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The legacy of Oscar Niemeyer

The Brazilian architect and cultural icon designed buildings across the globe over nearly eight decades.
Last modified: 6 Dec 2012 05:32
Brasilia's Cathedral was one of the buildings Niemeyer designed in the capital [AFP]

“We are obliged to be born, grow, struggle, die and disappear forever.”

The words of Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect and cultural icon who took his last breath on Wednesday.

His life now fades to black, the disappearing stage begins. Or does it?

Brazil is a country changing fast and furiously at so many levels. Niemeyer was not, did not, and would not. At any level. This is what made him Oscar Niemeyer.

Very few people ever are tasked with designing a new capital city in their country. Niemeyer was. The man designed almost all of the centerpiece buildings in Brasilia.

Yes, he was part of the original design team of the UN headquarters – a crowning achievement for most, but a mere footnote when you’re Oscar Niemeyer.

Yes, his portfolio of work spans the globe and nearly eight decades.

But in his obituaries here’s what might be left out: He built two universities in newly independent Algeria, and some in Algiers might be crying for his loss just as much as those in Rio.

He built Penang State Mosque in Malaysia.

In 1943, when he was only 36, his first exhibit at the New York Museum of Modern Art.

That could have been the start of a long life in the glittery lights of the New York architecture scene. But it wasn’t.

The man was strident communist in his day, and was later (twice) denied a visa to the United States because of it – the last time being in the 1950’s.

It was perhaps a greater loss for the United States of America than it was for Niemeyer.

He was never admitted to the exclusive club of the Frank Lloyd Wright’s. And he was partly of shunned from the London and New York cocktail scene. He was always seen as the loner, the outsider, the guy from “down there”.

I suspect that’s just the way Niemeyer wanted it.

In the 60’s and 80’s he twice went into self-imposed exile in France.

Along the way churning out some of the great - and often misunderstood - architectural masterpieces of his career.

When he was 90 years old, he finished designing the spaceship-looking Modern Art Museum in Niteroi, across the bay from Rio, and a fixture on any Rio postcard worth a lick.

What will you be doing when you’re 90?

I won’t pretend to be an architectural critic here, but you don’t have to be one to understand that Niemeyer was very much a man more comfortable with an agua de coco on Avenida Atlantica than a martini on Fifth Avenue. That’s the way he always was, and always will be remembered. He’d have it no other way.

Niemeyer was uniquely Brazilian in so many ways, living through generational changes when his countrymen were often pulled and tempted to be less Brazilian.

At the end of his life, his body was old and frail, but his mind was not.

He kept working almost up until that very last breath. When he wanted. Where he wanted. How he wanted.

The man from “down there,” kept transforming his country with his designs, without having his or any other country transform him.

Born? Yes. Grow? Sure. Struggle? Of course. Die? We all do.

Disappear forever? No, not you Mr Niemeyer. You’re timeless.

And always will be.


Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel