The Last of the Moderns
On a bright South American summer morning, the first blinding view inside Oscar Niemeyer's sun-bleached penthouse office above Copacabana Beach is of round mountains abutting the Atlantic Ocean and Coppertoned tourists in vanishingly small bathing suits. The room's white walls are covered with Niemeyer's breezy drawings -- his graffiti -- of buildings he designed (the cathedral in Brasília, a museum in Niterói across Guanabara Bay from Rio) and of women. ''Form follows feminine,'' Niemeyer likes to say.
Other sayings by him are scrawled like ribbons around the drawings: ''The most important thing is not architecture, but life, friends and this unjust world that we must change.'' ''The dispossessed never get a turn.'' And ''When misery multiplies and hope escapes from the hearts of men, only revolution.'' That one is next to a drawing of a poor family, the mother carrying a basket of laundry on her head. A sculpture he did based on the drawing towered over the beach across the street until the mayor of Rio ordered it removed a few years ago, which makes Niemeyer fume even today. The style -- of the drawing, the sculpture and for that matter of the sayings, with their whiff of Bolshevik sentiment -- is Picassoid, circa 1955.
In the middle of the studio, three rows of stadium seats are lined up before an easel, with a painting by Niemeyer on it -- of a voluptuous longhaired woman on horseback -- the setup like a miniclassroom. Every Tuesday, following Niemeyer's pronouncement that all architects, to be useful citizens, should read Sartre, there is a philosophy class for anyone who happens to turn up.
Niemeyer's own office is a modest room in the back with a couch and a desk pushed up against a wall beneath heaving bookshelves. Niemeyer, at 97, still arrives at work every morning at 9:30, eats an early lunch in the studio, sometimes with friends, then stays into the evening, even on weekends. A driver shuttles him back and forth to his apartment in Ipanema. His wife, Annita (they were married in 1928), died last year. She was 93.
The studio is roughly where his parents had a summer cottage when he was a boy. That was toward the turn of the last century, when Copacabana was almost countryside. Niemeyer would wake up early to watch the fishermen haul in their catch.
He is a national hero in Brazil, but elsewhere he may be the least celebrated of the major architects of the modern era. A suave pioneer of curvaceous concrete, toying with the limits of engineering while injecting sex and surrealism into Le Corbusier's famous machine for living, he designed some of the most audacious, sublimely poetic and occasionally goofy buildings of the 20th century. Probably more than anyone else, he brought lyricism and a populist sensibility to modern public architecture.
His style hasn't changed much in years, but opinion about him has. He was often disregarded when Corbu, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius upheld the Modernist center; the Museum of Modern Art paid him decreasing notice. But gradually he has become the subject of newfound interest: hipster infatuation with unorthodox Modernism has recuperated Niemeyer's reputation among young design aficionados. When his art museum for Niterói opened in 1996, it was adopted as a backdrop for spreads in fashion magazines. Trendy publications like Wallpaper embraced his formal finesse, with its hint of radical chic. Brand-name architects made pilgrimages to Rio. At nearly a century old, Niemeyer became the darling of the smart set.
None of which seems to matter much to him. He brushes off questions about his shifting status. ''Surprise and enchantment'' are his goals, he says. That enchantment was lost on many peers while high Modern austerity ruled. An unabashed sensualist, he was briefly lumped in the United States with figures like Morris Lapidus as a purveyor of modernist kitsch. The architect for all of the signature buildings in Brasília, Brazil's capital built from scratch 45 years ago out of the arid savanna of the country's vast, formerly underpopulated interior, he then suffered the disdain of people who, often sight unseen, denounced the city and the whole utopian, tabula-rasa approach that it epitomized.
''He was marginal,'' Frank Gehry says about how Niemeyer was perceived some decades ago. ''Oscar never had a publicist. He was far away. We didn't understand his context. We just heard about someplace being hacked out of the middle of some jungle to make a new city. The whole idea seemed so antisocial to liberal architects.''
Zaha Hadid echoes that thought. ''The post-60's generation was against Modern monumentality -- all those wide streets for the army to drive through,'' she explains. ''That's how some people thought about it. They didn't pay enough attention to see that Oscar represented a totally different ideology. By the time I got interested in him during the late 70's, early 80's, you could hardly find any books about his work.''
When the Pritzker jury split its prize in 1988 between Niemeyer and Gordon Bunshaft (itself a signal of halfhearted endorsement), Paul Goldberger, then the architecture critic for The New York Times, mistook Niemeyer for the designer of the master plan for Brasília. He remarked on a career that presented ''some troubling issues.'' Actually, Lucio Costa, not Niemeyer, mapped out the futuristic city, as a kind of anti-Rio. It was Costa who envisioned the huge blocks of government offices, the sectors for banks and housing, everything positioned like chess pieces on a board, crisscrossed by boulevards. Niemeyer, who had been on the jury that picked Costa, was then enlisted to design the major buildings -- fanciful, spectacular structures that breathed life into Costa's scheme.
Goldberger lamented that Niemeyer was out of sync with the times, devising ''abstract sculpture'' rather than projects that had ''something to do with the physical and cultural makeup of the place in which they are built.''
But that was then. Even during the 1960's his ethos crept into civic building programs like Lincoln Center. His legacy always dealt with the physical and cultural makeup of the places where he built. He defined not a corruption of traditional Modernism but a lively parallel strand of it.
Now architects like Rem Koolhaas echo his mix of surrealism and the rational; Hadid devises similarly airborne forms. She recently arranged for him to build a temporary pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park in London, which became a hit among young British architects who cottoned to his organic and sculptural aplomb. '''A postcard of Brazil in the middle of Hyde Park,'' Hadid called it.
Meanwhile, Niemeyer keeps working away, rising each morning to see what new surprises and enchantments he can cook up.
I was warned, before I arrived in Rio, that Niemeyer might be grumpy and wasn't averse to throwing an interviewer out after a few minutes. Having twice been denied a visa to enter the United States because of his Communist sympathies (an unreconstructed Stalinist, he still speaks fondly of Fidel and better days in Moscow), he can be skeptical about anyone from the United States. Colleagues have found him, in his 90's, sometimes reluctant to engage in conversation. Koolhaas was surprised to be seated in one of the stadium chairs, where Niemeyer proceeded to expound on architecture. When Gehry visited, Niemeyer showed him a drawing. ''The picture was on his desk,'' Gehry said. ''It was a row of women lying on the beach, alternately chest up, chest down. He told me that explained everything.''
But Niemeyer was gracious and easygoing. Formidable in photographs, he is a small, soft-spoken, deep-voiced, deeply tanned man with heavy, handsome features. He looked swallowed up in his desk chair, from which he instantly launched into a practiced speech: ''An architect must prepare himself for a world that can be very perverse. We pass through life very quickly, and each one of us writes our little story, which time will erase. Human beings don't have solutions; we have solidarity and friendship.''
I noticed his long, even fingernails when he stopped to draw a Swiss cigarillo from a slender wood box on his desk. His white monogrammed shirt was opened halfway down his chest to reveal a pressed white T-shirt. He is clearly still the man about town he was, even though his vision is now poor and he moves gingerly. Over lunch, an assistant discreetly sliced his chicken for him.
Associates fluttered, ceremoniously unfurling plans for projects he is currently devising: a complex near Paraguay, two churches and a ferry station in Niterói, government and cultural palaces in Brasília -- all audaciously engineered concrete buildings, suspended in midair from gigantic arches, shaped like spheres and rocket ships, rising from the middle of lakes, sprawling across what look like lunar plazas.
The through line is a kind of gravity-defying, exuberant, freewheeling lightness. ''If you think of the Renaissance, you think of buildings heavy on the bottom and light on top,'' Niemeyer said. ''I don't believe in this.''
His engineer, Jose Carlos Sussekind, arrived with a plan for an auditorium in Brasília. Dapper in pink polo shirt, lime green pants and slicked gray hair, he had the casual, energetic charm that I have heard people associate with the younger Niemeyer. He and Niemeyer have been working together for 35 years, and Sussekind acts like a proud son. Spreading the plan across the desk, he explained that an immense window is too wide to support the weight of the concrete span above it and needs to be narrowed. Niemeyer squinted at the plan and grunted softly. ''At the end,'' Sussekind said, ''the question with Oscar is always how far we can go with concrete. It's a constant quest to make larger spans, larger cantilevered spaces.'' Niemeyer nodded: ''It's about technique looking for beauty.''
Some days earlier I had met with Maria Elisa Costa, a Rio architect and the daughter of Lucio Costa, now in her 60's, a dashing woman, who kept talking about how beautiful Niemeyer's buildings are: ''My father used to say that Le Corbusier was strength, Mies van der Rohe was elegance and Niemeyer was grace. Oscar's inclination is to swing. With his buildings, all you have to do is listen to the tune.''
I saw a guitar beside Niemeyer's desk. ''I learned when I was a boy,'' he said. ''We used to play samba.'' His architecture has occasionally been compared to samba and to bossa nova -- cool, playful, sensuous. Bossa nova came out of clubs more or less around the corner from Niemeyer's office. Brazilians were treated to fox trots, boogie-woogies, boleros, mambos, rumbas, tangos, Portuguese fados, flamencos, French chansons and other European imports, all filtered through samba. As the Brazilian writer Ruy Castro put it, ''Because of everything that happened musically in the clubs during the 50's, we can say that when it happened, around 1958, bossa nova was simply inevitable.''
The same might be said of Niemeyer's style, as it emerged decades earlier, during the 1930's: Le Corbusier, coming to Rio, crossed paths with the young Niemeyer and with carioca culture in general, which is to say, with native Rio life and its embrace of pleasure, elegance and sex. The effect for Niemeyer was to warp Corbu's straight lines into curves, like the curves of his own drawings of women or the city's beaches and mountains -- or the music of his late friend, Tom Jobim.
The carioca composer and singer Chico Buarque put it this way: ''In my mind, Tom's music is a house designed by Oscar.''
Niemeyer's house in Rio, where he used to live before it became home to the Niemeyer Foundation, is perched on a steep mountain in a neighborhood called Canoas. Designed in 1951, it is a slice of domestic paradise. The drive to it across town from Copacabana is along the oceanfront, partly on Niemeyer Avenue, which is named for a distant relative who was a developer. A separate road then winds above the favelas into thickening jungle and high-walled affluence to reach a discreet driveway. Out of the car, gazing up through the palms and fruit trees, I saw hang gliders circling the peak on pink, white and yellow wings.
The building is a small glass pavilion, not much more than a pool house, curvy, low and see-through, with an airy, open plan and a flat concrete roof in the shape of a lima bean. It is out of view at first, masked by dense foliage, nestled in a clearing cut into the mountainside. A footpath twists sharply downward, revealing at once -- surprise and enchantment -- the building and the view to the ocean far below it. They are both spectacular.
A burbling swimming pool, roughly mirroring the shape of the roof, adjoins a corner of the facade via a huge boulder. Half the boulder sticks into the house, straight through the wall, melding inside with out. A stream also runs beside the house, which cantilevers over it, a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater.
There is a basement floor, a rabbit warren of tiny bedrooms with odd little slits for windows. In the tropical heat everything feels damp and cool. Niemeyer's buildings are not slickly finished, but we are accustomed today to standards for luxury architecture that mistake exquisite construction for exquisite thinking. As Hadid put it, ''Buildings are so overdetailed that anything slightly rugged looks poorly detailed.'' Niemeyer's house is elegant without being fussy.
Michael Sorkin, the American architect and critic, who visited the house years ago, compares it with Mies's 1920's steel, stone and glass icon. ''It's like the Barcelona pavilion on acid,'' he says. ''It has the same free-flowing space, but it's a completely different strain of Modernism, equally potent.'' As with much of Niemeyer's work, its forms echo nature but also stand out against it. Landscape is designed to assert itself before the house does, then to appear from inside it and through it -- and also to shift along the footpath, which is like the ramps and tunnels Niemeyer loves to use. Everything conspires to theatricalize movement through space, to contrast dark and light, high and low, inside and out.
''He is connected with Wright,'' Augusto Ivan Pinheiro, an urban-planning official in the Rio municipal government, told me when we met in his office one day, ''in that he is to Brazil what Wright is to America but also in that just as Wright was linked to the earth, Niemeyer is linked to the sky. I think if he had grown up in S-o Paulo, he would never have produced this architecture. It's so carioca, so aware of light and the mountains. And it's always looking out at the sea.''
About that, Niemeyer has recalled: ''Le Corbusier said once that I had Rio's mountains in my eyes. I laughed. I prefer to think like Andre Malraux, who said, 'I keep inside myself, in my private museum, everything I have seen and loved in my life.'''
Niemeyer was one of six children born to a typographer and businessman. ''My parents were such wonderful people,'' he wrote in a memoir, ''The Curves of Time,'' which he published a few years ago. ''Their lives were so pleasant, so uncomplicated and so humdrum that I can think of nothing special to relate.'' His upbringing was middle class, notwithstanding that his grandfather was a head of the supreme court. The house was packed with uncles, aunts and cousins. Rio ''was a more human city,'' Niemeyer told me, ''more tranquil, with less poverty. It was about adventures on the beach. Life was easier.''
He loved to draw and, after studying architecture, showed up in 1935 at the doorstep of Lucio Costa. Trained in Europe and steeped in the Brazilian colonial tradition, Costa taught Niemeyer to appreciate ''beautiful old Portuguese buildings, so sober and rigid, with their thick walls of stone . . . their gently sloping slate tiles contrasting with their whitewashed walls,'' Niemeyer recalled. Costa was ''very correct, very intelligent, calm. He thought architecture was very important, very progressive, that it changed everything.''
This wasn't quite Niemeyer's philosophy. ''Niemeyer has always said that the goal of Modern architecture to solve social problems is demagoguery, a dream, which just boosts architectural careers, but that true social revolution is a political process,'' Lauro Cavalcanti, a Brazilian architectural historian and museum director, said over a lunch in downtown Rio when we met one afternoon. Niemeyer has designed standardized public schools, called Cieps, for poor children in Brazil, built two universities for newly independent Algeria and is proud of his contribution to Niterói, a working-class city, but unlike Costa, he isn't utopian about architecture. ''Working in a capitalist nation,'' Niemeyer says, ''you should explore the progress of technology and form, and then as a citizen fight for social change.''
About Niemeyer's relationship with Costa, Maria Elisa Costa told me: ''Oscar and my father were very different temperaments, but part of the same movement. Oscar loves to be surrounded by people. My father was more reserved. He was the director; Oscar was the actor.''
When Costa was invited by the politician Gustavo Capanema in 1936 to design the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio, he assigned Niemeyer to prepare drawings. Le Corbusier came to town. Costa showed him his design for the ministry. Corbu proposed something different. Costa, in deference, handed over the assignment.
''I decided to make some sketches based on it,'' Niemeyer wrote. ''Corbu had designed glass to the ground and concrete shades. I devised a passageway by raising the building on pillars and made the shades movable and generally streamlined the shapes. Lucio came and asked to see my drawings, and not intending to interfere in the project, I threw them out the window.'' Costa had someone fetch them and liked what Niemeyer had done.
''It is on the inauguration memorial tablet in the building that it's a Le Corbusier design,'' Niemeyer remembered. ''But nowadays I can see that our collaboration was not that small.''
After lunch with Cavalcanti, I wandered over to see the ministry, which in late Brazilian summer was a steamy walk of several blocks from Cavalcanti's office. It consists of intersecting concrete and glass slabs, set off-kilter, jauntily tiled in white and blue, with a pattern of clamshells and starfish, and raised on slender piers above a shady plaza. A winding staircase leads to an airy art gallery and auditorium. The building is a little rundown now, but in a neighborhood of winding streets jammed with cars and sweaty workers jostling in the afternoon heat, the plaza is a cool respite. Rejecting Le Corbusier's plan for glass walls to the ground, replacing them with pillars, Niemeyer grasped that what in Paris would be a chilly wind tunnel becomes an oasis in Rio.
He then teamed with Costa on the design of the Brazilian Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, and in 1940 received a call from Juscelino Kubitschek, mayor of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais. Kubitschek, like Capanema, was among the enlightened politicians of the midcentury who embraced Brazilian Modernism. He asked Niemeyer to design a suburb called Pampulha. The complex Niemeyer built included an ovoid casino, a circular restaurant and a yacht club with a double-sloped roof. The centerpiece was a tiled concrete church, with a parabolic silhouette kind of like a roller coaster. Niemeyer had found his voice.
His work in Brasília in the 1950's cemented his reputation abroad, both for better and worse. The city is about 750 miles from Rio, an hour-and-a-half shuttle flight, the planes going in the opposite direction packed on Thursdays and Fridays with diplomats escaping the capital for the weekend, leaving behind a place increasingly peopled by young families and retirees. I arrived one Friday to meet a guide and driver at the airport, who ferried me past rows of Costa's boxy apartment complexes set back in leafy clusters. In Brasília, there is no beckoning skyline, no center of town, exactly. The layout is often compared to an airplane or to a butterfly (Costa hated all comparisons), with the main government buildings at the cockpit or head. Apartment houses occupy the wings. (Costa mandated a maximum of six stories, the height from which he calculated a mother could be heard calling down to her child in the courtyard.)
The central axis is a grassy mall flanked by wide avenues. The best view is at the top of a TV tower Costa built in the middle of the axis, where an illegal flea market, a kind of smugglers' warren, a rare sign of Old World urban hustle, has sprung up beside the parking lot. From above, I could see almost everything laid out: the sectors for banks, embassies and hotels; the sports arenas; the artificial lake that half-encircles the city; the park with the president's house in it; and in the distance, the shantytowns, ''anti-Brasílias,'' they're called, where millions of poor, the descendants of those who came here to build Brasília, swell the receding hills.
Brasília is surprisingly green, almost suburban -- the grass, like the bricks, glass and concrete, having been transplanted at punishing cost to the empty savanna. Automobiles wind, like worker ants, in endless streams along the broad avenues and around the cloverleafs (Costa designed the city without traffic lights, sidewalks or intersections). The cars are practically the only things in sight that move. In a place of nearly 2.5 million residents, I spotted almost no pedestrians from above.
Bright white Buck Rogers concoctions, unmistakable among the nondescript banks and apartments, gleam in the sunlight. These are Niemeyer's buildings, romancing an austere landscape. They are beautiful and bizarre, isolated landmarks, marooned in the antiseptic environment, which they partly humanize by their erotic and symbolic charge. There in the distance is the National Congress, smartly off axis, with its vertical slabs balanced by two domes, half-melons, like Niemeyer's female bathers, one facing up, the other down. And in the opposite direction, the military parade grounds, with a swooping-roofed review stand and obelisk, like a gigantic sword and scabbard.
I set out for what is called the Pantheon, a memorial to Brazilian heroes, shaped like giant spooning birds, which when I walked inside it, off the empty plaza out of the blinding sun, seemed almost pitch black. A staircase, treacherous in the dark, rises dramatically to a vaulted room with an immense, sloped wall of stained glass designed by Marianne Peretti, facing painted scenes from the history of Brazil.
In the 1820's, Jose Bonifacio de Andrada e Silva, Brazil's so-called Patriarch of Independence, proposed the name Brasília for a future capital to be in the interior state of Goias, but moving the government from Rio went nowhere until Kubitschek, the former Belo Horizonte mayor, became president. There is a photograph of him in 1956 in the Kubitschek memorial museum in Brasília, which Niemeyer designed -- a part-sunken building, entered via a descending tunnel, fronted by terraced pools with a pillar, shaped like a sickle, bearing a sculptured portrait of the president. In the photograph, Kubitschek is a speck on a dirt path in the middle of endless scrub. The nearest paved road was then 400 miles away; the nearest railroad, 100 miles. In four years, this would be the city's center, now a shopping mall. ''Fifty years' progress in five,'' was Kubitschek's slogan.
Bruno Zevi, the Italian architectural historian, called Kubitschek's Brasília ''a city of Kafka.'' Simone de Beauvoir complained about its ''air of elegant monotony'' in which ''the street does not exist.'' Dreamers in the 1920's and 30's had imagined automobiles delivering crammed, creaky cities from overcrowding and disease. Brasília was finished in 1960, when that dream had already turned into suburban dystopia. A kind of un-city, a monument to centralized power and pedestrian inconvenience, it remains an urban anomaly. When I asked the driver to stop at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a sublime Niemeyer building we were speeding past, he pulled uneasily onto the shoulder of the avenue. The guide was flustered. Did I plan to walk across the street? This turned out to be slightly easier than strolling across an interstate highway. The ministry, magnificent inside, has a facade of gentle arcs and is set back from the street, floating above a goldfish and lily pond. Its central space is a glass-and-stone hall of ethereal calm, a kind of white box enclosing a broad spiral staircase, minus handrails, carpeted blue -- ingenious sculpture as ceremonial architecture -- and to one side of the hall, an Amazonian garden, which like the pond, is designed by Roberto Burle Marx, the great landscapist.
Naturally, no one wanted to move to Brasília at the beginning. From March through September, it can get drier than the Sahara, literally. But it is safer than most Brazilian cities; families say it is a good place to raise children. What had been envisioned by Costa as a city with 500,000 people and 100,000 cars by 2005 is now five times as populous and accommodates nearly a million cars; the vision of a middle-class utopia without poverty has been replaced by millions of poor people pressing in from the outskirts and by condominiums for the well-to-do sprouting up not far from the center of town, thwarting Costa's master plan. Brasília, in several ways, has become increasingly like every other Brazilian city.
''People still believed in the 1950's that, with industrialization, the situation would change,'' Maria Elisa Costa said over iced tea one gusty afternoon on the roof deck of the Caesar Park Hotel above Ipanema. ''People never thought that in 50 years there would be more poor people.''
She fished a photograph from her bag. ''My father suffered when people said Brasília was cold. He rarely went. But in 1984, I took him to a bar there.'' She showed me the picture, of him smiling in a restaurant. ''This could be anywhere,'' she said. ''Brasília was no longer an idea. It was a city, not a tourist city, but a real city. My father was a lucky man. You invent a city, and then you can have a drink in a bar in your city, the most ordinary thing.
''Brasília,'' she added, ''was a dream by young people,''
For his part, Niemeyer now deflects criticism of Brasília by stressing that Costa did the master plan. But he says: ''You may not like Brasília, but you can't say you have seen anything like it -- you maybe saw something better, but not the same. I prefer Rio, even with the robberies. What can you do? It's the capitalist world. But people who live in Brasília, to my surprise, don't want to leave it. Brasília works. There are problems. But it works. And from my perspective, the ultimate task of the architect is to dream. Otherwise nothing happens.''
I stopped into the cathedral, another Niemeyer masterpiece, shaped like a flower or a crown of thorns, dug into the ground. The entrance is a descending ramp that opens onto a towering, circular nave of light. Sixteen huge columns slant toward the center of the room. Stained glass by Peretti spans the columns. Facing the entrance, an oval platform, the altar, sits above a chapel dug a floor below.
The air was tropical and thick when I got inside, and the cathedral was nearly empty. Some of the glass was broken. Birds roosted between the cracked panes and behind the columns. A butterfly bumped against me, and I watched it zigzag toward the ceiling, into the sunlight.
''We absolutely need to look at the sky,'' Niemeyer once said, ''and feel how insignificant we are -- the offspring of nature.''
He was in a hotel room in Lisbon in 1964 when he heard on the radio that the Brazilian military, in a coup backed by the United States, had overthrown the government in Brazil. Niemeyer's studio was ransacked. So was the office of Modulo, the magazine he started. The day he returned, the army interrogated him, but he stayed in the country and continued to work for the next few years. ''Brasília still worried me,'' he recalled, ''but little by little, after the military coup, I felt the political pressure against me was growing.'' A plan he designed for Brasília's airport -- a circular terminal -- was rejected. The Julia Kubitschek School he had built was demolished. Working on the Ministry of the Army in Brasília, ''the officer in charge told me I would be arrested the next day for giving money to people in hiding.'' With help from Malraux, he set up an office in Paris.
He remained in self-imposed exile from 1967 until the 1980's. Some of his best buildings came during this period: in Italy, a headquarters for Mondadori, the publisher, set into a pond, not unlike the Foreign Ministry in Brasília; and in France, a cultural center in Le Havre and the Communist Party headquarters in Paris.
About Niemeyer's Communism, Brazilians shrug. Pressed, Niemeyer will reminisce about his Lenin Prize in 1963, the same year he was made an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects, some years before Pope John Paul II appointed him Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great. And he will describe his only trip to Moscow, to see the Bolshoi and to meet Soviet architects: '''On the politics, I'm with you,' I told them. 'But your architecture is awful. Look, I didn't come here to criticize, but you asked. It's terrible.''' After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Brazilian Communist Party changed its name to the Popular Socialist Party, and Niemeyer led a Marxist-Leninist splinter group, telling the newspaper O Globo that ''all this talk that Communism is dead is baloney.'' Today, Prada uses his Paris Communist Party headquarters for parties, and Louis Vuitton and Dior have made it a backdrop in advertising campaigns.
''In the end, Oscar represents modernism as a style without the usual ideology,'' Cavalcanti, the architectural historian, told me. This, Cavalcanti added, is partly what makes him influential with young architects.
He clearly won't be easy to imitate, though. Brazil is full of Niemeyer knockoffs. Before flying to Rio, I saw the Strick house in Los Angeles, the only private building in the United States he was hired to design. Niemeyer drew up plans that resembled the layout at Canoas. But the project was changed, and another architect took over. Niemeyer now waves his hand when I ask about it, saying he had nothing to do with the result. It's a handsome modern building, lovingly restored, but not what it would have been had he had his way.
In downtown Rio, I also stopped into the Cathedral of St. Sebastian, built under the dictators during the 70's -- a gigantic, seeming parody of Niemeyer's cathedral in Brasília. It has the rounded, cone-shaped design, the oval altar, but it is as oppressive and grim as Niemeyer's buildings, even the most monumental ones, are uplifting. Nobody has made drip paintings after Jackson Pollock, but he gave generations of artists the license to dream. Niemeyer may turn out to be the same sort of artist.
Niterói is a breezy drive across an eight-and-a-half-mile-long bridge from Rio. The museum for contemporary art that Niemeyer designed there was conceived to raise the profile of what is sometimes called Rio's Oakland, a working-class city on the other side of the bay. The cathedrals and ferry terminal he is now planning are meant to do more than that: to rejuvenate the city's economy and waterfront.
Niemeyer's museum is easy to spot from a distance. It looks like a flying saucer landed on a spectacular promontory, with a panorama of Sugar Loaf mountain in Rio as backdrop. Opened in 1996, it instantly became Niterói's icon. Slender and white, resting on its stem, it rises out of a reflecting pool that, from the plaza in front, seems to merge with the water in the bay below. Visitors walk up a spiraling ramp to gaze through wraparound windows at the view.
The money must have run out (the construction budget was a measly $5.3 million), to judge from the state of the interior. But the general design, touchingly hokey, is whimsical and grand. Niemeyer was nearly 90 when he finished it. He was still dreaming big.
Through the windows, I absently watched children play in the murky surf while puffs of clouds drifted across the bay. In his memoir, Niemeyer recalled daydreaming during a drive to Brasília. (He hates to fly.) He saw the shape of a voluptuous woman in the clouds. ''And she remained there for a long time, looking at me from a distance, as if inviting me to join her,'' he wrote. ''What I feared happened. Gradually my girlfriend disappeared, her arms expanded in despair.
''And I felt that this perverse metamorphosis was similar to our own destiny. We are obliged to be born, grow, struggle, die and disappear forever.''
Oscar Niemeyer in his office overlooking Copacabana Beach.