Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who designed some of the 20th Century’s most famous modernist buildings, died December 5, 2012, ten days before his 105th birthday. A memorial service was held in the presidential palace in Brasilia. Niemeyer’s family was informed of the honor in a phone call from President Dilma Rousseff. “Brazil has lost one of its geniuses.” Rio de Janeiro’s Mayor Eduardo Paes declared three days of mourning in Niemeyer’s home city.
A student of Le Corbusier, Niemeyer developed a distinctive style defined by stark concrete and sweeping curves. He rose to international fame as the architect of the main government buildings in the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, inaugurated in 1960. His bold futuristic designs in Brasilia made the new capital a dramatic statement of confidence in the future of Brazil, and an icon of modern architecture. He also worked with Swiss-born modernist architect Le Corbusier on the UN building in New York. He continued to work on new projects until earlier 2012.
“Form follows function” has been the credo of designers and architects since the 19th century. The dictum was coined by the American architect Louis Sullivan in his article “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered” that was published in 1896.
The last hundred years of architecture are often described–in grossly simplified language–by a tug-of-war between ornament and functionalism. Niemeyer never saw things in those terms. He was 20 years younger than Le Corbusier and looked up to him. Like Corbu, Niemeyer saw his expressive buildings as “pure forms,” driven by his own brand of rationalism. “When you have a large space to conquer, the curve is the natural solution,” he said. “I once wrote a poem about the curve. The curve 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.” “My work is not about ‘form follows function,'” he famously said, “but ‘form follows beauty’ or, even better, ‘form follows feminine.'”
In 1988, he was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize. British architect Lord Norman Foster was inspired by Niemeyer, then a 104 year-old who was still youthful in his energy and creativity. “He told me that architecture is important, but that life is more important. And yet in the end his architecture is his ultimate legacy. Like the man himself, it is eternally youthful – he leaves us with a source of delight and inspiration for many generations to come.”
However, Niemeyer’s style was not to everyone’s taste, and for a communist some people say his work was not very people-friendly – focusing more on the architecture’s form than on its inhabitants or functionality. He went on to create more than 600 buildings around the world. His legacy endures in museums, monuments, schools and churches in Brazil and beyond. Many of the designs were initially sketched on a table overlooking his beloved Rio de Janeiro and its famous Copacabana beach, replete with the women, waves and hills from which he drew such inspiration.
Renzo Piano, fellow architect said, “Architecture is a profession where you need a long period of apprenticeship. You never stop learning, this is something that Niemeyer kept saying. And I think he learned until the end, he was that kind of person. As an architect you have to be a sociologist, builder, scientist, poet. It was about integrity. In some ways he was more of a moral example, an example of life. He was concerned about political life, and architecture is political in some ways. In the sense of doing things that belonged to the civic life of people in the city. Architecture is the art of making cities not just making buildings. He was a good example of how architecture can be a noble, civilized job.”
Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra has graced the entire side of a skyscraper on the bustling street of Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo with a 52 meter tall polychromatic portrait of Oscar Niemeyer. Kobra began work on the mural on the 14th of January, 2013 and since then has solicited the help of four other artists from his team to complete the colossal artwork.
Which is your favorite? Clean curvy contemporary forms or the classics with ornamentation?