Oscar Niemeyer died on 5 December, at the age of 104. Whatever you think of his work and politics, he had an amazing run. He was working until 100, and gave perfectly lucid interviews then. His first marriage lasted 76 years; he remarried at 99. He lost his only daughter when she was 82.
I go along with a conventional view that he designed some lovely buildings, but was as useless a town planner as the rest of the masters of the International Style. His curvy temples usually float at the end of vast, shapeless plazas. (The Niteroi museum escapes this, as it´s on a small promontory in the city.) Apart from offering a visual approach to the Monument, what are these for? Not, thank God, parades of uniformed fanatics – they aren´t Nuremberg rectangular. Dense, free-form crowds of the revolutionary People? In Brasilia, the People can´t get there.
Where Niemeyer broke from Le Corbusier and Gropius was over straight lines. His rationale was very Brazilian:
I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein.
This heterodoxy freed Niemeyer to design well in reinforced concrete, though sadly little in wood. However, he did not escape the basic contradiction of the International Style. Its puritan aesthetic was largely devised in defiance of common sense, as Thomas Wolfe brilliantly showed in his essay From Bauhaus to Our House – flat roofs and flush windows, in rainy Northern Europe. Lacking the real understanding of the needs of ordinary people for living space shown in Gaudi´s brilliant Casa Mila block of luxury flats in Barcelona, they couldn´t build good cheap housing for workers. Their efforts at mass housing were far inferior to those of half-educated 18th and 19th century speculative builders in London and New York. What these committed left-wingers were able to build successfully were somewhat dehumanised monuments for capitalists, priests and oligarchs: factories, palaces, churches, and above all museums.
The disconnect is also visible in Niemeyer´s politics, eccentric to the point of perversity. He was a lifelong member of the small Brazilian Communist Party, and became its (presumably honorary) president in 1992. The isolation of this ineffectual élite group from Brazilian society is illustrated by Jorge Amado´s remark in his memoirs that communism taught him to be punctual.
Niemeyer was a great temple-builder. He would have been quite at home in Xerxes´ Persepolis, Ptolemy´s Alexandria, Peter´s St. Petersburg, or Suger´s Paris. The trouble was, he thought he was building Célesteville.