The Dark Side of Oscar Niemeyer

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The soaring, curvaceous concrete of Brasilia is like no other skyline in the world. And the Brazilian capital's most distinctive forms -- the stark white dome of the National Museum of the Republic, pictured above; the circular, spiked cathedral, like a crown perched upon the plaza; and the delicately beautiful Presidential Palace -- are all the work of one man: architect Oscar Niemeyer, who died in Rio de Janeiro on Dec. 5.

In its prime -- shortly after it was laid out in a burst of idealistic zeal over the 1950s and 60s -- Brasilia was the embodiment of urban modernity. But as ideas about planning have evolved, both Brasilia and Niemeyer's reputation have taken a hit.

Brasilia, writes Richard J. Williams in Foreign Policy, has "become a buzzword for the impractical, utopian ideas of the past: a white marble monument to central planning surrounded by slums." Amid the molding concrete, the favelas, and the smog-choked freeways of today's Brazilian capital, Williams asks, "is there anything worth salvaging from Niemeyer's complex legacy?"

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Before Niemeyer and his cohorts, there was no Brasilia. From 1763 to 1960, the capital of Brazil was Rio de Janeiro, in the southeast of the country. Brasilia was chosen as the new capital because of its central location, but before it could become the seat of government, a proper city had to be built. Niemeyer is not solely responsible for the Brasilia we know it today: His friend and colleague Lucio Costa was responsible for most of the urban planning, which included rigid zones for working, living, and playing. But it was Niemeyer who designed the buildings that gave the place its distinctive look and feel.

"It's a place where the buildings count for a lot," he said in a 2000 interview. "The city is flat. The horizon stretches away endlessly."

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In his designs, Niemeyer aimed to create a sense of Surrealist spectacle that would literally "shock and surprise" visitors out of their everyday lives. Above, the otherworldly Three Powers Square, which, Williams writes: "simultaneously invokes neoclassicism and Hollywood science fiction ... There is nowhere on Earth like it."

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An interior view of the National Museum of the Republic in Brasilia.

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Niemeyer's focus was on aesthetics, and he has been criticized for prioritizing form over function in his buildings. One example: Brasilia's glass-ceilinged cathedral, which, though iconic, on hot sunny days rapidly transforms into an airless oven.  Above, a night view of the cathedral from 2007.

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Critics also accuse Niemeyer of neglecting questions of upkeep and maintenance in his designs. Those who visited the capital not long after its completion in 1960 were unimpressed. "Cracking stonework, flaking concrete, rusting metal: a ceremonial slum," wrote Australian art critic Robert Hughes in 1980. Niemeyer's construction material of choice was concrete, which fares poorly in Brazil's humid climate. Above, an aerial view of the National Congress building.

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Niemeyer's flying saucer-shaped Museum of Contemporary Art, pictured above, in Niteroi, outside of Rio, was once lauded by the architectural press. Built in 1996, it remains a stunning sight from afar. Up close, however, "the concrete surfaces are crude and unfinished," wrote the New York Times in 2007. "Up close it's a terrible bodge-job," writes Williams. "A first-grader's approximation of a flying saucer."

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Niemeyer's main legacy will remain Brasilia, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But Niemeyer has designed buildings around the world, with projects in Israel, France, and Algeria, and beyond. Pictured above is Niemeyer's Ravello Auditorium, in Ravello, Italy, on the Amalfi coast. The auditorium has been controversial: Some have questioned the incongruousness of such a modern structure in a medieval Italian town.

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Niemeyer remains lauded as one of Brazil's heroes. Celebrations were held throughout the country in honor of his 100th birthday in 2007, and he was made Grand Commander of the Legion of Honor by the French ambassador to Brazil.

Above, Niemeyer, pictured in 2007, smokes in his studio.

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A crowd waits in line outside Niemeyer's funeral at Planalto Palace in Brasilia last week. After the Brasilia viewing, Niemeyer's body was returned to Rio de Janeiro for a second wake, followed by the burial.

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