The recent death of Oscar Niemeyer attracted glowing tributes from around the world. As well as being truly venerable (104 years old) and extraordinarily prolific (about 400 projects), Niemeyer (or just Oscar as he is usually known in Brazil) was the last of the great Modernists. His name is routinely placed with those of Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, star of a time when anything seemed possible in architecture.
Niemeyer’s reputation suffered little during the anti-Modernist backlash of the 70s and 80s – his buildings are too sensuous, too humane, too popular to attract such approbium. Examples are his several cathedrals and churches; like fellow non-believer Le Corbusier, Niemeyer created superb contemplative spaces.
Earlier this year I was lucky enough to meet an Australian who worked with Oscar Niemeyer on his most famous project – Brazil’s capital city Brasilia. Reuben Lane graduated in architecture from Sydney Technical College during the mid-1950s and after working in Sydney for a time set off to meet his architectural heroes. Before long he was working for a variety of architectural practices in the USA, as well as meeting Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies among others. From Miami he headed south, eventually meeting Niemeyer in Rio.
Reuben found that his Australian education and work gave him a wider array of skills than many young architects and in Brasilia as in the USA his ability to document buildings put him in demand. Niemeyer, Reuben told me, was better at talking than drawing – he would describe the building he was designing, produce some basic sketches of the overall concept and leave much of the detail to his underlings.
As well as Brazilians there were a few other foreign pilgrims working for Niemeyer at Brasilia but Reuben was the only English speaker there – as a result he was conscripted for guide duties when US and British journos visited. Brasilia was a vast building site carved from the jungle, living conditions were spartan and apart from work there was little to do. So after nine months Reuben left for France, bearing Niemeyer’s best wishes and a letter of introduction to Le Corbusier.
In Sydney Reuben worked for Peddle Thorp before founding his own practice. His first child was born with Downs syndrome which refocused Reuben’s career. Much of his work was focussed on housing for the disabled and elderly. He also worked as a project manager on several large projects (including the UTS Design School building on Harris Street) and was successful in improving relationships between architects and building contractors. Reuben Lane died in June this year.