Oscar Niemeyer dies at 104; modernist Brazilian architect

He will perhaps be best remembered for Brasilia, the bold project launched by Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek in 1956 in an effort to unify his vast country and move it forward half a century in a mere five years.

Kubitschek commissioned Niemeyer and Costa to oversee his dream of moving Brazil's capital from coastal Rio to a nearly uninhabited high central plain more than 700 miles away. Niemeyer had described it as "a dismal patch of wilderness."

Costa developed the master plan, which from the sky resembled an aircraft, with public buildings in the body of the craft and housing in the north-south wings. Niemeyer designed the major public buildings, including the Alvorada Palace, the cathedral and the Supreme Court and Congress buildings.

Niemeyer began his work on Brasilia by designing the glass-and-concrete cathedral, which resembles an old-fashioned woman's corset with stays cinched around the middle. To heighten the drama for worshipers, Niemeyer designed a dark subterranean entrance hall from which one emerges into a light and airy nave.

"Instead of looking out into the emptiness, you look upward, to where the Lord is waiting," the lapsed Catholic told Newsweek in 2002.

Within four years after construction began, Brasilia was established as the country's seat of government — a feat that took 40,000 workers and ultimately broke the country's treasury.

Though monumental in its grandness, Brasilia has had its share of ardent critics, including Robert Hughes, who had called it a "utopian horror."

Even Niemeyer was disappointed that Brasilia did not fulfill his idealistic dream of one bright and equal city full of the future. Twenty years after it was built, Niemeyer said that the poor "see the beauty of Brasilia through binoculars."

But to other criticisms — for example, that not all of Brasilia's buildings are functional or lasting — Niemeyer verbally shrugged. "It's not enough to be functional," he told The Times.

His goal was to astonish, to inspire, to make his buildings "beautiful and spectacular so that the poor can stop to look at them, and be touched and enthused."

Neimeyer's wife of 75 years, Annita, died in 2004. Two years later he married his former secretary, Vera Lucia Cabreira. With his first wife he had a daughter, Anna Maria. His survivors include many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

Luther is a former Times staff writer.

PHOTOS: Oscar Niemeyer's life and work