The Last of the Modernists

Still at work in Rio de Janeiro, Oscar Niemeyer talks about architecture’s failings.

At 98, Oscar Niemeyer still works every day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His office has an open view to the famous Copacabana Beach, but his desk does not face the ocean. No matter. “I don’t believe in inspiration,” he says. The architect spends his days reading good literature, chatting with a few friends, and drawing buildings, always defined by his trademark curve. Throughout his long career Niemeyer has translated the contours of Brazilian women—from his most ambitious work, the futuristic nation’s capital, Brasília, to his most recent projects, a floating cathedral that faces Rio from the other side of Guanabara Bay and a large bathing complex in Germany. Now the last of the Modernists is the subject of the new book Oscar Niemeyer: Houses, released by Rizzoli in May. Here he talks to Eduardo Graça about his legacy, his social beliefs, the secret of his long trajectory in the world of arts, and the certainty that “life is much more important than architecture.”

What is your work routine these days?
It is pretty much the same as ever. I come here every single day at 9:30 a.m. A lot of my mornings are dedicated to meetings with journalists and students. Then I have lunch here at my desk. I work all day long, until 8 p.m., and my single pleasure is having dinner out.

Have you always worked in the same office you have now?
Yes, pretty much. But when the military took power I had to leave the country. It was lucky that I was in Portugal during the coup in 1964.

So that’s how your European adventure starts?
Yes, I came to Paris and immediately opened an office at the Champs Elysées, organized by the French Communist Party.

Despite the fact that the UN building was finished in the 1940s and Brasília was created a decade later, it was in Europe that you consolidated your international reputation. Would you say those were the fundamental years of your career?
I would say that I had a lot of help—especially from President de Gaulle, who was said to be very fond of my work. His cultural secretary, Andrè Malraux, got me—without my request—a special work visa, which made my life there much easier. My exile in Europe can be defined by solidarity that I found everywhere in the old continent. But it was a painful period of my life, and this is reflected in my work.

Do you have any contact with young architects?
That question is opportune because right now I am conducting this campaign against the specialists. Did you know that? I don’t respect the guy whose unique talent is to talk about his own profession.

And how is this campaign happening?
I’ve talked with teachers, academics, journalists, young architects—anyone who crosses my way and wants to “talk about architecture.” Pay attention, kids, you can’t graduate and just dedicate your life to being a good architect. That is bullshit. You need to find an original way to think and to be informed about everything daily. Read, read, read, and read.

Would you recommend your own books about architecture?
I wouldn’t at all! I would tell people they should study philosophy and history to rediscover the great writers and thinkers. Anyone who is going to be an architect should invest part of his time in the knowledge of humanism. I spent my life at this desk, but I never fooled myself. I always knew that life is much more important than this—to feel is more important, to be nice to people is more important. To be useful is much more important to me than my architecture.

But don’t you think your architecture can help to improve the quality of life and bring rich and poor together?
No, just like any architecture, mine doesn’t help it at all. Architecture has always been directed to the upper class, and things haven’t changed. Nowadays there are almost no creative projects dedicated to improving the life of those who don’t have money.

This makes me think about Brasília, which was built 50 years ago as the city of the future. Today it is a model of social exclusion. As you know, the descendants of the workers who built Brasília live nearby in miserable bedroom communities.
When people say Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer built Brasília, forget it! These workers did it. The capital of this immense country was built by workers, humble people called candangos who left their houses all over Brazil to make that dream a reality. You are giving me here the chance to tell Americans about them. They were poor before, and they were poor after the capital was done.

But wouldn’t you change something about Brasília if you had a chance to create the city again?
Not at all. I think it is okay like it is. To be really honest, I prefer Rio de Janeiro much more than Brasília. I like the mess, even with the violence. But if you talk with Brasília’s inhabitants, they don’t want to leave the city. They say that the sky seems bigger there than everywhere else, and it makes you believe the space is bigger. There are also schools and malls nearby your house, and the life is in fact much more organized. But me? No way, man. I want the beach, the mountains, the chaos. I still want Rio.

You built your personal driver’s house in a favela here in Rio. Is it a good example of architecture helping those who are excluded?
Yes, but we are talking about my driver—my dear friend for more than half a century. He is a Brazilian man, a poor man, one who was born poor and will die poor. Of course his life improved with his new house, but this is an exception. Housing is always the beginning of any change in someone’s life. One needs to have a worthy place to live, and the state should provide it to everybody. But I insist that the answer to this change is not architecture. It is revolution.

You’ve been working intensely all these years; what inspires you?
This thing called inspiration is not important to me at all. The other day as I was drawing a project, when I sat in front of the desk I already knew what I was going to do. I thought about it for many days, about each possibility, each solution, about the fact that I wanted to do something different. Architecture, to me, is invention. Go to Brasília—you may or may not enjoy my projects, but I dare you to find something similar.

What are you working on now?
Right now I’m doing an aquatic center in Potsdam, Germany. It is a huge park with five pools. I had this idea to create separate pools surrounded by a glass gallery, with controlled weather. The gallery speaks with the dressing room through doors that can be opened during the summer, so you can really use the whole area. I haven’t seen any other aquatic center with these characteristics—that’s why I was interested in doing it.

There is also the Niemeyer Way, in Niterói, the main effort of your office since Brasília.
Is it really? Well, if you say so. In Niterói we are creating a square, a theater with the stage opening at the square, and a bunch of other buildings, like this very original cathedral facing the sea.

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