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Architect Designed Exuberant, Optimistic Places


Finally, this hour, we remember a giant of early modern architecture. Oscar Niemeyer died yesterday in a hospital near his home in Rio de Janeiro, just shy of his 105th birthday. Niemeyer is best known for designing the striking government buildings in Brazil's capital, Brasilia. He also co-led the team that designed the U.N. headquarters in New York City. And in 1988, he won architecture's highest honor, the Pritzker Prize. Edward Lifson has this appreciation.

EDWARD LIFSON, BYLINE: Oscar Niemeyer embodied the Kiyoka(ph), the native of Rio who enjoys life. He designed exuberant, sensuous, optimistic places for the people. Niemeyer created for Brazil and Brazil created him, says Alan Hess, author of two books on Niemeyer.

ALAN HESS: The beaches, the sun, the society, the friends, the women, the sensuality, the rhythm, the music, you definitely see that in his architecture.

LIFSON: Niemeyer was a young apprentice when he first worked with European master architect Le Corbusier in Brazil. Later, they would lead the design team for the U.N. in New York. But Niemeyer's masterpiece was his dramatic vision for underdeveloped land in central Brazil that became the country's capital in 1960. It declared a new modernity for an emerging Latin America - simple, curving shapes and a stunning cathedral in the form of a circular crown line an enormous promenade.

Niemeyer injected lyricism and emotion into the right angles and straight lines of European modernism, whose masters told him, says Alan Hess...

HESS: Oscar, you're going too far. You can't do that. And yet, he was so certain about himself that he reshaped modern architecture in an amazing way.

LIFSON: Brasilia was one of the grandest utopian dreams in history, but not long after it opened, Niemeyer's career took a hit. He was a staunch communist confronted by right wing dictatorships that ruled Brazil from the mid-1960s to the '80s, so Niemeyer moved to Europe. When he returned, he was in his 70s and ready for a second act. Among his highlights, a celebrated white flying saucer-shaped museum perched on the edge of the cliffs near Rio.

Last February, Niemeyer attended the reopening of this 1984 samba drome in Rio upgraded for the upcoming Olympics. Just a couple of years ago, in his spare time, Niemeyer put his poetry into words, writing this samba, a tribute to people living in Brazil's slums, called "Feeling Good About Life."


LIFSON: Even left-leaning architects design for the wealthy. Although Niemeyer's communist sympathies made it hard for him to come to the U.S. in 1964, at the height of the Cold War, without visiting the site, he completed drawings for a house for lefty filmmaker Joseph Strick and his wife in Los Angeles. Jeremy Strick, now director of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, grew up in that house.

JEREMY STRICK: There is just always a moment when people would arrive at the house and you would open the door for them and they would look in and they'd be looking from Le Mesa Drive, straight out across Santa Monica Canyon, the Santa Monica Mountains with the floor to ceiling windows. Always people would come up, there would be sort of a audible gasp.

LIFSON: Strick admires architect Oscar Niemeyer for bringing the same uplifting spirit to his civic buildings. And Niemeyer used to say, the important thing is not architecture. The important things are life, friends, and this unjust world that we must make better. For NPR News, I'm Edward Lifson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Edward Lifson