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Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer dies, aged 104

Brazilian soccer legend Pele (L) holds the hand of architect Oscar Niemeyer during a news conference in which they presented the plans for t
Brazilian soccer legend Pele (L) holds the hand of architect Oscar Niemeyer during a news conference in which they presented the plans for t

By Jeb Blount

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Oscar Niemeyer, a towering patriarch of modern architecture who shaped the look of contemporary Brazil and whose inventive, curved designs left their mark on cities worldwide, died late on Wednesday. He was 104.

Niemeyer had been battling kidney and stomach ailments in a Rio de Janeiro hospital since early November. His death was the result of a lung infection developed this week, the hospital said, little more than a week before he would have turned 105.

President Dilma Rousseff, whose office sits among the landmark buildings Niemeyer designed for the modernist capital city of Brasilia, paid tribute by calling him "a revolutionary, the mentor of a new architecture, beautiful, logical, and, as he himself defined it, inventive."

His body will lie in state at the presidential palace.

Starting in the 1930s, Niemeyer's career spanned nine decades. His distinctive glass and white-concrete buildings include such landmarks as the U.N. Secretariat in New York, the Communist Party headquarters in Paris and the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Brasilia.

He won the 1988 Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the "Nobel Prize of Architecture" for the Brasilia cathedral. Its "Crown of Thorns" cupola fills the church with light and a sense of soaring grandeur even though most of the building is underground.

It was one of dozens of public structures he designed for Brazil's made-to-order capital, a city that helped define "space-age" style.

After flying over Niemeyer's pod-like Congress, futuristic presidential palace and modular ministries in 1961, Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut and first man in space, said "the impression was like arriving on another planet."

In his home city of Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer's many projects include the "Sambadrome" stadium for Carnival parades. Perched across the bay from Rio is the "flying saucer" he designed for the Niteroi Museum of Contemporary Art.

The collection of government buildings in Brasilia, though, remain his most monumental and enduring achievement. Built from scratch in a wild and nearly uninhabited part of Brazil's remote central plateau in just four years, it opened in 1960.

While the airplane-shaped city was planned and laid out by Niemeyer's friend Lucio Costa, Niemeyer designed nearly every important government building in the city.

NATIONAL ICON

An ardent communist who continued working from his Copacabana beach penthouse apartment in Rio until days before his death, Niemeyer became a national icon ranking alongside Bossa Nova pioneer Tom Jobim and soccer legend Pelé.

His architecture, though, regularly trumped his politics.

Georges Pompidou, a right-wing Gaullist former French president, said Niemeyer's design for the Communist Party of France headquarters in Paris "was the only good thing those commies ever did," according to Niemeyer's memoirs.

Prada, the fashion company known for providing expensive bags and wallets, thought the Communist Party building in Paris so cool it rented it for a fashion show.

Even the 1964-1985 Brazilian military government that forced Niemeyer into exile in the 1960s eventually found his buildings congenial to its dreams of making Brazil "the country of the future."

His work is celebrated for innovative use of light and space, experimentation with reinforced concrete for aesthetic value and his self-described "architectural invention" style that produced buildings resembling abstract sculpture.

Initially influenced by the angular modernism of French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who worked with Niemeyer and Costa on a visit to Brazil in the 1930s, his style evolved toward rounded buildings that he said were inspired by the curves of Rio's sunbathing women as well as beaches and verdant hills.

"That is the architecture I do, looking for new, different forms. Surprise is key in all art," Niemeyer told Reuters in an interview in 2006. "The artistic capability of reinforced concrete is so fantastic - that is the way to go."

Responding to criticism that his work was impractical and overly artistic, Niemeyer dismissed the idea that buildings' design should reflect their function as a "ridiculous and irritating" architectural dogma.

"Whatever you think of his buildings, Niemeyer has stamped on the world a Brazilian style of architecture," Dennis Sharp, a British architect and author of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Architects and Architecture, once said of Niemeyer.

LIFELONG COMMUNIST

Niemeyer's legacy is heavily associated with his communist views. He was a close friend of Cuba's revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and an enemy of Brazil's 21-year military dictatorship.

"There are only two communists left in the world, Niemeyer and myself," Castro once joked.

Niemeyer remained politically active after returning to Brazil, taking up the cause of a militant and sometimes violent movement of landless peasants. He said in 2010 that he was a great admirer of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former labor leader who was Brazil's president from 2003 to 2010.

Niemeyer once built a house in a Rio slum for his former driver and gave apartments and offices as presents to others.

Despite his egalitarian views, Niemeyer had no illusions that his buildings were helping to improve social justice.

Far from the model city Niemeyer had envisioned, Brasilia today is in many ways the epitome of inequality. Planned for 500,000 people, the city is now home to more than 2.5 million and VIPs keep to themselves in fenced-in villas while the poor live in distant satellite towns.

"It seemed like a new era was coming, but Brazil is the same crap - a country of the very poor and the very rich," he said in another Reuters interview in 2001.

In a 2010 interview in his office, he was quick to blame Costa for things many dislike about Brasilia, such as its rigid ordering into homogenous "hotel," "government," "residential" and even "mansion" and "media" districts that can make finding a newspaper or groceries a chore.

"I just did the buildings," he said. "All that other stuff was Costa."

Despite Niemeyer's atheism, one of his first significant early works was a church built in homage to St. Francis, part of a complex of modern buildings in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

That work won the confidence of the city's mayor Juscelino Kubitschek. When he became president, he tapped Niemeyer to help realize the dream of opening up Brazil's interior by moving the capital from coastal Rio to the empty plains of central Brazil.

Despite years of bohemian living, Niemeyer remained married for 76 years to Annita Baldo, his first wife. He married his second wife, longtime aide Vera Lucia Cabreira, in 2006 at the age of 99. She survives him, as do four grandchildren.

Niemeyer's only daughter, an architect, designer and gallery owner, Anna Maria, died on June 6 at the age of 82.

(Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Rodrigo Viga Gaier. Editing by Todd Benson and Xavier Briand)

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