The creator of the city of Brasilia died on Wednesday in his hometown of Rio at the age of 104. This "magician of the curve" had become a myth throughout the world, the symbol of the modern architecture of the 20th century. He made Le Corbusier's phrase "architecture is invention" his own.
Not only Brazil, but the world has just lost one of its most brilliant architects. During 76 years of production, Oscar Niemeyer designed more than 600 buildings worldwide, including in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Algeria and Lebanon. Some 20 of his works are still being realized in various countries. He has won ten awards, including the Pritzker Prize in 1988. He died in Rio de Janeiro and left an immense legacy to architecture.
The dome of the Cathedral Nossa Senhora Aparecida / Brasilia seen from the inside
Because he had made the decisive encounter with Le Corbusier in Rio in 1936, of whom he claimed to be a disciple, Oscar Niemeyer then evolved towards a more rounded style, inspired, he said, by the curves of the Cariocas, the beaches where they catch the sun and the sugar loaves that surround them. His curvaceous buildings earned him the nickname "the architect of sensuality".
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An atypical work indeed that of Oscar Niemeyer. It does not belong to any school, but it is ingenious in multiplying forms: buildings in basins, domes, breakers, flowers, craters; roofs in spoonbacks, boomerangs, open book pages, mountainous landscapes; access ramps in spirals, chips, ribbons; openings in buttonholes, forked belfries... a whole vocabulary that he unrolls to infinity. Sometimes associating opposite forms in the same set.
For Socialist Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Oscar Niemeyer was "the architect of the dream come true, who crossed the 20th century with audacity, daring and constancy".
"Free and sensual curves, the malleability and poetry of reinforced concrete, the refusal of functionalism as well as rationalism: his unmistakable signature is engraved in the institutional landscape of the major capitals and particularly in France, where he chose to live in the 1970s," recalls the Minister of Culture, Aurélie Filippetti. "Everywhere in the world, he leaves a work that is at once prestigious, grandiose and popular, which is among the most beautiful artistic expressions of our time," she adds.
A city overwhelmed by population in 1950. Anyway, a city built from scratch, with curved lines and buildings, frescoes. The paradigm of architecture is contested, pulverized, with resounding success. These photographs by Marcel Gautherot have captured some of Brasilia's most emblematic buildings under construction.
It was in 1940 that Niemeyer met the future president Juscelino Kubitschek, who gave him the "joy" of building ex-nihilo Brasilia, the current capital of Brazil, with urban planner Lucio Costa and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx.
"We wanted to make buildings that create a sense of wonder because they were different," said this pioneer of concrete use. Inaugurated on April 21, 1960, Brasilia won him countless prizes, including the Pritzker Prize (the Nobel Prize for Architecture) in 1988.
His first major work will be the "Complex de la Pampulha" (in Belo Horizonte) completed in 1943 and "one of his favourites". The Brazilian architect participated in the design of the United Nations headquarters (1952), in New York, and designed the Museum of Contemporary Art in Niteroi (1996), near Rio, famous for its flying saucer shape.
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France, which welcomed him during his years of exile while fleeing the dictatorship, has nearly twenty works, including the headquarters of the Communist Party in Paris (1965), where he imagines a building ostensibly closed by the colours of the office building and at the same time signalled by the singular dome that crowns the former central committee room. The casualness of the whole, indifferent to the Parisian topography, is today hailed. The Maison de la Culture in Le Havre (1972): there, he adopts an opposite position, avoiding any confrontation with the city rebuilt by Auguste Perret: by burying the Maison de la Culture, he gives it the space and life it would not have found in the shade of the towers of the old French master.
"Le Volcan", the Maison de la culture du Havre photographed in July 2005. | AFP/MYCHELE DANIAU
A committed man
The man remained an atheist and communist activist to the end in a country marked by social inequality. "There are only two communists left in the world, Oscar and I," said then Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 1995 during a visit to the architect in his studio. On his 102nd birthday, Niemeyer confided that his only consolation was "to see that Brazil had become more egalitarian since a former worker came to power," former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010).
The Sambodrome, here in March 2011. | AP/FELIPE DANA
In 1928, Niemeyer had married Annita Bildo, with whom he had a daughter. Their union lasted 76 years, until Annita's death at the end of 2004. His daughter, Anna, had died in June of pulmonary emphysema. At the age of 98, he had remarried his secretary, Vera Lucia Cabrera, then 60 years old.
During the last Rio Carnival, Niemeyer had visited the renovation work on the Sambodrome, which he built 30 years ago and where some of the competitions of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio will take place.
One of Oscar Niemeyer's last constructions, the Popular Theatre of Nireroi, Brazil. © Marcelo Sayao/EPA/MAXPPP
The Museum of the Republic in Brasilia © Joedson Alves/DPA/MAXPPP
To go further
- Book "The curves of time" Memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer (Gallimard 1999)
- Film by Marc-Henri Wajnberg for Arte, "Un architecte engagé dans le siècle (1999-2000)" ("An architect committed to the century")
- Interviews " Niemeyer by himself. The Architecture of Brasilia talks to Edouard Bailby."