The legendary architect of Brasília, Oscar Niemeyer, died on Dec. 5 at a hospital in Rio de Janeiro at the age of 104. He would have been 105 on Dec. 15.
Niemeyer had been hospitalized several times this year, including as recently as mid-November, for health issues ranging from dehydration to pneumonia. Late into his life, he continued to add buildings to the cities that bear most of his designs, the new capital of Brasília and the old capital of Rio, where he was born and where he died.
The architect is best known in the United States for the United Nations Secretariat Building in New York, which Niemeyer designed with Le Corbusier and completed in 1952. By that time, Niemeyer had already completed a major skyscraper in the form of Brazil's Ministry of Education and Health building in Rio. Completed in 1943, when Niemeyer was just 36 years old, the skyscraper was the largest of any public modernist project erected at that time. It represented an important early achievement between Niemeyer and planner Lúcio Costa, a pair who would go on to give modern Brazil much of its look and feel.
"I just did my work," Niemeyer told ARCHITECT in 2007, reflecting on his career days before his 100th birthday. “I tried to do the things I liked to do, lighter things, while working freely and always exploring technology, especially concrete, with all its sculptural potential. I think architecture finally is personal, a matter of intuition and invention. Each architect has to find his own architecture."
Niemeyer was as committed to his political beliefs as to Modernism. Niemeyer was a lifelong Communist, and he even served as the president of the Brazilian Communist Party in 1992. It is said that Cuban President Fidel Castro once observed, "Niemeyer and I are the last Communists on this planet." But how his proletarian philosophy informed his architecture is less clear—especially in the many modernist palaces that the architect designed.
Niemeyer's many honors for architecture include the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal and the Pritzker Prize. Perhaps more telling than his prizes is the reach of his name and his presence in popular culture. A Niemeyer collection for Converse hit Brazilian outlets in late October; Visionaire magazine published 3D photos of Niemeyer's work for a Rio-focused issue earlier this year. For many of these side projects, including a Niemeyer line of jewelry, launched by Brazilian jeweler H. Stern last year, the architect approved or worked directly on the designs.
Though appreciation for his swooping curves has never diminished, Niemeyer's efforts in public planning have come under scrutiny. Even as Brazil has emerged recently as one of the world's fastest growing economies, the monumental core of Brasília is nevertheless ringed by vast slums. Several documentary filmmakers have sought to cast the "continuous monument" of Niemeyer's Brazil in a different light, including Emmanuelle Bernard and André Blas, whose film Declarations of Love tracked the progress of one of Niemeyer's high-rises in Sao Paulo. In Urbanized, Gary Hustwit examined the roles of Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa in building Brasília. One of the first architects to cross over into the realm of urban planning, Niemeyer saw many of his greatest projects completed when Brazil moved its capital to Brasília, including the Cathedral of Brasília, Honestino Guimarães National Museum, and Palácio da Alvorada.
Niemeyer is survived by his second wife, Vera Lucia Cabreira, whom he married in 2006 at the age of 98. He is predeceased by his first wife, Annita Baldo, who died in 2004, and his daughter from that marriage, Anna Maria Niemeyer, who died in June.