February 7, 2006

Architect Niemeyer, 98, still full of surprises

By Andrei Khalip

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (Reuters) - At 98, architect Oscar
Niemeyer, whose modernist buildings and monuments are the
centerpiece of Brazil's capital, still wants to surprise the
world with new shapes of his beloved reinforced concrete.

"That is the architecture I do, looking for new, different
forms. Surprise is key in all art," the designer told Reuters
in an interview in his working studio.

His daring, self-described "architectural invention" style,
with buildings often more like abstract art sculptures, has
influenced several generations of architects since the 1930s.

In his shabby, sun-lit office, which offers a view of Rio
de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach, Niemeyer is still working on
projects he now often divides with other architects. Despite
his age, he has no plans to stop.

"The plastic capability of reinforced concrete is so
fantastic -- that is the way to go," he says, his voice frail
but his eyes sparkling.

The city of Niteroi, across the bay from Rio, is erecting
Niemeyer's most extensive project since Brazil's futuristic
capital Brasilia, which he and friend Lucio Costa built in the
late 1950s.

Ten buildings, including a Catholic cathedral and Baptist
church, a theater and the Niemeyer Foundation building, will
form part of the so-called "Niemeyer Way" in Niteroi.

His Contemporary Art Museum opened there in 1996, one of
hundreds of his buildings scattered around the world from New
York to Paris and Algiers.

Niemeyer was one of the creators of the United Nations
Secretariat building in New York. Among his latest works is the
eye-shaped New Museum in Curitiba in southern Brazil.

Experts argue about the utilitarian function of his
creations, with many saying it is far less enjoyable to
actually work or live in them than contemplating them from

Niemeyer says "it is ridiculous and irritating" to talk
about "form following function" in architecture. He argues his
buildings serve their purpose or his clients would not be
asking for more.


The concrete curves of his creations are often inspired by
female forms.

"Oh, women," Niemeyer said. "The best a man can have is a
woman by his side and then let it be God's will. Woman is

His wife of 76 years died in 2004 and he doesn't like to
comment about his private life.

Money and fame do not interest him, Niemeyer says, and,
judging by the beat-up look of his office, that is true.

An ardent Communist who lived and worked in exile during
most of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship in Brazil, Niemeyer
still is politically active, supporting the radical leftist
Landless Peasants Movement, which he calls "the only important
movement in Brazil."

"Life is more important than architecture ... architecture
doesn't improve the life of poor people but one can improve
life by protesting in the streets," he said.

He has few warm words for the center-left government of
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. "Lula is a worker whose
problem is that he wants to improve capitalism," he said.

Despite having designed many churches, Niemeyer is not a

"I wish I could believe in God but the world is very
perverse," he said. "That's why I joined the Communist Party -
we want to make the world a better place."

Apart from work, Niemeyer often receives young architects
who come from all over the world to see him. In his spare time,
he meets friends over a bottle of wine, talks politics, listens
to and even plays Brazilian music on a small ukulele-like
guitar despite slightly shaking hands.

"One has to live fully, to have a woman and friends by his
side, but be modest and always think about those who suffer,"
he said.