Speculating In Concrete

Most people who make it past 90 are happy to putter in the garden or read the papers in pajamas. Oscar Niemeyer goes to work. Every morning, six days a week, you can find him in his penthouse studio, in an elegant art-deco building in Copacabana. When NEWSWEEK's Mac Margolis caught up to him last December, just before his 94th birthday, he was at his desk, marker in hand, surrounded by a pile of project drawings and an attentive flock of colleagues and friends. Excerpts:

MARGOLIS: Tell me about your current projects.
[In addition to the Niemeyer Way], I am working on a [museum] complex in Curitiba. I want to speculate in concrete, and do everything that reinforced concrete allows one to do. I recently finished a 25-story hotel and convention center in Moscow. I'd like to slow down a bit, but I am obliged to work because I have a number of commitments. I get to the studio at 9 in the morning and leave at 9 at night. But I do the sort of architecture I like, and am moved by my intuition. My friends and I just got done conducting a course on architecture. We also talked about literature, philosophy, social policy, economics and art. Architects should know about the problems of life.

Once, there was the idea that architecture could help solve the problems of the world.
Ah, that's an ancient idea. Modern architecture was meant to answer the great problems of modern life. But what really counts are day-by-day solutions. We have to live life more simply; we should all be brothers, striving hand in hand and living in peace, and not have so many pretensions. Face it, man is screwed, anyway. He has some possibilities, sure, but lives and dies, like any other creature.

What do you think should be built in place of the World Trade towers?
A group of New York architects wrote me asking for ideas. But it's really their problem. The situation in Brazil worries me. Poverty is getting worse every day. Amazonia is under threat. It's important that we restore some patriotism and defend our sovereignty.

What can architects do to defend national sovereignty?
I don't believe in this business of [leaving something for] eternity. What's important is that I continue to participate, in the effort to make the world a better place.

Do you travel much to Brasilia?
I used to, but not anymore. I don't like flying. Before, it was fantastic. We went by car, arriving before dawn, and the city began to emerge bit by bit, the lights glowing on the horizon. But the last few times I was saddened. They put up a horrible complex of buildings near the entrance of Brasilia. Such fantastic bad taste!

Is it true that the pope was pleased with the cathedral in Brasilia?
It's different from older, heavy-set cathedrals. I made the entrance gallery very dark, so that when you enter the main nave of the church, there's a flood of light. Instead of looking out into the emptiness, you look upward, to where the Lord is waiting.

As an atheist, didn't you feel you were helping the enemy?
I grew up in a Catholic family, but later when I saw how the world was unjust, I grew disappointed with religion.

How do you reconcile your ideas of beauty and the client's requirements?
I couldn't give a shit about the client. Beauty and form are my goals. Architecture is invention.