There was a story told by the mayor of the town of Niterói, across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, that expresses perfectly the epic stature of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who has died aged 104. In the spring of 1992, after Niemeyer’s first visit to the seafront site chosen for the town’s new museum of contemporary art, Mayor Jorge Roberto Silveira took Niemeyer and his colleagues to a restaurant for lunch. During the meal, Niemeyer described his vision of the museum “rising upward, like a flower, or a bird”.
This satisfied everyone except Silveira, who requested a clearer idea in the shape of a drawing, and asked a waiter to bring Niemeyer some paper. The waiter was on his way back with a notepad when he was intercepted by a colleague who had overheard their conversation. “Boy,” he cautioned the first waiter. “This is the man who built Brasilia. Go and get something bigger.”
Thus the first sketches of the Niterói Museum of Contemporary Art were made on a tablecloth. It was to be another four years before the elegant, cantilevered concrete dish was opened in 1996, to universal acclaim. Like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which opened the following year, the Niterói museum marked a surprising success for unrestrainedly expressionistic architecture. But where Gehry employed titanium alloy and a battery of computers, things were done differently at Niterói. Not only was Niemeyer’s project much smaller (as was its budget), but its materials and methods belonged to another age. Where 3D computing in Bilbao permitted unprecedented precision, Niterói, located on a promontory with the sea on three sides, featured low-tech concrete work, ill-fitting glazing and cheap polycarbonate balustrading…
In terms of timeless architecture, such disadvantages are unimportant, for Niterói is a modern triumph, something that deserves to be considered alongside such great buildings as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater; Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnworth house. Using one basic material, plus daring structural engineering, Niemeyer turned poured concrete painted white into an expressionist masterpiece.
Oh, would I could describe these conceptions
When, while the lovely valley teems with vapour around me, and the meridian sun strikes the upper surface of the impenetrable foliage of my trees, and but a few stray gleams steal into the inner sanctuary, I throw myself down among the tall grass by the trickling stream; and, as I lie close to the earth, a thousand unknown plants are noticed by me: when I hear the buzz.
Oh, would I could describe these conceptions, could impress upon paper all that is living so full and warm within me, that it might be the mirror of my soul, as my soul is the mirror of the infinite God! My friend but it is too much for my strength. I sink under the weight of the splendour of these visions!
A wonderful serenity has taken possession of my entire soul, like these sweet mornings of spring which I enjoy with my whole heart. I am alone, and feel the charm of existence in this spot, which was created for the bliss of souls like mine. I am so happy, my dear friend, so absorbed in the exquisite sense of mere tranquil existence, that I neglect my talents. I should be incapable of drawing.