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Urban planning, Brazil, communism ... What makes Oscar Niemeyer run?

Translated by Patrick Bolland

Translated Sunday 29 January 2006, by Patrick Bolland

Refusing to give up hope: Oscar Niemeyer, one of the world’s leading architects, reflects on 60 years of creativity, his commitment to communism and the future of Latin America

Oscar Niemeyer: Refusing to give up hope

The building is right on the Copacabana Beach and the office is on the top floor. Oscar Niemeyer (1) is late for our appointment. From the long white bench under the bay window, it is easy to get carried away with the emotion the architectural studio evokes, admire the furnishings, the sketches on the walls, a drawing in homage to the homeless with the text “The Land Belongs to Everyone” ... This waiting is undiluted pleasure.

Here he comes. A prolonged hand-shake and a few warm words to express his pleasure at meeting a friend from the French Communist Party. He leads me to a small, intimate room, the walls lined with books. French authors mixed with others: Laclos, Dumas, Baudelaire, Camus and the History of the Paris Commune, alongside numerous works by Brazilian and other Latin American authors: Ribeiro, Amado ... There, on his desk, is a sparkling bronze plaque, which he received at the opening of the PCF headquarters that he designed in Paris. He has a soft spot for l’Huma: “I’ve always been a faithful supporter of the l’Humanité newspaper”, he tells me. “L’Humanité must keep going, it is the companion of all who fight against poverty, injustice, capitalism.”

The man is in good shape, particularly given his 98 years. He doesn’t consider himself anyone special, and, if one insists, points out that he’s “not really aware of his genius”. Yet many of his most recent creations, brought to life by the curves that he loves so much, are still rising up into the skies. A cathedral, a theatre, a museum of cinematography, the headquarters of the Oscar Niemeyer Foundation and a new port are rising from the ground, filling out the “Niemeyer Row” in Niteroi, a city near Rio de Janeiro. Brasília is still expanding, with a Museum of Contemporary Art, the National Library, cinemas, a music centre - for which Niemeyer invented the forms and designed the plans. The official government buildings of the Minas Gerais are expanding out to Belo Horiozonte. He is working on projects for Potsdam and Oviedo in Europe.

HUMA: We are seeing numerous new projects of yours flourishing in the four corners of the globe. So you are not losing any of your energy ...

NIEMEYER: I come into the office every day, from 11 in the morning to 11 at night. I have a very particular way of working. When I have the idea of a project in my mind, I put down the design on paper, without discussing it with others, because architecture requires a transposition, a very personal commitment, very individualistic. When the design is finished, I call in my colleagues to work on the development stage. This allows us to discuss it, to complete the project-design. Constructing any buildings is very difficult, there are always modifications to be made to the initial design. So we have to be careful right up to the building’s completion. Even more so in building a whole new city, constantly changing as in the case of Brasília, which started already 45 years ago. Architecture demands a lot of my work and energy. I’m working on projects in France, Germany, Italy. Right now, I’m also working on a museum project for Oviedo in Spain.

HUMA: The 2005 “Year of Brazil” in France was an unprecedented success...

NIEMEYER: I’m not surprised! If one day I have to leave Brazil, it will be to go to France. Brazil has always had close ties to France. These ties are still very strong today. French literature is taught well in Brazil and very much present in the schools. I remember when I was in Paris, during my exile from the fascist dictatorship in 1964, being surprised by the welcome I received from André Malraux, whom I’ve always respected: “I’ve put your architecture in my ‘imaginary museum’, where I keep everything that I have seen and admired in the world”, he told me. He found a way of letting me work in France, as a French architect. It was thanks to this that during my time in Paris I was able to design the “maison de la culture” at Le Havre, the labour-exchange in Bobigny, the headquarters of the PCF in Paris and the headquarters of l’Humanité in Saint-Denis - which, I have heard, get visited a lot. I’m very proud of these. In Brazil, I often say: the French Communist comrades are the best people I’ve ever known in my life: they seek nothing for themselves, they just want to change the world for everyone. That’s really something, isn’t it?

HUMA: Your commitment as a communist ... Is it still the same?

NIEMEYER: I feel good about it, I’m still following the same path. I left school, coming from a bourgeois family. My grandfather was the Brazilian Minister of the Supreme Court. I understood right away that we had to change things. The path to change was the Communist Party. I joined the Party and have remained in the Party up to today, following all the ups and downs that life has imposed.
When I talk about architecture, I usually say that life is more important than architecture. Architecture doesn’t change anything, life changes things much more than architecture. I think - and I keep saying this to my colleagues, to students - that to be a good architect it isn’t enough to complete your schooling. Above all, to really be an architect, to be creative, you have to know the lives of people, their misery, their suffering.
The main thing is to be someone who manages to understand life, and one must understand that it is important to change the world. We are looking for coherence. Every Tuesday, we have meetings in my office with students, intellectuals, scientists, writers. We exchange ideas about philosophy, our political ideas, about the world: we want to understand life, change the lives of people, change human beings. Firstly, I am a pessimist: I think humans have a very narrow perspective, but we have to live honestly, live hand-in-hand with each other. But then, at a second level, I recognize that we have to be less pessimistic and a bit more realistic. We have to see that life is hard for people, each one with his or her own specific story. There are too many injustices. But commitment to the Communist Party provides hope, solidarity, and the realization that it is possible to struggle together for a better world.

HUMA: How do you see the political situation of President Lula of Brazil, particularly, and the political changes taking place in Latin America, in general?

NIEMEYER: Latin America has to become a pole of struggle, a pole of resistance against American imperialism. We have to recognize that the American people are like any other people, but the North-American political agenda is, in its totality, threatening - threatening to Latin America. We have to protect ourselves better. I would have hoped that Lula would have been the leader of this struggle. We don’t like seeing Lula’s government being so friendly with the Americans. But I’m not pessimistic, the popular and progressive forces are a sign that the people may be reacting (2).
I think that, when life is very difficult, hope pours out of the hearts of men - you have to fight, you have to make the revolution. One can’t improve Capitalism: it is responsible for the worst things in the world. Young people have to get involved, they have to participate in the struggle. I know that this is not the best of times, but you have to have hope.

Translator’s notes:
(1) Oscar Niemeyer (born December 15, 1907) is a Brazilian architect who is certainly one of the most important figures in international modern architecture. He was a pioneer in the exploration of the constructive possibilities of reinforced concrete. His buildings have forms so dynamic and curves so fluid and sensual that many say that he is more a sculptor than an architect. In 1947, he designed the UN headquarters in New York, in the 1950s many of the buildings in the new national capital of Brasília. In 1964 he was forced into exile under the Brazilian military dictatorship and settled in Paris, where he designed the headquarters of the PCF of of l’Humanité. In 1996, at 89 years old, he created what many consider his greatest work: the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (in the city of Niterói, a city next to Rio de Janeiro). The building flies from a rock, giving a beautiful view of the Guanabara Bay and the city of Rio de Janeiro.
(2) This interview was conducted before Evo Morales’ victory in the Bolivian elections in January 2006.

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