Creating a City Out of Wilderness: Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012)

His bracing, modernist designs for the newborn Brazilian capital of Brasilia became a template for a new nation in the throes of self-creation

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Brasília, the federal capital that was carved out of Brazil’s dry Planalto plateau half a century ago, is no one’s idea of a rival to the picturesque coastal paradise of the South American giant’s original capital, Rio de Janeiro. But Oscar Niemeyer, the iconic Modernist architect who died in Rio Janeiro of a respiratory infection on Wednesday at age 104, turned Brasília into something more than a destination for lobbyists and diplomats. His buildings made the city a statement about not only 20th-century design but the developing world’s futurist aspirations. In the process, they imbued Modernism with the same sensual flair that bossa nova gave jazz and that Brazil’s “beautiful game” gave soccer.

Niemeyer, who was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1907 (he would have turned 105 next week), designed most of Brasília’s famed architectural treasures, including the Palácio do Planalto (the presidential headquarters) and the Metropolitan Cathedral. The city’s main boulevard, the Eixo Monumental (Monumental Axis) is a sumptuous showcase of his legacy: Planalto’s Picassoesque columns; the Cathedral’s celestial, hyperboloid curves; the dome-and-saucer whimsy of the National Congress complex; the majestic angles and arches of the Palácio Itamaraty (the Foreign Affairs Ministry) and Supreme Federal Court building; the striking minimalism of the Cultural Complex of the Republic. On nearby Lake Paranoá, Niemeyer also designed the Brazilian presidential residence, the Palácio da Alvorada, whose inverted arches and gardens are worthy of the magical realist masterpieces that marked Latin American culture in the late 20th century.

(MORE: How Oscar Niemeyer Brought Carnival Back to the People)

Niemeyer’s vision, however, also captured the early 21st century and the current Brazilian boom, which made his longevity all the more fitting. “Brazil today lost one of its geniuses,” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said Wednesday. “Few dreamed so intensely and accomplished so much.” Aside from his Brasília creations, Niemeyer designed the landmark Museum of Contemporary Art in Niterói, near Rio, that can feel both as alien as a UFO on its seaside perch and yet strangely enough a part of the surrounding bay landscape.

Niemeyer was part of the generation, influenced by European masters like Le Corbusier, that brought Modernism to Brazil if not the western hemisphere. He got his start taking part in the design of Rio’s Gustavo Capanema Palace, considered the first Modernist building in the Americas when it was completed in 1943 to house the Ministry of Education and Health. In the 1940s he built his reputation as Brazil’s foremost and most pioneering architect, even aiding Le Corbusier with the United Nations headquarters in New York. Most important, Niemeyer endowed Modernism’s sometimes mechanical style with the voluptuous lines and more spontaneous New World spirit of a walk down Copacabana Beach, even when designing churches. “What attracts me are free and sensual curves,” Niemeyer once remarked. “The curves we find in mountains, in the waves of the sea, in the body of the woman we love.”

By the late 1950s, when reformist President Juscelino Kubitschek decided to move the capital from Rio to the more centrally located Planalto—which had been mandated by the 1891 constitution but resisted for decades—Niemeyer was the obvious choice as lead architect. But no sooner did Niemeyer savor the international triumph of the completion of his Brasília masterworks in 1960, than a right-wing military dictatorship put Brazil under its thumb in 1964 and would keep it there until 1989. Niemeyer and his leftist politics were all but exiled as a result. Modernism itself came under critical scrutiny, not just in Brazil but around the world, for its often bleak, Soviet-style boxiness, a complaint often leveled at many of Brasília’s office and residence buildings.

Still, Niemeyer, who spent most of Brazil’s dictatorship period in Europe (the cold war-era U.S. would not grant him a visa), returned in the 1990s to cement his legendary place in architectural history with works like the Niterói museum, completed in 1996, which also helped affirm Modernism’s heritage. Brasília today is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its more contemporary aesthetic marvels, like the elegantly soaring lines of the JK Bridge (completed in 2002) are stamped with Niemeyer’s epochal ideas—which themselves were a bridge to the future.

MORE: How to See the Best of Brasilia, Niemeyer’s City

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