Brazil Loses “One of Its Geniuses:” Oscar Niemeyer Dead, at 104

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Those were the words of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, at the passing yesterday of one of the most important architects of the 20th century: Oscar Niemeyer. Born December 15, 1907, still working towards the end of his 104 years, married for a second time in 2006, the endlessly energetic Niemeyer gave the world extraordinary, and hugely influential, buildings of swirling concrete that infused Bauhausian ideals with tropical voluptuousness. “I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard line, hard and inflexible, created by man,” he once said, “I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman.”

Niemeyer was a member of the team, along with the Swiss architect who had greatly inspired him, Le Corbusier, of the United Nations Headquarters in New York, 1952, a model of “straight-lined,” rationalist design. But he is perhaps known best for Brasilia, the capital of his country that sprang from the undeveloped hinterlands in the mid-1950s; Niemeyer’s sculptural and futuristic administration buildings standing in splendid isolation at the heart of rows of rigid housing blocks expressed both the optimism and, eventually, the shortcomings, of Modernist architecture and urban planning.

Michael and Gabrielle Boyd. But he never got to oversee the construction or even see it completed. Niemeyer’s membership of the Communist Party meant that during the Cold War he was refused entry to the United States.

About Niemeyer, Michael Boyd (a guest on this DnA), had this to say:

“The last master of modernism has left us. Oscar Niemeyer is the only architect to outdo the gestural freedom of Le Corbusier. Brasilia is Ronchamp on a heroic scale. While there is exuberance in his curves there is a strict economy in his structures. His buildings are often highly sculptural and seemingly light on their feet; but they always have architectural gravitas that ground them and give the impression that they spring from the earth. He was playful with fluid forms but anchored and tethered them with rectangular and constructivist elements.  Niemeyer’s was the last modernist architectural style with natural expressionism–never over thought or overwrought.”

Learn more about this house in Modernist Paradise, by LA writer Michael Webb’s book, and about his residential projects in Oscar Niemeyer Houses, by Alan Hess and photographer Alan Weintraub. For more about Niemeyer, see these obituaries: New York Times, by Nicolai Ouroussoff; Washington Post, by Adam Bernstein; Fast Company, by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan; 2005 Profile of Oscar Niemeyer, New York Times, by Michael Kimmelman