Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012)

Graceful curves, white concrete and utopian visions are signatures of Oscar Niemeyer, one of the most impactful masters of modern architecture. The design of Brasilia is part of his inspiring legacy, and a landmark for later movements.

Oscar Niemeyer portrait in black and white.
Oscar Niemeyer

Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Niemeyer#/media/File:Oscar_Ribeiro_de_Almeida_Niemeyer_Soares_Filho..tif

“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein.”

Oscar Niemeyer
Museum Oscar Niemeyer, Curitiba, Brazil.
Museum Oscar Niemeyer, Curitiba, Brazil

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CWB_Olho_Niemeyer_11_2013_7268.JPG

A New Architectural Language

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Oscar Niemeyer studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. Very soon, the decorated architect won the 1988 Pritzker Prize, the 1998 RIBA Gold Medal, and other awards. His career began in the 1930s, when he collaborated with his mentor Lúcio Costa, a pioneer of modern architecture, to design the Brazilian Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair. Later, he became part of a group of young architects, who collaborated with Le Corbusier, to design the Ministry of Education and Health. Meanwhile, Niemeyer met Juscelino Kubitschek, future President of Brazil. When Brasilia became the new capital of Brazil, Kubitschek appointed Niemeyer to be the chief architect of the city. The city itself is a visionary emblem of modernism and Brazilian dreams of progress.

A view of the National Congress of Brazil, Brasilia.
A view of the National Congress of Brazil, Brasilia.

Image source: https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/ce593757-bc98-4069-abd7-d5e28c6a2961 by akasped

He worked again with Le Corbusier on the design for the United Nations Headquarters. During military dictatorship, he was forced to exile for his left-winged political ideology and moved to France. Niemeyer career includes internationally renowned buildings, such as the “Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica” in Sao Paulo, the Communist Party Headquarters in Paris, and in Italy, the Mondadori Editorial Office and the FATA Office Building in Italy (respectively Milan and Turin), the University of Constantine, La Coupole d’Alger Arena and Houari Boumediene University of Science and Technology, The Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba, also known as Niemeyer’s Eye. He died in 2012, 10 days short of his 105th birthday. The architect was still giving directions on the ongoing project from his hospital bed.

Ordem e Progresso

The neo-elected Juscelino Kubitschek was fascinated by progress. The climax of his “fifty years of progress in five” campaign was the colonization of the hinterland and the building of Brasilia, the capital. Supported by the “Plano Piloto” of Costa, the city was designed in the shape of a symbol of progress: the plane. Niemeyer was nominated chief architect of the city. The result was a new model of city and society, an image of the future. White concrete, open plans, sensual curves, reflecting pools with grass all around characterize Niemeyer’s architecture. The carnevalization is a recurring element, at the same time paying tribute to the historical model and marking the distance from it. Column-like exteriors and other classical elements were hybridized with Corbusian iconography of pilotis, brise-soleils, and glass, creating a new language. However, Niemeyer rejected Le Corbusier’s rigidity: he was inspired by Brazilian landscapes and women’s sinuous curves. The city received a Historical and Cultural Heritage of Humanity status, becoming the only 20th-century city in the world recognized by UNESCO.

Itamaraty Palace, a perfect example of column-like exterior and reflecting pool in Niemeyer's architecture.
Itamaraty Palace, a perfect example of column-like exterior and reflecting pool in Niemeyer’s architecture.

Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Niemeyer#/media/File:Foto_noturna_do_Itamaraty.jpg

The Niterói Contemporary Art Museum

The Niterói Contemporary Art Museum is located in Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay. The structure vaguely resembles a flying saucer: it features an inverted cone shape in white concrete and stands in the middle of a circular pool. The circular motif is recurrent in the museum: it characterizes the ramp, the pool, the lamps, the internal balconies and the structure itself. A spiral stair connects the four levels of the museum. The perimeter of the middle-levels features two panoramic promenades bordered by ribbon windows, providing a view over the Guarana Bay. A long curvilinear ramp reaches the entrance of the first floor and the visitors’ exit on the second floor; thus creating a continuous, uninterrupted path throughout public realm and museum which, inevitably, evokes the Guggenheim by Frank Lloyd Wright. Niemeyer aimed to create a building totally integrated with the landscape, looking like a natural element in the bay.

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, with the typical inverted cone shape.

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, with the typical inverted cone shape.

Image source: https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/c8a7ffe0-02d2-4377-a801-41497d978bbc by Jules Antonio

The Cathedral of Brasilia

This building led Niemeyer to his acceptance of the Pritzker Prize in 1988. It combines modern elements, such as curved lines and Brazilian Baroque reminiscences: the sculptures allude to Aleijadinho’s heritage. The structure of the Cathedral of Brasilia was based on revolved hyperbolas, where the sections are asymmetric. The structure itself is the result of sixteen curved columns. Reaching up towards the sky to represent two hands, the columns have parabolic sections and are connected by a glass ceiling, which begins at the floor. The circular base of the structure is surrounded by a reflecting pool under which worshipers pass to enter the building. This dark space separates from external world and prepares to reach a holy, infinite space. Four bronze sculptures made by Dante Croce stand outside the entrance, and represent the Evangelists. More sculptures can be seen inside the long nave, where three angels are suspended by steel cables. The Cathedral is completed with its bell tower. Despite Niemeyer was a fervent supporter of Communist Party, this compact and clean concept was conceived to express general deep and religious sentiment.

The Cathedral of Brasilia, with the four statues and the bell tower.
The Cathedral of Brasilia, with the four statues and the bell tower.

Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Niemeyer#/media/File:Cathedral_Brasilia_Niemeyer.JPG

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