Oscar Niemeyer, visionary architect and Communist, dies at 104

Oscar Niemeyer, the pioneering architect and life-long Communist, died Dec. 5 at the age of 104. He was stricken with kidney problems and pneumonia about a month ago.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff praised Niemeyer in a statement as “a revolutionary, the mentor of a new architecture, beautiful, logical, and, as he himself defined it, inventive.” In the Brazilian media, Niemeyer was hailed as “the concrete poet” and the “traditionalist for tomorrow.”

Best known for the breathtaking buildings he designed for Brazil’s capital, Niemeyer inspired generations of architects with his embrace of curves, creative use of concrete, and reliance on local materials and techniques.

And, as a Communist who experienced persecution, exile, and the shifting fortunes of our movement over the past century, his dedication to the struggle for a better world inspired generations of activists.

Niemeyer joined Brazil’s Communist Party in 1945 because, as he once explained, “I understood right away that we had to change things. The path to change was the Communist Party. I joined the party and have remained in the party up to today, following all the ups and downs that life has imposed.”

Born on Dec. 15, 1907 in Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer spent his life melding his profession and his politics. His buildings were designed to convey hope for a just future while forcing rich and poor to interact in cultural, governmental, and residential settings. “Many of my buildings have been political and civic monuments,” Niemeyer reflected, “but perhaps some of them have given ordinary people, powerless people, a sense of delight. That is what architects can do.”

Niemeyer was a giant of the Modernism school of architecture, hailed as a genius for his unique and influential contributions. He described his work as architecture of curves, the body of a woman, the sinuous rivers, the waves of the sea.”

In 1956, Brazil’s populist president, Juscelino Kubitschek, came up with the idea of building a new capital in the country’s central savannah. He invited his friend Niemeyer to design some of its most prominent structures, including the presidential residence, the congress building, the Palace of Justice, and the cathedral as well as a series of apartment blocks. The city, named Brasilía, was completed in only four years and Niemeyer’s creations dazzled the architectural world.  Today, Brazil’s capital has a population of 2.2 million and is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When the military staged a coup in 1964, Niemeyer’s offices were raided and his work was halted. He went into exile the following year, settling in Paris, where he continued to create architectural marvels such as the headquarters of the French Communist Party in Paris, the Penang State Mosque in Malaysia, and the campus of Constantine University in Algeria. He finally returned to Brazil in the 1980s after the collapse of the right-wing regime.

Until earlier this year, Niemeyer continued to work in his office overlooking the beach in Rio, enjoying cigarillos and coffee, working on new commissions, hosting weekly political discussions, and welcoming visits by friends. He counted amongst his closest Fidel Castro, who once joked: “Niemeyer and I are the last communists on this planet.” 

Niemeyer is survived by his wife and longtime assistant, Vera Lúcia Cabreira, eight years his junior whom he wed six years ago, along with five grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren, and seven great-great-grandchildren. His former wife of 75 years, Annita, died in 2004 and their only child, Anna Maria, died this year aged 82.

A public memorial service will be held today in Brasília while a funeral is planned for Friday in Rio. The city’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, has declared three days of mourning.

Niemeyer once advised:  “You have to keep your mind alive, work, help others, laugh, cry, and experience life intensively. It only lasts for a brief moment.”

And, in an interview with the French newspaper L’Humanite, he offered these words of encouragement to fellow communists: “There are too many injustices. But commitment to the Communist Party provides hope, solidarity, and the realization that it is possible to struggle together for a better world.”

Photo: Oscar Niemeyer (via Vermelho)


Dennis Laumann
Dennis Laumann

Dennis Laumann is a Professor of African History at The University of Memphis. His publications include Colonial Africa, 1994-1994, Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is a member of United Campus Workers-CWA.