"Fiidel Castro sent me that box of Havana cigars last week," says Oscar Niemeyer, looking dapper in blue linen trousers and black shirt with silver buttons. Holding court in his penthouse studio in Rio de Janeiro, this giant among architects continues: "And those boxing gloves next to it are signed by the Cuban world champion."
Niemeyer has had quite a life. Fifty years ago, he began work on the first of his eye-catching civic monuments for Brasilia. This was the stunningly beautiful Alvorada Palace, the official residence of the Brazilian president and a building like no other in the modern world. Newly restored, this diaphanous structure sits on a peninsula overlooking the yacht-studded, artificial Lake Paranoa. It shimmers from the far side of an immaculate, perfectly geometrical lawn. A discreet moat, veils of hummingbirds and a polite modern gatehouse are all that separates this colonnaded building from the rest of Brasilia, one of the most extraordinary cities on the planet. Brasilia remains an amazing feat of architectural daring, radical urban planning and political will. Its futuristic center was realized in just 41 months, spurred on by Juscelino Kubitschek, the populist Brazilian president who, when he took office in 1956, promised "50 years of progress in five."
The men he appointed to give shape to his dream didn't disappoint. "JK's" city, inaugurated in 1960, was planned by the Brazilian architect Lucio Costa, who offered his protege Niemeyer the architectural gift of a lifetime: the design of all the set-piece buildings of one of the most improbable and distinctive cities in the world. Here, a powerfully emblematic Congress building. There, an arcaded Palace of Justice. Here, sleek ministry headquarters. There, a revolutionary cathedral and glamorous, ultra-modern apartment blocks.
As if the building of Brasilia, which continues today, has not been enough to keep him occupied, Niemeyer says today: "I have plenty of new work. The president of Angola has invited me to design a new capital city for his country, four times the size of Brasilia."
The architect turns 100 in December and every day he comes to this penthouse studio, perched atop a curvaceous 10-story art deco block in the center of Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach. Here he draws, talks to colleagues, family and friends, eats lunch at a table overlooking white sand beaches and the rolling Atlantic, smokes small cigars, drinks a glass of wine and draws some more. He enjoys the company of writers, philosophers, scientists, journalists - and politicians of a certain stature. Castro has been here several times. Not so long ago, the Cuban president said: "Niemeyer and I are the last communists on this planet." A member of the Brazilian Communist Party since 1945, Niemeyer was presented with the Lenin Peace Prize in 1963.
A few weeks ago, Hugo Chavez, the radical president of Venezuela, came to spend time with Niemeyer. Famous architects drop by on any pretext; none, though, is more famous than Niemeyer himself. He is the last of the "heroes" of the Modern movement. Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto were all in awe of this young Brazilian who single-handedly transformed architecture into a wonderful thing of sensuous curves, lightness and unforgettable forms. Even then, they didn't always understand the ways Niemeyer was transforming Modern movement architecture to suit Brazilian conditions.