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He's Still Shaping a Legend

Brazil's Oscar Niemeyer has long since cemented his place in architecture. At 97, he continues to build on it, with a vast new project.

March 29, 2005|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — He was eligible for retirement before man set foot on the moon.

He received the highest honor in his field, the Pritzker Prize, months after his 80th birthday. One of his most celebrated works, the Museum of Contemporary Art outside Rio, was inaugurated in 1996, when he was pushing 90.

His fluid Modernist structures have left an indelible mark on the world and how it conceives its urban spaces. Now Oscar Niemeyer -- architect, bon vivant, lifelong Communist, living legend -- is closing in on the century mark. Most of the Brazilian's contemporaries and, more satisfyingly, his critics have died.

But this is not a time for resting on his laurels, even at an age when most overachievers would be lucky to be resting in bed. At 97, Niemeyer is eagerly watching one of his most ambitious projects take shape, a mile-long seafront esplanade of buildings and open space in Niteroi, Rio's sister city across Guanabara Bay.

When completed, Niemeyer Way will house two cathedrals, a theater, film institute, plaza, ferry station, memorial and a foundation named after the architect. Situated on enough land for 15 football fields, the promenade will be Niemeyer's biggest creation after Brasilia, the sleek, futuristic capital he designed in the 1950s and that remains his magnum opus.

When the walkway is finished, Niemeyer will probably be in his early 100s -- and enjoying every minute.

"I take pleasure in working with architecture," he said recently, seated in the airy Copacabana Beach penthouse that has served as his studio for the better part of 50 years. "A man who lives does what he likes -- nothing more."

The description is deceptively modest for someone who has had a profound influence on architecture since his first solo commission 68 years ago. Along with Le Corbusier, who pioneered the Machine Age aesthetics of Modernist design, Niemeyer ranks among the genre's greatest masters, an artist working in reinforced concrete.

He is one of Brazil's most famous and beloved icons, and one of the planet's most famous Brazilians. With the death of American Philip Johnson in January at 98, Niemeyer is the world's oldest practicing architect of international stature. I.M. Pei, 87, is but a younger brother; Frank Gehry, 76, is a mere stripling.

Hunched over and a step slower now, Niemeyer still goes to the office every day, sitting down to think beautiful thoughts at his cluttered drafting table. His hands shake slightly, but he designs from 9 to 5, and usually a good deal later than that. He savors red wine, smokes slender Swiss cigarillos ("it's good for your health") and plays host to weekly philosophical jousts with his remaining friends.

Despite his age, he hasn't stopped admiring the sensuous, skimpily clad beauties Brazil is known for. They still put a sparkle in his failing eyes.

"Women are beautiful, eh? It's so good to be able to design them," he said, in a voice grown low and throaty. "She is man's companion, that's what I say. Life without women is pointless."

Their curvaceous forms have inspired the sinuous, wavy, spiraling lines that are the signature -- some say the weakness -- of his oeuvre. Windows, walls, roofs, ramps: Where others stride straight ahead, Niemeyer swoops and swirls.

That penchant is evident in buildings from the cathedral in Brasilia, a graceful, slatted structure resembling the top of an onion, to the snaking facade of the French Communist Party headquarters in Paris.

On the esplanade in Niteroi, there is the wavy-topped Popular Theater, the domed building of the foundation bearing his name and, at the walkway's end, the flying-saucer-like Museum of Contemporary Art, which appears to float above the bay from atop a high promontory.

"My architecture is totally different," Niemeyer said, comparing his works with those of Le Corbusier, with whom Niemeyer collaborated on the United Nations building in New York in 1947. "He posited the right angle. I posit the curve.... The universe is covered in curves -- Einstein's curved universe."

Arcs and whorls surround Niemeyer here in his hometown. His 10th-floor studio crowns a creamy green Art Deco building with a rippled facade. Outside his window is a breathtaking panorama of Copacabana Beach, its voluptuous, rounded sweep licked by deep-blue sea, ending in the rolling summit of Sugar Loaf mountain.

Rio's famous sidewalks, stamped with undulating black-and-white patterns, dance in the light. But not everyone is as enamored of the curve, or of poured concrete, as he is. Niemeyer's imagination can be an engineer's nightmare.

His trademark twists and turns often put heavy stress on building materials, which require regular repair.

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