Architectural icon Oscar Niemeyer dies just short of 105th birthday

Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect who helped to shape the 20th century and mankind’s vision of the future, died on December 5, 2012 aged 104, according to Brazilian media.

Niemeyer died of respiratory failure in Botafogo hospital in Rio de Janeiro, the city where he was born in 1907, studied architecture and that he helped to shape with famous landmarks, such as the Sambadrome, notoriously modelled – like much of his work – on the body of a woman. But his influence spread much further to the design of the capital Brasília and many of its landmarks including the Cathedral and Congress Building. Overseas, he designed the United Nations Secretariat in New York, the Communist party headquarters in Paris and Serpentine Gallery’s summer pavilion in Hyde Park, London.

Brazil’s biggest newspaper group announced the death at the top of its website with a photograph of the country’s celebrated intellectual and two articles lauding him as “the concrete poe,” “the pessimist who loved life” and the “traditionalist for tomorrow.” Other stories recalled his nickname as the “Picasso of concrete.”

Veja magazine also led its news coverage with obituaries for Niemeyer under the headline “The great name of Brazilian architecture” and photographs of some of his greatest works. The domestic media have devoted considerable coverage to the architect since he was hospitalized on November 2, 2012.

One of the pioneers of Modernist architecture, Niemeyer was hugely influential with his designs of buildings and urban landscapes from the 1930s onwards. Much of his work still looks futuristic today. He is said to have influenced numerous architects in subsequent generations, including Zaha Hadid, Toyo Ito, Tadao Ando and Christian de Portzamparc.

Though some critics said some of his later work was inferior, few doubt his reputation as one of the 20th century’s great architects will endure.

“The work of Oscar Niemeyer is a celebration of technological knowledge that poetically transcends the everyday,” wrote Lauro Cavalcanti, the director of Rio’s Imperial Palace and author of a book on the architect. “His architecture introduces today the tradition of tomorrow.”

Niemeyer leaves more than reinforced concrete. The 104-year-old had one daughter, five grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and seven great-great grandchildren. After his first wife, Annita Baldo, died, he remarried at the age of 99.

In works from Brasília’s crown-shaped cathedral to the undulating French Communist party building in Paris, Niemeyer shunned the steel-box structures of many Modernist architects, finding inspiration in nature’s crescents and spirals. His hallmarks include much of the UN complex in New York and the Museum of Modern Art in Niterói, which is perched like a flying saucer across Guanabara Bay from Rio de Janeiro.

“Right angles don’t attract me. Nor straight, hard and inflexible lines created by man,” he wrote in his 1998 memoir, The Curves of Time. “What attracts me are free and sensual curves. The curves we find in mountains, in the waves of the sea, in the body of the woman we love.”

His curves give sweep and grace to Brasília, the city that opened up Brazil’s vast interior in the 1960s and moved the nation’s capital from coastal Rio.

Niemeyer designed most of the city’s important buildings, while French-born, avant-garde architect Lucio Costa crafted its distinctive aeroplane-like layout. Niemeyer left his mark in the flowing concrete of the cabinet ministries and the monumental dome of the national museum. As the city’s population grew to 2 million people, critics said it lacked “soul” – “a utopian horror” in the words of art critic Robert Hughes. Niemeyer shrugged off the criticism. “If you go to Brasilia you might not like it, say there’s something better, but there’s nothing just like it,” he said to O Globo newspaper in 2006 at age 98. “I search for surprise in my architecture. A work of art should cause the emotion of newness.”

After a 1964 coup plunged Brazil into a 21-year military dictatorship, Niemeyer, a lifelong Communist, decided to spend more time in Europe. While living in France in 1965, he designed the headquarters of the French Communist party. During the dictatorship he also designed the centre of the Mondadori publishing house in Italy, Constantine University in Algeria and other projects in Israel, Lebanon, Germany and Portugal.

He won the gold medal from the American Institute of Architecture in 1970, the Pritzker architecture prize from Chicago’s Hyatt Foundation in 1988 and the gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1998.

By Jonathan Watts, The Guardian’s Latin America correspondent.

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