Oscar Niemeyer died yesterday, just ten days short of his 105th(!) birthday. Known for his curving lines and liberal use of concrete, Niemeyer was the architect behind the main buildings of Brazil’s capital city. Brasilia, imagined as a Utopian city, was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list in 1987. Niemeyer is one of few (if any) architects to see his work so designated.
Right angles don’t attract me. Nor straight, hard and inflexible lines created by man,” Niemeyer wrote in his 1998 memoir “The Curves of Time.” “What attracts me are free and sensual curves. The curves we find in mountains, in the waves of the sea, in the body of the woman we love.”
One of the pioneers of modernist architecture, Niemeyer was hugely influential with his designs of buildings and urban landscapes from the 1930s onwards. He designed Brasilia’s most important buildings in the late 1950s, while Lucio Costa acted as its principal urban planner.
In 1960, Brasilia became Brazil’s official capital. Less than 30 years later it was recognized by UNESCO, an incredible feat. It holds the distinction of waiting the shortest amount of time to be designated a World Heritage Site. Of the nearly 1,000 World Heritage Sites awarded by UNESCO, only 34 are Modern Heritage Properties (meaning they date from the 19th or 20th centuries). Of those 34 sites, Brasilia is the only city in the world built in the 20th century designated as a Historical and Cultural Heritage site.
It is unusual for the work of an architect to be recognized as a historic or heritage site while that architect is still living. And when it happens, it can present a unique problem for preservationists. What happens when the architect wants to change something? Preservationists experienced this exact dilemma in Brasilia. In an effort to strive for renewal, Niemeyer proposed to build a “Plaza of Sovereignty” in the heart of the city. Ultimately, preservationists said the 330-foot-tall (100-meter) obelisk he envisioned would mar the very skyline the architect created a half-century earlier. Under criticism, Niemeyer relented on the plaza, only to unveil new plans for a 165-foot-tall (50-meter) tower in the same spot!
Niemeyer, the “Picasso of Concrete,” continued to work throughout his life, even directing designs from his hospital bed. In all, he designed over 600 structures. Among them, the Communist headquarters in Paris, the UN building in NYC, and Serpentine gallery summer pavilion in Hyde Park, London.
Niemeyer did nothing halfway, from his cutting edge design aesthetic, to his nonstop work ethic, to the more than a century he lived. Niemeyer strove for excellence and was legend in his own time. One can only imagine that his legacy will only grow as as his buildings and philosophy continue to shape and inspire the architecture of today and of the future.