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Oscar Niemeyer designed sensuality into everything that flowed through his studio, from the canted wooden walls in the United Nations General Assembly in New York to his sinuous private residence set down low like a snake in Rio's rainforest. His passionate, lifelong defence of organic form in architecture set him apart in the modernist canon of the Western school of linear, functional design. Just as Frank Lloyd Wright was cast by the European modernists as a Prairie-school primitive, Niemeyer was painted from afar as a piece of exotica from the Brazilian jungle.

Still, his influence as one of the great expressionist architects has travelled far and wide. Frank Gehry made a pilgrimage to his studio in the late 1990s. In Regina, the headquarters of the Saskatchewan Power Corporation (1963) was designed by Canadian modernist Joseph Pettick as an organic tower after he met with Niemeyer in Rio. "A human being does not walk in straight lines," said Pettick. "I had a special discomfort with square boxes." Niemeyer resisted the unforgiving sharp angles of modernism. Even as an old man, his vigour for life and exhilarating architecture was so great that he seemed to defy death itself. It seems surreal, but Niemeyer has died. He was 104.

Last year, I visited one of Niemeyer's legendary urban incubators, the Copan Building in Sao Paulo. From the sky, Sao Paolo, home to 20 million, replaces the conventional idea of a city with a sprawling kind of planet; a sea of high-rise towers erupting like stalagmites from the spread of meta, uncontrolled growth.

An epic volume in poetic concrete, the Copan (1966) was one of Niemeyer's enduring attempts at infusing the postwar metropolis with dignity. Nearly 40 storeys tall, there are 1,600 apartments within its massive undulations, providing housing for an estimated 5,000 people. Today, dozens of small businesses – clothing boutiques, hair salons, alteration shops – and restaurants do a bustling trade on the ground floor. When I visited, the place crackled with the imperfect, raw energy of humanity – Niemeyer had made room for that.

He had prepared elegant, energizing, wood-lined spaces for anybody – tenants, shoppers, tourists – who might wander into the Copan from its many openings onto the street. Even the floors sloped unexpectedly to follow the rise of the multiblock site. As I sat on the sidewalk terrace at the Bar da Dona Onça at the Copan, well-dressed businessmen were meeting next to parents whose children arrived at the Copan for afterschool snacks and homework at the café tables. A stick-thin crack addict wandered by. More than 60 years after the completion of the apartment building, Niemeyer's attempt at providing a dense, liveable and lyrical minicity still works, wonderfully. How often will we be able to say that of the hundreds of fast-tracked condominium glass towers going up in Toronto these days?

Niemeyer was an original. A cigar-smoking communist who still trudged to his studio in Rio every day, even after turning 100. While German modernists such as Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe devoted themselves to an architectural "order" and universal "clarifying" spaces, Niemeyer sought to mirror and energize the human spirit. Together with French architect Le Corbusier and fellow Brazilian Lucio Costa, he designed the robust civic complex housing the Ministry of Education and Health (1943) in downtown Rio. I remember visiting it at night, walking under the tower raised up on pilotis, and gazing at the the blue-and-white ceramic mosaic on the ground-floor pavilion, the tiles shimmering in the dark.

Niemeyer's faith in the power of architecture to enhance life on the ground was severely tested when he was asked to design a series of singular public buildings for Brasilia, the nation's brand new federal capital, being master-planned by Costa. In good faith, Niemeyer explored the plasticity of concrete, going beyond Le Corbusier's daring experiments at the Ronchamp Chapel (1954) and producing, by 1960, the National Congress, defined by two enormous half spheres separated by two iconic towers. His crown-like Cathedral of Brasilia captured the spirit of Rio's outlandish conical mountains, the shape of ocean waves and, naturally, the curve of a woman's body – three elements from which Niemeyer drew inspiration throughout his 70-year career. The problem was that the several public buildings he created for the capital stood alone and disconnected on Costa's wide-open plain. Caught up in the postwar utopian orthodoxy of the day, Brasilia looked stunning from a plane, but unliveable – unloveable – on the ground. It has been generally condemned as an exercise in misguided urban folly.

What makes Niemeyer's work unique – and, ultimately, problematic – is that his buildings were pure translations of his free-flowing drawings. More than anything, they were imagined to echo the power of nature. In Niemeyer's hands, even heavy concrete was expressed as if weightless. At his 1953 home, hidden in the jungle in Canoas outside of Rio, a massive boulder sits inside the dining room. Bedrooms are set as places of refuge, with only tiny windows allowing shards of light from the jungle. Sensuous lines define the entire residential compound (cared for by the Oscar Niemeyer Foundation), from the nude female sculptures set against the thick foliage, to the curved pool, to the contour of the flat roof. Even wooden bookshelves snake around a tightly curved wall.

More recently, his work had become more fanciful. Though his Brazilian public continued to adore him for stamping exuberant architecture on the skylines of their clogged, gritty cities, it has been generally understood that, like much of Santiago Calatrava's later work, the spaceship aesthetic of Niemeyer needed to be reigned in. His Contemporary Art Museum (1996) in Niteroi, outside Rio, looks like ribbons of white floating beyond a white flying saucer. As if that weren't enough unfettered design ecstasy, the museum also pushes beyond rocky cliffs that descend dramatically into the ocean.

It doesn't surprise me that Niemeyer was meeting with engineers from his hospital bed during the last weeks of his life. His work defined him. His last studio, the one with the undulating window bays, pushed out beyond a white façade, overlooked the stunning sweep of Copacabana beach in Rio. The sidewalks outside his apartment – and throughout much of the city – feature black and white stone laid in swirling, Niemeyeresque patterns.

A failure of e-mail meant that my interview of the grand old man was granted only as I was flying out of Rio. A photograph of a luscious hibiscus flower, fallen from the tree outside of Neimeyer's studio, is what I took home instead. And because Niemeyer believed as much in the art of human life as he did in nature, it was the first thing I looked at when I heard of his death this week.

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