RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil—When the legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer turns 100 years old on Saturday, he’ll mark the milestone in typically humble fashion, with an intimate lunch for friends and family.
His fellow Brazilians, on the other hand, are sparing no expense in piling on the pomp and circumstance for a man many consider an artistic genius, national founding father and living legend, and whose buildings still shape the way Brazilians think about themselves.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva led the way, declaring 2008 the “Year of Oscar Niemeyer” and asking that all of Niemeyer’s buildings in the country be added to a registry that protects them from alteration or destruction without special permits.
In Niemeyer’s hometown of Rio de Janeiro, the newspaper O Globo is projecting images of his work on buildings throughout the city, and exhibits about him are drawing thousands of visitors. The country’s school texts already amply cover his career.
“In three centuries, maybe no one here will be remembered, but the name of Oscar Niemeyer definitely will be,” said Godofredo Pinto, the mayor of Niteroi, a city near Rio that’s been transformed by a new complex of Niemeyer-designed buildings.
Lula joined the chorus of praise while visiting the architect in his Rio de Janeiro studio Nov. 30. “Oscar Niemeyer is my inspiration,” the president said. On Wednesday, France awarded the architect the Legion of Honor, its highest award.
Niemeyer began his career in the 1930s and has never stopped working. Along the way, he befriended legends such as Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
The famed workaholic single-handedly designed dozens of government palaces, ministries and other major buildings in Brasilia, the country’s capital, which was built from scratch during the 1950s.
Outside Brazil, his most famous project is the layout of the United Nations headquarters in New York, which he helped plan.
He’s also dreamed up theaters, libraries, prefabricated public schools in Rio de Janeiro state, the stadium for the city’s annual Carnaval parade, the slum house of his retired driver, the headquarters of the French Communist Party in Paris and a sprawling monument to Latin America in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo.
Responsible for more than 175 projects worldwide, he won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the field’s most prestigious honor, in 1988.
A die-hard devotee of old-school communism, he spent 18 years in exile during Brazil’s 1964 to 1985 dictatorship and was barred from entering the United States for about two decades.
His ever-growing body of work, however, made him legendary. The Niemeyer look is unmistakable, with its curving ramps, white domes and monumental arches, all cast in reinforced concrete.
Even as he attains the 100-year mark, Niemeyer’s studio is as busy as ever, overseeing eight projects on two continents.
“He is a phenomenon,” said his granddaughter Ana Lucia Niemeyer, who’s curated an exhibit about his life that she wants to send around Brazil. “What’s kept him going all these years is his work. He loves his work.”
What’s endeared him to Brazilians is the spontaneity of his designs, which seem to defy gravity—and even history, said family friend Joao Saldanha, who’ll attend Saturday’s lunch with Niemeyer.
In the case of Brasilia’s cathedral, for example, the architect famously broke with tradition by filling the space with natural light and removing the columns and other imposing supports typical of such buildings.
A choreographer, Saldanha transformed Niemeyer’s architecture into a major dance production that toured the world last year.
“His buildings are fun, and they feel light even when they’re designed on a monumental scale,” Saldanha said. “Niemeyer’s work is a part of the Brazilian conscience.”
During the middle of the 20th century, that playfulness set Niemeyer apart from others in the influential modernist school of architects. Among his European peers, the minimalist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose motto was “less is more,” was known for austere, boxy structures and the Swiss Le Corbusier, who also worked on the U.N. headquarters, for his devotion to mathematical ratios. Niemeyer gave the world whimsical works that swooped and bulged.
His influence appears to be winning out in the 21st century, as younger architects such as American Frank Gehry and Briton Norman Foster stretch their buildings into ever more mind-binding shapes.
“Niemeyer exploited the beauty of forms and showed that beauty is an important part of the building,” Brazilian architect Lauro Cavalcanti said. “It was the only time a Brazilian contributed to the world language of an art form.”
Niemeyer didn’t grant many interviews in anticipation of his birthday. Speaking to McClatchy last year, he played down the superlatives and described himself as a simple architect doing his work. He said his designs were meant to trigger the imagination of the layperson who might not know anything about architecture.
His wife of 76 years had died two years before the interview, and he’d marry his longtime secretary, then 60-year-old Vera Lucia Cabreira, a month later.
“I have to live, I have to have a woman at my side, I have to have friends at my side, I have to work like any other person,” he said in his studio overlooking Copacabana Beach. “I don’t do anything extraordinary. I adapt.”
Last weekend, Niemeyer remained the humble giant while attending the opening of an exhibit about his work at the flying saucer-shaped art museum in Niteroi that’s quickly become one of his most famous creations.
With his great-grandson Joao Pedro and his wife supporting him, Niemeyer gingerly stepped down the museum’s curving ramp into a crowd of admirers, who burst into applause.
Looking embarrassed by the attention, Niemeyer flashed a shy smile before climbing into a waiting car that whisked him away.
Such modesty didn’t throw high school student Mariana Baptista, who’d come to the museum with two friends to catch a glimpse of the architect.
Although Baptista was born decades after the construction of Brasilia, she said she’d learned about Niemeyer through the theater, museum, churches and other buildings he’d designed well into his 90s for Niteroi.
“He’s a genius!” Baptista said. “No one else would have thought of putting a flying saucer here!”
“He lived through the military coup,” high school student Antonio Jorge Pimentel said. “He saw governments change; he was always there. Every Brazilian knows him as the greatest Brazilian alive.”