* Renowned for designing Brazil's futuristic capital
* Ardent communist; he designed UN building in New York
* Winner of 1988 Pritzker Prize, architecture's "Nobel"
By Jeb Blount
RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 5 Oscar Niemeyer, a towering
patriarch of modern architecture who shaped the look of
contemporary Brazil and whose inventive, curved designs left
their mark on cities worldwide, died late on Wednesday. He was
Niemeyer had been battling kidney and stomach ailments in a
Rio de Janeiro hospital since early November. His death was the
result of a lung infection developed this week, the hospital
said, little more than a week before he would have turned 105.
President Dilma Rousseff, whose office sits among the
landmark buildings Niemeyer designed for the modernist capital
city of Brasilia, paid tribute by calling him "a revolutionary,
the mentor of a new architecture, beautiful, logical, and, as he
himself defined it, inventive."
His body will lie in state at the presidential palace.
Starting in the 1930s, Niemeyer's career spanned nine
decades. His distinctive glass and white-concrete buildings
include such landmarks as the U.N. Secretariat in New York, the
Communist Party headquarters in Paris and the Roman Catholic
Cathedral in Brasilia.
He won the 1988 Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the
"Nobel Prize of Architecture" for the Brasilia cathedral. Its
"Crown of Thorns" cupola fills the church with light and a sense
of soaring grandeur even though most of the building is
It was one of dozens of public structures he designed for
Brazil's made-to-order capital, a city that helped define
After flying over Niemeyer's pod-like Congress, futuristic
presidential palace and modular ministries in 1961, Yuri
Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut and first man in space, said "the
impression was like arriving on another planet."
In his home city of Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer's many projects
include the "Sambadrome" stadium for Carnival parades. Perched
across the bay from Rio is the "flying saucer" he designed for
the Niteroi Museum of Contemporary Art.
The collection of government buildings in Brasilia, though,
remain his most monumental and enduring achievement. Built from
scratch in a wild and nearly uninhabited part of Brazil's remote
central plateau in just four years, it opened in 1960.
While the airplane-shaped city was planned and laid out by
Niemeyer's friend Lucio Costa, Niemeyer designed nearly every
important government building in the city.
An ardent communist who continued working from his
Copacabana beach penthouse apartment in Rio until days before
his death, Niemeyer became a national icon ranking alongside
Bossa Nova pioneer Tom Jobim and soccer legend Pelé.
His architecture, though, regularly trumped his politics.
Georges Pompidou, a right-wing Gaullist former French
president, said Niemeyer's design for the Communist Party of
France headquarters in Paris "was the only good thing those
commies ever did," according to Niemeyer's memoirs.
Prada, the fashion company known for providing expensive
bags and wallets, thought the Communist Party building in Paris
so cool it rented it for a fashion show.
Even the 1964-1985 Brazilian military government that forced
Niemeyer into exile in the 1960s eventually found his buildings
congenial to its dreams of making Brazil "the country of the
His work is celebrated for innovative use of light and
space, experimentation with reinforced concrete for aesthetic
value and his self-described "architectural invention" style
that produced buildings resembling abstract sculpture.
Initially influenced by the angular modernism of
French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who worked with Niemeyer
and Costa on a visit to Brazil in the 1930s, his style evolved
toward rounded buildings that he said were inspired by the
curves of Rio's sunbathing women as well as beaches and verdant
"That is the architecture I do, looking for new, different
forms. Surprise is key in all art," Niemeyer told Reuters in an
interview in 2006. "The artistic capability of reinforced
concrete is so fantastic - that is the way to go."
Responding to criticism that his work was impractical and
overly artistic, Niemeyer dismissed the idea that buildings'
design should reflect their function as a "ridiculous and
irritating" architectural dogma.
"Whatever you think of his buildings, Niemeyer has stamped
on the world a Brazilian style of architecture," Dennis Sharp,
a British architect and author of The Illustrated Encyclopedia
of Architects and Architecture, once said of Niemeyer.
Niemeyer's legacy is heavily associated with his communist
views. He was a close friend of Cuba's revolutionary leader
Fidel Castro and an enemy of Brazil's 21-year military
"There are only two communists left in the world, Niemeyer
and myself," Castro once joked.
Niemeyer remained politically active after returning to
Brazil, taking up the cause of a militant and sometimes violent
movement of landless peasants. He said in 2010 that he was a
great admirer of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former labor
leader who was Brazil's president from 2003 to 2010.
Niemeyer once built a house in a Rio slum for his former
driver and gave apartments and offices as presents to others.
Despite his egalitarian views, Niemeyer had no illusions
that his buildings were helping to improve social justice.
Far from the model city Niemeyer had envisioned, Brasilia
today is in many ways the epitome of inequality. Planned for
500,000 people, the city is now home to more than 2.5 million
and VIPs keep to themselves in fenced-in villas while the poor
live in distant satellite towns.
"It seemed like a new era was coming, but Brazil is the same
crap - a country of the very poor and the very rich," he said in
another Reuters interview in 2001.
In a 2010 interview in his office, he was quick to blame
Costa for things many dislike about Brasilia, such as its rigid
ordering into homogenous "hotel," "government," "residential"
and even "mansion" and "media" districts that can make finding a
newspaper or groceries a chore.
"I just did the buildings," he said. "All that other stuff
Despite Niemeyer's atheism, one of his first significant
early works was a church built in homage to St. Francis, part of
a complex of modern buildings in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
That work won the confidence of the city's mayor Juscelino
Kubitschek. When he became president, he tapped Niemeyer to help
realize the dream of opening up Brazil's interior by moving the
capital from coastal Rio to the empty plains of central Brazil.
Despite years of bohemian living, Niemeyer remained married
for 76 years to Annita Baldo, his first wife. He married his
second wife, longtime aide Vera Lucia Cabreira, in 2006 at the
age of 99. She survives him, as do four grandchildren.
Niemeyer's only daughter, an architect, designer and gallery
owner, Anna Maria, died on June 6 at the age of 82.