Swiss cigarillos ("it's good for your health") and plays host to weekly philosophical jousts with his remaining friends.
Despite his age, he hasn't stopped admiring the sensuous, skimpily clad beauties Brazil is known for. They still put a sparkle in his failing eyes.
"Women are beautiful, eh? It's so good to be able to design them," he said, in a voice grown low and throaty. "She is man's companion, that's what I say. Life without women is pointless."
Their curvaceous forms have inspired the sinuous, wavy, spiraling lines that are the signature â€” some say the weakness â€” of his oeuvre. Windows, walls, roofs, ramps: Where others stride straight ahead, Niemeyer swoops and swirls.
That penchant is evident in buildings from the cathedral in Brasilia, a graceful, slatted structure resembling the top of an onion, to the snaking facade of the French Communist Party headquarters in Paris.
On the esplanade in Niteroi, there is the wavy-topped Popular Theater, the domed building of the foundation bearing his name and, at the walkway's end, the flying-saucer-like Museum of Contemporary Art, which appears to float above the bay from atop a high promontory.
"My architecture is totally different," Niemeyer said, comparing his works with those of Le Corbusier, with whom Niemeyer collaborated on the United Nations building in New York in 1947. "He posited the right angle. I posit the curveâ€¦. The universe is covered in curves â€” Einstein's curved universe."
Arcs and whorls surround Niemeyer here in his hometown. His 10th-floor studio crowns a creamy green Art Deco building with a rippled facade. Outside his window is a breathtaking panorama of Copacabana Beach, its voluptuous, rounded sweep licked by deep-blue sea, ending in the rolling summit of Sugar Loaf mountain.
Rio's famous sidewalks, stamped with undulating black-and-white patterns, dance in the light. But not everyone is as enamored of the curve, or of poured concrete, as he is. Niemeyer's imagination can be an engineer's nightmare.
His trademark twists and turns often put heavy stress on building materials, which require regular repair.
For all their elegance, many of his structures are criticized as being dysfunctional or even hostile to their inhabitants. Workers in some of Brasilia's government ministries complain of being in a sauna, their windows facing east and west, trapping every bit of sunshine and heat. Ventilation inside the presidential palace, a building of almost ethereal loveliness on the outside, was considered a disaster.
In fact, some critics have dismissed the entire city of Brasilia as a triumph of form over function, a flight of space-age fancy that now looks hopelessly out of date, like a 1950s Tomorrowland run amok. The distances between buildings and the broad, treeless avenues have made it navigable only for well-heeled residents and diplomats with cars, whereas poor families â€” many descended from the workers who helped build the capital â€” have been banished to the outskirts. One detractor ominously called Brasilia "the Final Solution."
But the harsh appraisals have mellowed in recent years, owing in part to a revived interest in Modernism around the world.
"He's one of the great, true Modernists, and he has lived to watch what he does be fashionable, go out of fashion and come back in fashion again," said Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for New Yorker magazine. "He has always combined European Modernist rigor with a Latin flamboyance. And that combination is uniquely his, I think. Nobody's been able to [do] it as powerfully as he has."
Niemeyer shrugs off both the dismissal and rediscovery of his work.
"I never pay any heed. I do what I like and not what others like," he said. "Architecture is invention. If you go to Brasilia, you may or may not like the buildings, but you won't be able to say you've ever seen anything like itâ€¦. Architecture has to hold surprises."
Niemeyer has hewn to that philosophy all his working life, just as he has clung fiercely to radical left-wing social ideals that have not moderated over time.
His affiliation with Brazil's Communist Party, once a strong presence but now a negligible political force, began when he was a young man. He remains an unreconstructed Marxist, quotes Lenin, laments the fall of the Soviet Union, likes Fidel Castro and detests George W. Bush. He designed the banner for Brazil's controversial landless movement, whose adherents invade and occupy property not in use by its owners.
"It's incredible that a country the size of a continent doesn't have a piece of land for every Brazilian," Niemeyer said, shaking his head. "Poverty revolts me."
The walls of his office are adorned not just with his drawings of female figures but also rousing political slogans. "When misery multiplies and hope flies from the heart of men, there is only revolution," goes one. "The screwed don't have a chance," another says.
His shelves are jammed with books on philosophy (Sartre) and politics (Stalin, in French).
"An architect should read. It's not enough to finish school as a good professional," Niemeyer said. "He needs to read and be interested in the world's problems, in mankind, and be prepared to participate in this difficult world we live in, to know there is poverty and to be willing to work for a better, more just world."
Because of his views, Niemeyer went into exile in Paris for part of Brazil's 1964-85 right-wing military dictatorship. The move, though painful, helped expand his reputation, as his designs began cropping up in France, Italy and Algeria. Somehow a few of his designs got built in Brazil in his absence; Niemeyer prefers not to discuss those.
His reminiscences these days are about better times, memories that bubble to the surface during frequent moments of solitude.
Several years ago, he committed his recollections to paper in an aptly titled memoir, "Curves of Time," a meandering look back at a bohemian lifestyle full of friendship, exciting visions of the future and raucous parties. It was also a life with lots of sex: Niemeyer's infatuation with women started early, earning him a bout of gonorrhea in his teens, which he chronicles with dry humor.
Living long and well has brought Niemeyer satisfaction but also sorrow, as frailty and death steadily shrink his world.
Because of his faltering eyesight, his cherished books are now accessible to him only on tape.
Many friends are long gone. Annita, his wife of more than 75 years, died last year, leaving a void not entirely filled by his numerous progeny, including a great-grandson who is studying architecture and is one of the assistants who hover around him attentively.
But melancholy is swiftly cast aside in favor of work, and Niemeyer has plenty of it.
Despite being in what one assumes is the twilight of a long and illustrious career, this sculptor of public space has several projects in gestation â€” a museum in Rome, a swimming pool complex in Germany. Reinforced concrete is still his clay. When inspiration strikes, Niemeyer can finish a design in as little as a day. At other times, it takes a couple of weeks.
He has a secret wish to be a novelist as well. But he admits that might be greedy.
"I can't complain. I was never ill, I was never operated on, my friends are still friends. I like women, I like to laugh, drink wine, say foolish things," Niemeyer said, dressed casually on a recent morning in khakis and an open yellow shirt.
"I am a person like any other. I was thrown onto the planet, I will tell my short story, and, as with all others, time will erase it. It's enough to look at the sky to see how small we are," he said. "But Lenin said it was necessary to dream. If not, things don't happen."
With that, he got back to work.