RIO DE JANEIRO -- Three women lie naked on a beach, their bodies a succession of curves and planes framed by foaming surf. The poster hangs over the desk of architect Oscar Niemeyer and is a tribute to his inspiration: the beauty of women and nature.
He has re-created such sensuous beauty in reinforced concrete and glass, remaining an architectural revolutionary for nearly a century. His flowing forms made a modernist statement of Brasilia, the government center that rose from the empty plains of central Brazil. He also helped design the U.N. headquarters in New York City, insisting on the grand curves of its General Assembly building.
Now, as he nears his 100th birthday on Dec. 15, Niemeyer has a desk full of projects in his penthouse office overlooking Copacabana Beach, and with each assignment, he remains faithful to the sinuous lines that are hallmark of his work.
Curves, he explains in an interview, are “the natural solution -- the solution that emerges the greater the problem is.”
“I start by reducing the structural supports. If I reduce the supports, architecture reveals itself naturally and gracefully, the spaces get larger, and I can look for a different form without contradicting the spirit of the project,” he explains.
The curves will be present again in one of Niemeyer’s latest projects: the transformation of a former dockside prison in Valparaiso, Chile, into a futuristic cultural center, with three oval buildings linked by a bridge and seemingly floating over a man-made pool.
Hunched and walking with the aid of an assistant, Niemeyer looks smaller than the stiff black shirt he wears over a T-shirt. A box of European cigarettes is open on his desk -- one of his cherished habits, along with a daily glass of red wine. Balding, with streaks of dark hair combed straight back, he smiles often, deepening the few lines that mark his face.
His memory and reasoning remain acute. So is the inspiration that won him the 1988 Pritzker Architecture Prize -- dubbed the Nobel of architecture. Also honored that year was American architect Gordon Bunshaft, hailed for the 24-story Lever House in New York. Honoring Niemeyer for “the flowing curve” of his designs and Bunshaft for his “precise geometry,” the Pritzker committee called both men “masters of modern architecture.”
“What’s important for the architect is to do what he likes and not what others would like him to do,” Niemeyer says. “That’s the way -- not to attribute too much importance to your work. Very little is important in this life.”
That’s not what his colleagues say. “Niemeyer is a force of nature,” said American architect Thom Mayne, a 2005 Pritzker prize winner who founded the Morphosis architecture firm in Santa Monica. “The influence of the man, his energy and passion -- you love him for that. I was educated in the ‘60s, and he’s one of the people that really influenced me.”
Born in Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer graduated from Brazil’s National School of Fine Arts in 1934 and joined a team that worked with Swiss-born Bauhaus giant Le Corbusier on a new Ministry of Education and Health.
In 1939, Niemeyer teamed with Lucio Costa to design the Brazilian pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, for which he was named an honorary citizen of New York by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
Niemeyer was welcomed back in the 1940s, working with Le Corbusier and Howard Robinson on the U.N. headquarters. It was the first attempt of the modern movement to create a building so large and significant. Niemeyer was on the design committee of what U.N. officials called their “Workshop for Peace,” pushing for a structure that would be light and open, comfortable but utilitarian -- not the overbearing complex that was initially envisioned.
A lifelong communist, Niemeyer occasionally clashed with the Catholic Church and Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship.
Clerics were outraged by his plans for an unusual church with repeating parabolic arches in the conservative city of Belo Horizonte.
“It took six months to be approved by the priests, because it was different,” Niemeyer said. “They wanted a classic church, with a tower, but I had the courage to be different.” Today it stands as a popular landmark on Pampulha lake.
When Belo Horizonte Mayor Juscelino Kubitschek became president in 1956, he summoned Costa and Niemeyer to build a new capital on Brazil’s barren central plains and open the empty heartland of this continent-sized country at a pace he called “50 years in five.”
“Brasilia was an adventure,” Niemeyer recalls with a smile. “It was built on the run. I didn’t even have time to think much.”
It was also an architect’s playground. The ethereal curves of the government palace and Alvorada presidential residence, the white cup-and-dome of the two houses of Congress, the chapel of concave beams that resembles a chalice, made Brasilia a World Cultural Monument -- today a city of 2.2 million people -- designed, constructed and inaugurated within four years.
Critics said the government buildings were beautiful on the outside but hot and uncomfortable inside. Interior renovations completed last year at the Alvorada palace added extra air conditioning and a similar effort is planned for the government palace, but Brazilian officials say they will never change the architectural design.
A “utopian horror” is how Australian art critic Robert Hughes described the modernist designs after a visit to Brasilia in the 1980s. “The basic mistake was to have left the planning of a city in the hands of a socialist,” he said.
Niemeyer’s political leanings made him a target for the military dictatorship. His office was ransacked, his projects began to be refused and clients disappeared. In 1965, professors asked for his resignation from the University of Brasilia. He went to France, where he designed the French Communist Party headquarters in Place du Colonel Fabien in Paris. He opened an office on the Champs-Elysees, and worked on projects in Algeria, Italy, Spain, Madeira Island and Malaysia.
When the dictatorship began to edge back toward civilian rule, Niemeyer returned to Brazil and was commissioned to build public monuments -- although he hadn’t lost his political edge. His Juscelino Kubitschek Memorial looks uncannily like a hammer and sickle. His 1987 Latin America Memorial represents the wounded hand of Jesus, which bleeds in the shape of Latin America.
In 2004, Niemeyer designed a tombstone for communist Carlos Marighella -- one of the fiercest and most violent opponents of the military regime -- to commemorate the 35th anniversary of his death.
“Niemeyer could influence but never be copied. He understood the spectacular liberty of constructed forms, the stability of the curve,” said Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, 77, the 2006 Pritzker prize winner and designer of the Brazilian Sculpture Museum.
Niemeyer married Annita Baldo, the daughter of poor Italian immigrants, in 1928. They had a daughter, Anna Maria Niemeyer, and five grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.
Two years after his first wife died, Niemeyer remarried, at age 98, to his longtime aide Vera Lucia Cabreira, then 60, at his apartment in Rio’s Ipanema district, a month after fracturing his hip in a fall. They’re still looking to the future.
“What do I think of life?” he says. “A woman at your side, and let God have his way.”