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Tribute to Oscar Niemeyer

United Nations, New York, NY
April 24th, 2013

Mr. Secretary General, Mr. President, Madame Ambassador and friends, good afternoon. It is a special pleasure and honor to be speaking here, in this extraordinary place, about a man who played a significant role in its creation—who was, in fact, the last survivor of the group that gave the United Nations its architectural form, a form that was consciously intended to symbolize the new world the twentieth century was making, and to create, we might say, the architectural equivalent of the new political world that the United Nations organization sought to bring into being. It is no exaggeration to say that Oscar Niemeyer, along with Wallace K. Harrison, Le Corbusier and the other members of the international Board of Design charged with the design of the UN, believed deeply in the potential of modernism, if not to fix all the world’s ills at least to mitigate them, and to provide a sympathetic environment for the act of giving new form to international politics. New forms for new tasks; the idea was that the architecture might at once be a metaphor for the new political world, and provide a supportive and functional home for it.

And the Board of Design, working under the American Wallace K. Harrison, was intended to demonstrate the same cooperation expected of the various governments. It did not always work out that way, of course, any more than cooperation is smooth among the various delegations to the UN. This is not the moment to tell the long and complex story of the shaping of the United Nations headquarters—a saga that is in some ways not over, since the integrity of this remarkable architectural ensemble remains under new challenges, given the unfortunate proposals to build on the north side—but the task of creating the design in the first place is one in which Oscar Niemeyer played an important role, not only in giving this complex physical form, but also in demonstrating a degree of diplomacy unusual among architects. As Niemeyer relates in his autobiography, when Le Corbusier, who admittedly played the largest role in shaping the UN, at a key moment substituted his version of the evolving design for one that bore more of Niemeyer’s stamp, and which the rest of the committee had agreed upon, Niemeyer, in the interests of getting along, allowed the change to stand.

I will come back to architecture in a moment, but it is hard not to think about this, and to wonder whether Niemeyer’s capacity for knowing how to make certain concessions at the necessary time may have played a large role in the contentment with which he appears to have moved through his long and extraordinary life. He was not, after all, a weak sort. He had a large ego, and he was more than happy to allow the world to think that Brazilian architecture began and ended with him, that he was the sun around which all architecture in his country revolved. But he was also someone who was profoundly interested in life itself—in everything that went on in his buildings and in everyone else’s, and we know that he had a lifelong commitment to social justice. He cared about how the world worked, and I suspect that he also cared passionately that the United Nations get off to a good start. Le Corbusier was also his mentor. So perhaps it is not surprising that Niemeyer wanted to assure that the workings of the design committee were smooth, and would not draw a line in the sand about his own contribution, painful though it was for him to have some of his ideas not brought to the fore as they should have been.

For all that scientists might tell us that his survival to ten days short of his 105th birthday was in large part the result of happy genetics, it is hard not to believe that it was also a result of the easy, warm attitude he brought to almost everything. I am reminded of the line in that wonderful Johnny Mercer song “Young at Heart,” made famous by Frank Sinatra—“and if you should survive to a hundred and five, look at all you’ll derive out of being alive/And here is the best part, you have a head start/If you are among the very young at heart.” A cliché, surely, but still, it is hard to wonder  if this song wasn’t written with Oscar Niemeyer in mind; his life certainly seems to prove that this lyric was correct.

But let us get back to architecture, much as we admire the life-affirming spirit of a man who was still working at 104, and who could remarry when he was in his late nineties. Niemeyer managed to make himself a symbol of his nation’s culture, something almost no architect in our time or any other has been able to do. He was not just an architect who came from Brazil; he was Brazil, as much as Pele, or the samba. His swirling forms and his curving lines replaced modernism’s harshness with softness and ease. Niemeyer didn’t compromise modernism’s utopian ideals—in fact, he could be said to have held onto them more faithfully than any other modernist—but when filtered through his sensibility, the stern, unforgiving rigor of so much European modernism became as smooth as Brazilian jazz. It is no exaggeration to say that his work is sensuous, even at times hedonistic. The Puritanism that affected much modern architecture in the twentieth century was nowhere within his personality, and so it was nowhere within his architecture, either. Instead, Niemeyer represented a curious contradiction of the modern and the romantic. Who but Niemeyer, for example, could have produced a building like the Presidential Palace in Brasilia, a kind of Mies van der Rohe glass box surrounded by swooping, prancing cutouts? This building is truly remarkable, because it manages at once to be a rigorous expression of modernism and a warm-hearted but sincere critique of it.

Niemeyer’s architecture possessed a magical combination of lushness and spareness. He will be remembered for many museums and some high-rise buildings, as well as many houses that are masterworks of mid-century modernism. But nothing brought him to the attention of the world like Brasilia, the new capital city whose layout was the work of Niemeyer’s colleague Lucio Costa, one of Brazil’s first modernists, but whose iconic architecture was all Niemeyer’s. I had the great privilege of visiting Brasilia not long ago, and I must say that I found it profoundly moving, almost overwhelming, as a testament to an entire nation’s belief that the twentieth century might truly create a utopian city, and also that modern architecture could serve as a symbol of Brazil to the world.

That Brasilia is anything but a utopia is, of course, not news. With its wide boulevards and buildings set down in open space like pieces of abstract sculpture, it is hard to imagine a place less attuned to what we today consider the elements of a workable city. We know now that streets and inviting public places are what make cities, not just buildings. But Niemeyer’s exquisite structures are capable of making you put this knowledge aside for a moment, and of taking you to another place in the imagination—a place of beautiful objects that inspire people to believe in the power of architecture. When I walked through the extraordinary Itamarati Palace, home of the Foreign Ministry, with its stunningly beautiful curving stair, and the Planato Palace, the office of the President, or the National Cathedral, made of an exhilarating circle of splayed-out ribs, it was in many ways like entering an enchanted land, one created by people who believed in the future, and had confidence that Niemeyer’s beautiful shapes would be the vehicles that would take them there.

Now, of course, Brasilia is a vision of the past far more than of the future, and in some ways it feels no more closely connected to the world of today as the classical colonnades of Washington D.C. Niemeyer lived long enough to see Brasilia be widely admired, fall out of favor, and then be admired once again in recent years, not as a model for the ideal city, which it could not ever be, but as a thing unto itself, a set of magnificent objects that, taken together, constitute the fully realized product of a set of deeply held beliefs that, at least for a short while, were shared by an entire national government—among them the belief, as I said, that modern architecture could symbolize a nation before the world. And so it did, since Niemeyer’s shapes became as much the image of Brazil as the Eiffel Tower is of France, and Big Ben is of Britain.

It is hard to imagine a head of state today doing what President Kubitschek did in the nineteen-fifties, when he was determined not only to move the capital to the center of his country and get an entire city built in four years in the middle of the jungle, but also to assure that this city would not be an ordinary one—that it would contain a set of iconic architectural forms that would show how modernism could be used to represent a nation’s highest ideals. No other nation has done this, before or since. Brazil, when Niemeyer built his buildings in Brasilia, truly led the world in celebrating the potential of architecture—and Niemeyer in many ways inspired Kubitschek to do this.

The idealism of Brasilia did not last long, of course; the government that created the city was overthrown, and Niemeyer himself, so closely associated with it, fell out of favor. He left Brazil for several years, living in Paris, the only time he ever lived outside of the nation whose identity became so intertwined with his own. Thankfully the junta, while it could have never had the imagination or vision, let alone the value system, to have brought Brasilia into being, was sufficiently indifferent to Brasilia to not want to destroy it, either. Niemeyer and Brasilia both outlasted the junta and flourished for a long time after its demise—in fact, Niemeyer returned to Brazil after the fall of the junta and embarked on three more decades of active architectural practice, a period of late flowering that in some ways was not dissimilar to the late periods of Frank Lloyd Wright or Picasso, periods in which his ideas were repeated in somewhat simpler form than earlier, but with a spectacular, theatrical intensity, sometimes bordering on excess.

And so it continued up until the last year: Niemeyer, our last link to the early generation of modernist architects, continuing to make his forms, to the end dependent on the curves that he so loved. The earlier buildings have a kind of sleek thinness to them while the later ones tend to be fuller and rounder, but always, the curves make them sing.

Niemeyer liked to tell people that his love of curves came from his love of the female body, and while that undoubtedly played a part, his architecture represented much more than “form follows feminine,” the cute if disingenuous variation he often repeated on Louis Sullivan’s famous dictum that form follows function. It was a true and serious attempt to connect the purism and simplicity of modernism with the sensuousness of Brazilian culture, and he succeeded for so long, and so well, at doing this that his work came ultimately to stand for that culture as much as to reflect it.

Niemeyer never let down the flag—perhaps that is the most important thing about him, in the end. He believed passionately in three things that might, to some people, seem unconnected: social justice, living well, and modern architecture. To Niemeyer these were not unrelated at all. They were all essential aspects of human life: the right to be treated decently, the right to experience pleasure, the right to experience beauty. His belief in all three of these things never wavered. He fought, in his way, for all of them, since he was famously a member of the Communist party, which he saw not as contradicting his belief in living well, but as a testament to the fact that it was a right that he wanted to be shared by all.

Architecture, Niemeyer felt, united his belief in social justice and his love of richness of experience; it was his primary way of making the world better. “I am an architect who works for whoever calls me,” he wrote. “[My] buildings do not always serve the functions of social justice, [but] I try to make them beautiful and spectacular so that the poor can stop to look at them, and be touched and enthused. As an architect, that is all I can do.”

Thank you very much.

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