There was a story told by the mayor of the town of Niterói, across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, that expresses perfectly the epic stature of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who has died aged 104. In the spring of 1992, after Niemeyer’s first visit to the seafront site chosen for the town’s new museum of contemporary art, Mayor Jorge Roberto Silveira took Niemeyer and his colleagues to a restaurant for lunch. During the meal, Niemeyer described his vision of the museum “rising upward, like a flower, or a bird”.
This satisfied everyone except Silveira, who requested a clearer idea in the shape of a drawing, and asked a waiter to bring Niemeyer some paper. The waiter was on his way back with a notepad when he was intercepted by a colleague who had overheard their conversation. “Boy,” he cautioned the first waiter. “This is the man who built Brasilia. Go and get something bigger.”
Thus the first sketches of the Niterói Museum of Contemporary Art were made on a tablecloth. It was to be another four years before the elegant, cantilevered concrete dish was opened in 1996, to universal acclaim. Like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which opened the following year, the Niterói museum marked a surprising success for unrestrainedly expressionistic architecture. But where Gehry employed titanium alloy and a battery of computers, things were done differently at Niterói. Not only was Niemeyer’s project much smaller (as was its budget), but its materials and methods belonged to another age. Where 3D computing in Bilbao permitted unprecedented precision, Niterói, located on a promontory with the sea on three sides, featured low-tech concrete work, ill-fitting glazing and cheap polycarbonate balustrading…