Skyline Sculptor

Oscar Niemeyer, the master Brazilian architect, hates airplanes. "Flying is crap," he says, succinctly. He loathes flying so much that he has stood up presidents, media grandees and tycoons. Fidel Castro once joked about sending a ship to fetch him. It's a wonder Brasilia, the city he conjured from red clay in the middle of the Brazilian nowhere, ever got built. But if his fear of flying has been one of Brazil's longest-standing jokes, Niemeyer has always had the last laugh: after all, he has built a career out of mocking gravity with concrete, stone and glass. At his best, he has made buildings soar, sculpting vertiginous whorls, waves, pods and chalices. Today, at 94, Niemeyer hasn't changed. When a grand retrospective of his work opened last month at the Galerie Jeu de Paume in Paris, Niemeyer remained where he always does: at home in Rio.

That's just where Brazil likes him. Half a century after unveiling his boldest work--the city of Brasilia--he is still the obligatory reference for building design in Brazil. Architecture has long been a notoriously gray-headed vocation--Philip Johnson is still building and Frank Lloyd Wright was at his drawing table almost until he dropped, at 96--and Niemeyer is going stronger than ever. Sketches and scale models for half a dozen projects, from Rio to Ravello, Italy, clutter the tables and walls in his studio, a spare penthouse overlooking Copacabana. Long known as Brazil's "official architect," he enchants students and established designers alike, casting a long shadow over the country's sprawling landscape. In fact, the Institute of Brazilian Architects recently asked its 100,000 members to select the architect of the century. Guess who won?

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. Architects are our new heroes, from Frank Gehry, whose glimmering Guggenheim turned fading Bilbao into a tourist shrine, to Peter Eisenmann, who can draw crowds wherever he speaks. Spectacle architecture was a byword of the bullish '90s, when so many nouveau magnates rushed to deposit their share of irrational exuberance on the skyline. But even in this era of celebrity architects, Niemeyer stands out. After Pele, he is perhaps the best-known Brazilian alive. He won the Pritzker Prize, architecture's Nobel, in 1988 at the age of 82, and 10 years later won the Royal Institute of British Architects gold medal. He is renowned for his longevity and energy; his lecture-hall doodles become collectors' items. And people flock like pilgrims to his latest buildings--especially the space-saucer-like Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) in Niteroi, perched dramatically on a bluff across Rio's bay. With his steady stream of sponsors, Niemeyer rarely has to hustle for work. "Even Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Jean Nouvel and all the big-name architects submit their work to competitions," says Rio architect Ernani Freire. "Not Niemeyer. He can't be bothered."

To be sure, Niemeyer is not universally admired. A considerable number of Brazilian intellectuals have grown uneasy with his domination of the country's skyline, and international opinion has been mixed for decades. His buildings have been compared to contortionists' ensembles; working and living there can be a trial and maintaining them a nightmare. The message of Brasilia's mammoth scale seems to be that people spoil the view. To him, "function" is just another F word.

Nor is Niemeyer the only talented Brazilian architect. With his clean, graceful lines, So Paulo's Paulo Mendes da Rocha has become a world-class builder, while Joo Filgueiras, from Bahia, has practically revolutionized hospital design. Nationwide, a new generation of architects is dedicated to using modern methods and forms to breathe life into colonial buildings. Still, after nearly 80 years of official commissions, Niemeyer has become a one-man genre. His style has more admirers than emulators, but it has made Brazilians proud of their heritage and put this tropical nation squarely on the architectural map.

No wonder he is regarded not just as an architect but as a sculptor, philosopher and poet. In fact, Niemeyer today is considered an icon, his work more exalted than studied. His buildings often draw the sort of breathless praise and devotion usually reserved for pop idols. Dennis Sharp, the respected British architect and critic, has never been to Brazil, but was wowed by one look at a photo spread on MAC. "Strong, sensuous," he wrote, "a stunning addition to the oeuvre."

Like other grand masters, Niemeyer has made good buildings, great buildings and forgettable buildings. But these days the buildings themselves seem to be beside the point. Niemeyer is "altruistic," "good natured" and "brilliant," exclaims one Rio historian. "He's the best architect in the world," says Jaime Lerner, governor of the state of Parana and a respected architect himself. "He's like Picasso," says Sergio Magalhes, a former urban-housing director for Rio. A moving new documentary about Niemeyer, called "Son of the Stars," by Rio film company Videofilmes, opens with Niemeyer walking through a bare, half-lit room. His shadow leads the way, looming twice as large. And that seems to say it all. Just when Brazilians, and everyone else, might be pondering the lessons of Niemeyer's century, and what his work might say about the future of architecture, he has become canonized, untouchable, too big to fit the frame.

Whatever else may be said of Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares, few architects anywhere have ever had their way with a nation the way Niemeyer has with Brazil. His signature is written all over the land. By one tally he has produced more than 500 major buildings in Brazil and beyond, but that may be conservative. In the last 20 years he has built a giant rodeo stadium shaped like a horseshoe and Rio's Sambadrome, which eternalized Carnaval in a concrete promenade. He is now at work on a handful of museums, in Brazil and in Europe, and a sprawling complex of buildings (theater, church, auditorium) called the Niemeyer Way, in Niteroi. More than 2 million people have already visited MAC, which opened in 1996. Turn a corner in Rio, Belo Horizonte or So Paulo, and you are likely to come face to face with one of Niemeyer's undulating creations.

Niemeyer's rise to stardom began in the 1930s. Back then, he was not only one of Brazil's most talented young architects but also the protege of Le Corbusier, the deacon of modernism, who called the right angle "the sum of forces which keep the world in equilibrium." At that time the Swiss master had a fantasy of putting the wrecking ball to Paris and building it anew with a Ville Radieuse, a radiant garden city of slab high-rises. Paris demurred, but there was always the New World. Brazil, a continental nation, must have looked to him like a blank page.

During that era, modernism had young Brazilian intellectuals--including Niemeyer--under its spell. He was only a draftsman for architect Lucio Costa and Le Corbusier, but his sketches (raising the arches from four meters to 10) added surprising levity and grace to their plan for the new Ministry of Education and Health Building in Rio. The building still ranks as one of modernism's great works. Niemeyer went on to collaborate with Le Corbusier on the United Nations Building in New York City. But by then he had designs of his own. He broke away from the tyranny of the right angle and the cube, favoring the curve as the best way to get between two points. "Curved, like the mountains, like Einstein's universe. Curved," he pauses for effect, "like a beautiful woman."

In 1940 he met Juscelino Kubitschek, known as JK to all, who was then mayor of Belo Horizonte, in central Brazil. The two hit it off, and thus began a productive 20-year association. Niemeyer's first assignment was the Pampulha complex--a chapel, casino and country club--rendered in rolling contours that recalled the mountainous countryside. JK was impressed. Kenneth Frampton, the celebrated architecture critic and historian, called Pampulha a work of "genius." JK went on to become governor, then president, with a dream to make Brazil grow "50 years in five." And Niemeyer was part of his plan: he would help build the country a new capital.

Creating Brasilia was a dream commission--and a challenge. Laid out like a fish skeleton on clay, the city was invented from scratch, with machinery flown in 1,100 kilometers from the coast. Workers were recruited from the starving northeast. Costa drew the urban master plan, Niemeyer built the palaces, plazas and monuments. When it was unveiled, only four years later in 1960, the nation swooned. Laced with express lanes, feeder roads and roundabouts looping through and around the airplane-shaped city, the capital is unfettered by stop lights or street corners.

Brasilia made a statement: move over, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, here comes lyricism on a heroic scale. It was also meant to be the Capital of Hope, a twinkling utopia whose perfect grid would radiate rationality and progress. Niemeyer, a romantic and a communist, believed he was building that future. But mostly he believed in reinforced concrete. Perhaps no one else since has had as much fun with the stuff. Niemeyer's buildings bend, rear, plunge and fly, framed splendidly against the pastel sky of the Brazilian planalto. His carnival of concrete sometimes drove the engineers to despair. The bill for Brasilia was monstrous, but it didn't matter; these were bold, devil-may-care days when the nation was bristling with smokestacks, silos and hydroelectric dams. Bossa nova was playing on the world's Victrolas, and Pele was making magic on the football pitch.

Though Brasilia will always be regarded as Niemeyer's magnum opus, it never quite made it as the Capital of Hope. While the well-heeled nestled comfortably in the tidy central grid, the poor crowded into ragged satellite cities, a stain on the egalitarian dream. Abroad, the reviews were uneven at best. The dominolike rows of housing blocks "had the air of empty theoretical speculations," wrote William J.R. Curtis, in "Modernist Architecture Since 1900." "Miles of jerry-built nowhere," sniffed the art critic Robert Hughes. Architecture critic Peter Blake called it "the final solution."

Time has proved some of the critics right. With walls of windows facing east and west, Brasilia's ministerial buildings are soaked all day in the punishing tropical sun, turning them into saunas. Niemeyer's love affair with reinforced concrete, given to chronic cracks and stains, means constant repair bills, while cleaning the sheer curtain walls of glass is practically a job for acrobats. One of Niemeyer's jewels is the Alvorada Palace, the presidential residence, which seems to float on sweeping inverted columns that taper to almost nothing. Yet it's one of Brazil's worst-kept secrets that because of its flawed ventilation system, few presidents have tolerated living there--and then only after demanding exorbitant reforms.

After the construction of Brasilia came the military coup and 20 years of fiat. Niemeyer, a lifelong communist--twice denied a visa to the United States--quickly ran out of sponsors. He was forced into exile first to Algiers and then to Paris--a blow to a man who reveled in the mountains, the sea and the samba--but it globalized his career. With his markers and his Marxism, he found ready patrons. In revolutionary Algeria, eager to hurl up new monuments, Niemeyer built two universities and a stunning mosque, a white lily pad floating on the sea. He set up shop in France, turning out dozens of buildings, including the new Communist Party headquarters, replete with spaceship sliding doors. In Italy, he designed a palace for Mondadori publishers, regarded as one of his handsomest works. He also won contracts in Ghana, Israel, Venezuela, Turkey and even the United States.

He perfected his trademark features: building ramps rather than stairs, slender V-shaped columns instead of fat pillars, feathery brise-soleils and, always, the hallowed curve. Then, with dictatorship waning in the late '70s, Niemeyer returned home and went straight to work. But some thought his new buildings began to look repetitive; the Sambadrome's bare-concrete divided arch resembles something McDonald's forgot to paint yellow, and the picture gallery in the MAC feels like an afterthought. Indeed, one prestigious building he won't get to build is the new Guggenheim Museum, planned for Rio's dock district. The job went to Jean Nouvel. Why not Niemeyer? "What for?" answers Mayor Cesar Maia. "We don't need a sculptor." That sounds like a slight, but Niemeyer himself might not quarrel. More than raising buildings, he is often described as sculpting public space. And all Brazil has become his installation.

It's practically a cliche that Niemeyer's buildings are often autonomous, plunked down in the middle of a city, intriguing and perhaps stunning, yet jarring non sequiturs. Plenty of Brazilians have reservations about such designs. Yet criticism is rare. One of the few willing to voice his doubts for the record is Joaquim Guedes, 69, former dean of architecture at the University of So Paulo and one of six Brazilians listed in the Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. "There is a total disregard for neighborhood, for the public, for the living city around it," he says. "Architecture isn't structural exhibitionism." Guedes calls the ballyhooed Niteroi museum "an expensive lookout tower," and Brasilia's photogenic ministerial esplanade "columns of block buildings marching in a military parade."

Niemeyer's backers wave off such objections as the envy of lesser architects. "Don't expect programmatic details from Oscar," says Magalhes. "He's a maker of icons." In times of titanium Xanadus, when buildings are meant not only to serve but to bewitch, inspiring awe counts for a lot. Says Carlos Fernando Andrade, a senior official at the Brazilian Architectural Institute, "Niemeyer is pure emotion."

The row between function and form is as old as architecture, of course, and will not be settled any time soon, in Brazil or anywhere. "We can't be slaves to function," Niemeyer likes to say. He never has been--nor has he ever been beholden to anything or anyone else. His one consuming mission has been to make forms, monumental forms, that raise a gasp. Thanks to those breathtaking forms, much of the world has come to know Brazil a little better. "Whatever you think of his building, Niemeyer has stamped on the world a Brazilian style of architecture," says Dennis Sharp. For most of the century, Niemeyer has made his sinuous statement. It will be up to Brazilians to move on and say something else.