Oscar Niemeyer, Brazil’s Modernist Icon, Dies at 104

BY John Wilson  December 6, 2012 at 12:42 PM EDT

Oscar NiemeyerOscar Niemeyer, the architect who shaped Brazil’s futuristic capital city Brasilia in the 1950s and ’60s with bold, often-voluptuous structures, died late Wednesday in Rio De Janeiro. He was 104.

The hospital treating Niemeyer said he died of a respiratory infection. He had been hospitalized on and off since early November, struggling with kidney failure and stomach problems. In a statement, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said the country “lost one of its geniuses.”

Born in Rio De Janeiro in 1907, Niemeyer studied at Brazil’s National School of Fine Arts and began practicing as an architect in the 1930s, working with established Modernist designers like acclaimed Swiss architect Le Corbusier. While he embraced conceptual tenets and stylistic practices coming out of Europe, Niemeyer forged a uniquely Brazilian take on Modernism, infusing his work with organic, curving forms that he famously said were inspired by the hills of Rio and the bodies of Brazilian women. In 1947, Niemeyer and Le Corbusier collaborated on the design for the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

The work for which Niemeyer is probably best known came in the 1950s when former Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek asked the architect to help create a modern new capital city in the remote ranch lands of Brazil’s interior. Kubitschek envisioned Brasilia as a symbol of the South American nation’s entrance into the 20th century, and Niemeyer’s government and civil buildings—full of domes, sweeping curves and floating walkways—imbued the city with a futuristic, science fiction quality.

Niemeyer’s forward looking, utopian design was intertwined with staunch communist leanings, which brought him into conflict with the right wing military dictatorship that seized control of Brazil in 1965. Facing intimidation and limitations on his ability to work, Niemeyer relocated to France, where he continued to experiment with uncommon forms. He designed buildings across Europe and North Africa, receiving the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1988.

“Niemeyer’s buildings are the distillation of the colors and light and sensual imagery of his native Brazil,” the Pritzker citation read. “His is an architecture of artistic gesture with underlying logic and substance.”

Niemeyer eventually returned to Brazil and continued to work prodigiously up until his death.

Earlier Thursday, Jeffrey Brown talked to Fernando Lara, professor of architecture at the University of Texas, about Niemeyer’s influence: