Brazil remembers famed architect with vigil, samba
The city where architect Oscar Niemeyer was born 104 years ago said goodbye Friday with a public vigil, flowers and, yes, samba.
After a viewing in Brasilia, in the presidential palace he himself designed, Niemeyer's body was flown to Rio for a vigil. Men and women filed by his wooden casket covered by a Brazilian flag and three red roses in the City Palace, paying their respects before his burial.
At the Sao Joao Batista Cemetery, a few hundred mourners easily pushed their way into what was supposed to be a closed ceremony, following the funeral procession through the front gates, squeezing into the mazelike space tightly packed with mausoleums and statues.
Some prayed and sang hymns; others waved the Communist Party flag that represented Niemeyer's political beliefs. The traditional samba group "Banda de Ipanema" played at the interment, since the architect was also a patron of the irreverent Carnival troupe.
Niemeyer died Wednesday, 10 days before his 105th birthday, of a respiratory infection.
Most of those honoring him with a last visit were simply thankful for his contribution: creating an architecture that was quintessentially Brazilian and internationally acclaimed.
"His legacy is great," said Julia Fernandes Souza, 67, at the viewing in the City Palace. "It will be with us forever. I am here to thank him."
Niemeyer's unmistakable designs gave the country's capital, Brasilia, a uniquely Brazilian aesthetic. The architect used concrete as it were something malleable, creating great sensuous curves, or letting it flow like water to imbue static structures with a sense of movement. He also designed much of the United Nation's New York complex and works in several other nations.
The extent of national and international regard for the man and his work was clear in the words of visitors and in the cascade of flowers and crowns that flanked his casket, including two from the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul. In a nod to Niemeyer's communist militance, Fidel Castro's crown was dedicated to "the unconditional friend of Cuba, Oscar Niemeyer." Raul Castro's was sent to "dear friend Niemeyer." Still a third crown came from Cuba's ambassador in Brazil.
Niemeyer downplayed the transformative power of what he did, saying: "Architecture doesn't change anything. It's always on the side of the rich. What's important is believing that life can be better."
It was Niemeyer's political stance and outspoken defense of the poor that moved Neuza Saraiva, 70, to join the many lining up to pay their last respects.
"He was a great artist, an extraordinary human being, and a real communist," said Saraiva, who shared his political affiliation. "I saw in his work the representation of his ideal. Communism is about the people, and what he did, he did for the people."
Just as not everyone loved his unique style - art critic Robert Hughes once called Brasilia a "utopian horror" - Niemeyer's politics also earned him sharp criticism, even on the day he died. A columnist for the conservative magazine Veja caused a stir by calling Niemeyer "half-genius, half-idiot," and saying the man thought and wrote "detestable things," and defended "homicidal regimes."
Much of Brazil, however, seemed ready to put aside differences and celebrate with commemorations for the man who once said, "I love life and life loves me. We're an unbearable couple."