Whatever your lifestyle or profession, it is moderately astonishing to keep living and working until the age of 104. But for Oscar Niemeyer, that was just the extraordinary closing act in a career full of daring, joyous, counter-intuitive activity.
He was an acolyte and associate of Le Corbusier, immersed in his austere modernist approaches, yet Niemeyer’s work subverted his principles, with sensuous, alluring curves and a distinctly un-modern preference for aesthetically-appealing form over function. He was also an atheist who built a cathedral, several churches and a mosque. And his lifelong, vocal communism did not stop him creating lavish, arguably boastful government buildings and generous, agreeably bourgeois private residences.
This consummate and prolific pragmatism kept Niemeyer in work across nine decades, completing over 500 buildings around the globe in widely differing political and economic climates.
However, his reputation will ultimately rest on perceptions of Brasília, the capital built from nothing between 1956 and 1960 to trumpet Brazil’s arrival on the international stage. The project grew from the determination, indulgence and patronage of President Kubitschek, and clearly owes much to the layout plans of Lúcio Costa, but it will always be Niemeyer, creator of central Brasília’s overwhelming architectural high-points, with whom the city will be identified.
Niemeyer secured what is perhaps the ultimate indulgence for an architect - the pick of the key monumental buildings in an invented city, and by extension, the chance to control what it says to a watching world. Before and after Brasília’s completion, magazines and colour supplements around the globe, from Paris Match to The Japan Times, carried heavily-illustrated stories portraying the city as an urban utopia of peace, cleanliness and order, and a promising template for similar developments elsewhere. The stunning, sinuous shapes and airy interiors of unique structures like the city’s crown-shaped Cathedral and the Palácio Itamaraty are awe-inspiring testaments to Niemeyer’s vision, as well as love letters to reinforced concrete.
The key witness to Niemeyer’s legacy in Brasília is Swiss photographer René Burri, who arrived to record the city’s inception, and returned regularly until 1997. The collected images form a unique log of Brasília’s growth from nothing to a degree of maturity. Over the decades, Burri captures migrant workers arriving from around Brazil, Niemeyer furrowing his brow over sheets of plans in various half-existent locations, the gradual emergence of the extraordinary, alien buildings; the empty orderliness of unused new road systems, the installation of banal details like street lamps and overhead fans, the glitz and excitement of receptions and galas during Brasília’s inauguration in April 1960, the encroachment of Vegas-style neon on the Eixo Rodiviário in the 1990s… It is all a romantic and bittersweet reminder that, even across Brasília’s fifty years so far, there’s nothing that planned about a planned city. Its growth is continuous, part-organised, part-organic, sometimes chaotic; pragmatic, in fact, like the career of its chief architect.
By the time all the photographs were finally published together in 2011, things had moved on drastically and unpredictably from the position in 1956. Burri was an internationally-acclaimed Magnum photographer, and Brasília was a UNESCO World Heritage Site - the only city under a hundred years old with this designation. Its celebrated architect (already over a hundred himself) was an icon who had just designed a range of Converse sneakers. This is surely a unique diversification for a world-class architect - populist, confident and, again, pragmatic.
Niemeyer, always a brilliant and accessible communicator, remains at the centre of the permanent argument about the merits of planned cities. There is no consensus on whether Brasília itself ‘works’. Some of the utopian ideals, such as the alleged original goal of ‘ministers living next to janitors,’ (a soundbite whose origins seem lost in folklore) have certainly not been realised. Residents and tourists alike still dispute the virtues of Brasília’s rigid systems of zoning (discrete districts for hotels, banks, restaurants, stores, etc), its pedestrian-friendliness, its traffic systems, and many other aspects familiar to all developed and developing cities.
Oscar Niemeyer’s death was naturally sad news, but it might at least end the limbo in which his reputation hangs. As a historical figure alongside peers such as Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, his career can now fall into historical context. Maybe his pragmatic tendencies made him less of a pure modernist, but the beauty and immediacy of his best work guarantee his status as a global symbol of the importance of inspirational architecture in everyone’s lives.