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Dreaming big despite adversity: Oscar Niemeyer

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in Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

Oscar Niemeyer, one of the world’s most prominent modern architects, is re­­nowned for his light, airy and fanciful structures. Famous for designing the capital city of Brasília, and for collaborating with Le Corbusier on the United Nations headquarters in New York, Niemeyer was a pioneer in curving concrete and giant, graceful arches. The Brazilian architect died last year in Rio de Janeiro at age 104.

EL: You’re the first leader in the creative arts we’ve interviewed, and the first who is not from North America.

Niemeyer: I am honored.

EL: You found beauty in reinforced concrete. How?

Niemeyer: Strength and beauty may coexist. I believe not that “form follows function,” but that “form follows beauty.” My work follows the liberated, sensual curves of the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Surprise and enchantment are my goals.

EL: There’s a story from when you were a young assistant in 1936, helping prepare drawings for a ministry in Rio. Didn’t Le Corbusier come to visit and …

Niemeyer: I decided to make some sketches based on his. Corbu had de­­signed glass to the ground and concrete shades. I devised a passageway and generally streamlined the shapes. They came and asked to see my drawings, and not wanting to interfere, I threw them out the window. They sent someone to fetch them, and liked what I did.

EL: Your work is described as jaunty and uplifting, aware of light and moun­­tains, sea and sky.

Niemeyer: Corbu once said that I had Rio’s mountains in my eyes. I laughed.

EL: A fascist regime ruled Brazil for 21 years, most of which you spent in Europe. Until your exit, you had been very practical about working with the government. What made you go?

Niemeyer:  I was in Lisbon in 1964 when I heard that the Brazilian military, backed by the United States, had overthrown the government. They ransacked my studio. When I got home, they interrogated me. But I stayed for a few years. Little by little, I felt the pressure against me growing. They rejected my airport design and tore down a school I built. When an army officer told me I would be arrested the next day, I left for Paris.

EL: You stayed away until 1985. During that time, you produced some of your best work, including a headquarters for the Mondadori publishing house in Italy and two major buildings in France. You also visited the Soviet Union. Didn’t the public architecture there make you grind your teeth?

Niemeyer: Yes. I told them, “On the politics, I’m with you. But your architecture is awful. Look, I didn’t come here to criticize, but you asked. It’s terrible.”

EL: After you came back to Rio, you picked right up, designing stadiums and an art museum that looks like a flying saucer.

Niemeyer: We absolutely need to look at the sky and feel how insignificant we are—the offspring of nature.

EL: People still marvel at your ability to complete public works under adverse conditions.

Niemeyer: I have said it before and I will tell you: The ultimate task of a leader is to dream. Otherwise, things don’t happen.

Sources: The New York Times Magazine; The Economist, Museu Oscar Niemeyer.

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