If we stop to remember Oscar Niemeyer, the great Brazilian architect who died this week at the age of 104, it should be less to mourn his passing than to admire a life richly lived. Niemeyer accomplished what few architects can. Over a career that spanned eighty years he designed hundreds of buildings whose forms helped forge his country’s contemporary identity. He built Brazilian style.
Niemeyer was in the right place at the right time and possessed just the right attitude. His country’s immense, rolling landscape and tropical climate offered the perfect setting for an abstract, sculptural architecture. He came of age as an architect in the 1950’s, at a time when Brazil was becoming more unified politically and undertaking enormous building and infrastructure projects. And he was a unrepentant sensualist, an aesthete and ladies man whose passions drove him to pursue enormous commissions like the capitol buildings in Brasilia, and to celebrate beauty above all else. All of these identities were merged in his work, an architecture of immense reinforced concrete shells and planes, at once archly elegant and dazzlingly sensual.
His style has been called “tropical modernism” to distinguish it from the works of European contemporaries, who used a similar vocabulary of slender columns, open plans, and ribbon windows, but who fixed its rules and meanings philosophically.