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date: 28 February 2024

Niemeyer (Soares Filho), Oscarfree

(b Rio de Janeiro, Dec 15, 1907; d Rio de Janeiro, Dec 5, 2012).

Niemeyer (Soares Filho), Oscarfree

(b Rio de Janeiro, Dec 15, 1907; d Rio de Janeiro, Dec 5, 2012).
  • Julio Roberto Katinsky
  • , revised by Adrian Anagnost

Updated in this version

updated and revised

Brazilian architect. He developed an expressive and sometimes controversial style in a large volume of architectural work executed in Brazil and internationally from 1935 though the 1990s. Best known for the iconic, monumental buildings he designed for Brazil’s capital, Brasília (1956–1960), he sculpted reinforced concrete into dramatic curves, creating a uniquely Brazilian take on Modernist architecture.

1. Education and early work, to c. 1940.

He studied architecture at the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro (1929–1934), where he was influenced by the Modernist teaching introduced by Lúcio Costa during his reforms in 1930–1931. After graduating, Niemeyer worked in the studio of Costa and Carlos Azevedo Leão (1906–1971) and later, for a short period, in the government’s preservationist agency Serviço do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional (SPHAN), also with Costa; the latter’s valorization of Portuguese colonial architecture as a source for Brazilian Modernism was an early influence on Niemeyer. In 1936 he joined the team assembled by Costa to design a new Modernist building for the national Ministry of Education and Health (1937–1943; now the Palácio Gustavo Capanema). The group included Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Jorge Moreira, Leão, and Hernani Mendes de Vasconcelos, who were all at the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes during Costa’s reforms; several had also participated in the Salão de Arquitetura Tropical (1933) in Rio, organized by Costa, Gregori Warchavchik, and Alexandre Altberg (1908–2009). As a member of this team Niemeyer worked from a design initiated by Le Corbusier, who spent a month in Rio in 1936 as consultant on the project. Niemeyer subsequently took over leadership of the project (1939), but the Ministry building retained the hallmarks of Le Corbusier’s “five points of architecture,” such as pilotis, and brises-soleil in the form of horizontal louvers on the exposed facade, as well as sculptural rooftop elements—features well suited to the Brazilian culture and climate and widely adopted among Modernist architects in Brazil. Although this influence is clearly evident in Niemeyer’s later work, his most memorable buildings are characterized by grandiose volumetric compositions closer to the late Le Corbusier of Ronchamp chapel (see Corbusier, fig.).

Niemeyer’s first independent work was the Obra do Berço nursery and maternity clinic (1937), Rio de Janeiro, a simple, rectilinear, four-story building in white stucco, where movable vertical louvers were used for the first time in Brazil, on the three upper floors of its exposed north facade. In 1938 Niemeyer was invited by Costa to participate in the design of the Brazilian Pavilion (1939) at the World’s Fair, New York, a commission won by Costa in competition. Executed by New York architect Paul Lester Wiener (1895–1967), Niemeyer’s design featured a dramatic curvilinear entrance ramp and integration of exterior and interior space. The building showcased Brazilian architecture to an international audience: one result was the exhibition Brazil Builds (1942) held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Another work by Niemeyer during this period was the Grand Hotel (1940) at the edge of Ouro Preto, a largely preserved 18th-century Portuguese colonial Baroque town. A simple two-story building with a mono-pitched, tiled roof and covered, trellised balconies, it retains some of Costa’s early colonial traditionalism; although uncompromisingly modern in feeling, it remains sensitive to its contex.

2. Pampulha to Caracas, 1940–1955.

In 1940 Niemeyer was commissioned by Juscelino Kubitschek, then mayor of Belo Horizonte, the state capital of Minas Gerais, to design a series of buildings around an artificial lake at the suburb of Pampulha. These buildings (1942–1947), which included a church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, a casino, restaurant, dance hall, and yacht club, brought him international fame. The church is roofed by asymmetrical concrete-shell barrel vaults, four of which frame an end wall covered by an azulejo panel by Cândido Portinari (see fig.). The fluid, curving marquees of the casino (now an art museum) and dance hall, the parabolic forms of the church, and the gently rising butterfly roofs of the yacht club, exemplify Niemeyer’s growing use of free forms, echoed in biomorphic landscaping by Roberto Burle Marx. In contrast to the strict rationalism and industrial production favored by European Functionalists of the 1930s, Niemeyer utilized the potential of reinforced concrete to produce fluid sculptural forms. His structural inventiveness frequently exceeded then-current calculation techniques, drawing upon the skills and resources of structural engineers with whom he worked.

UN Secretariat and Dag Hammarskjold Library, United Nations Headquarters, United Nations Plaza, New York, NY (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Niemeyer produced a number of other buildings and projects during the 1940s that furthered his development of an idiosyncratic formal identity, often deploying concrete in free-flowing forms unmotivated by functionality. They included the Ribeirão das Lages water-tower; Kubitschek’s house (1943) at Pampulha; the Fluminense yacht club (1945; unbuilt) planned for Botafogo beach, Rio de Janeiro, where a long, gently curved catenary roof anchored to an extensive terrace was proposed; the innovative, multistory Boa Vista Bank (1946), also in Rio; the Burton Tremayne House (1949), Santa Barbara, CA; and the Hotel Regente (1949; unbuilt) on the Leblon beach, with Rio de Janeiro’s spectacular landscape as a backdrop. In 1947 Niemeyer was appointed to the team of architects selected to design the United Nations building (1947–1952; see fig.) in New York, under the directorship of Wallace K. Harrison (see Harrison and Abramovitz), where he worked closely with Le Corbusier.

A series of buildings completed in 1950 demonstrate the growing centrality of curves for Niemeyer’s work. In São Paulo, the Peixe-Duchen cookie factory (with Helio Uchõa) adopts a Jean Prouvé-esque truss system for an overall structure resembling two loaves of bread nestled lengthwise together, while the Montreal apartment building marks Niemeyer’s progression toward larger buildings deploying curved forms The multistory, mixed-use COPAN building in São Paulo featured an S-shaped plan. Buildings constructed for the fourth centennial of the city of São Paulo (1951–1955; with Uchõa, Zenon Lotufo, and Eduardo Kneese de Mello) at Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo, are linked by a grand and meandering curvilinear covered walkway, or marquise. These structures now house the Bienal de São Paulo, Museu Afro Brasil, University of São Paulo Museu de Arte Contemporânea, and other cultural institutions. This period culminated in Niemeyer’s own house (1951–1953) situated on a steep slope overlooking the sea at Canoas, Rio de Janeiro: the irregular curves of its roof slabs and terrace, encompassing gardens and swimming pool as part of the living area, echo the curving walls of the house. The house is attuned to its surroundings: a lower, private level hugs the contours of the hillside, while the upper level’s public areas are walled in glass, evoking Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion (see fig.); breaking up the expanse of glass is a large boulder, disrupting the boundary between interior and exterior and incorporating the natural setting into the architecture itself. A similar theatricalization of the natural geography is found in the design (1955; unbuilt) for the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Caracas: an inverted pyramid seemingly balanced on the edge of a cliff, a design disseminated in the architecture magazine Módulo. In 1955 he designed an apartment block in Berlin for the Interbau Hansaviertel (an international building exhibition; 1957–1961), in which such architects as Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen participated. Other activities during this period included his founding of the architectural review Módulo (1954), which he edited until 1964; it reappeared in 1974 and continued in publication until 1987.

3. Brasília, 1956–1964.

When Kubitschek became President of Brazil in 1956, he initiated a planning competition for a new federal capital on a site 1000 km north and west of Rio de Janeiro. The competition was won by Costa with a simple manifesto and urban plan based on two axes in the form of a cross, or airplane (for illustration see Costa, Lúcio). Major public buildings were located at the head of the monumental, longitudinal axis, and residential accommodation was planned along the two curved arms of the horizontal traffic axis, with commercial and amenity buildings in the remaining sectors (for further discussion of urbanism see Brasília). Niemeyer was appointed Chief Architect of the government corporation established to construct the new city. When the new city was inaugurated in 1960, many of the government offices, the Congresso Nacional, a hotel, theater, and the beginnings of a university and housing for government officials were already completed.

Oscar Niemeyer: Praça dos Três Poderes, left, Secretariat of the Parliament, right, Supreme Court, Brasília, 1959–60; photo credit: Giraudon/Art Resource, NY

In his designs for the main public buildings of Brasília, Niemeyer produced grand-scale architecture in keeping with the bombast of Costa’s urban plan. Five identical ten-story ministerial blocks march up each side of the enormous Esplanada dos Ministérios to the Congresso Nacional at the apex of the Praça dos Três Poderes (see fig.), flanked by the Supreme Court and presidential offices (see fig.). Niemeyer’s design demonstrates the limits of his formalism at an urban scale. In the Congresso Nacional complex (1958–1960), the shallow convex and concave domes of the Senate Chamber and House of Representatives are separated by a pair of slender, high-rise slabs behind them, housing the Secretariat; the composition forms a sculptural whole set within the bowl of the surrounding hills, but its grand scale is not conducive to the vibrant pedestrian street life that had long characterized Brazilian cities. The nearby Palácio da Alvorada, the presidential residence, has glazed walls screened by a roof overhang supported on rows of sail-like reversed arches, a well-known silhouette of Brazilian architecture; the deep veranda and nearby small chapel evoke 18th-century colonial buildings.

In 1960 Niemeyer was appointed Professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Brasília. A number of buildings to his design continued to be constructed in the new capital, such as the stadium (1961) and the Palácio dos Arcos (1965; for illustration see Burle Marx, Roberto), but he returned to private practice in Rio de Janeiro in 1961. Disagreement with the military dictatorship that came to power in 1964 caused him to resign his chair.

4. International and late work, after 1964.

As a Communist, Niemeyer faced difficulties under Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964–1985), during which he worked predominantly on international projects in a period of self-exile. Niemeyer’s work abroad began with a master-plan (1964) for Haifa University in Israel, which was partially adopted. In the later 1960s a special decree by the French president, Charles de Gaulle, permitted him to practice in France, where he produced a curved design for a headquarters (1967–1980; with Paul Chemetov and Jean Deroche) for the French Communist Party in Paris; an office building with a sculptural auditorium (1972) in Bobigny, Paris; a cultural center (1972) in Le Havre; and urban-development plans for Grasse (1966) and Dieppe (1972; both with Marc Emery). His best-known urban plan, however, is that for Algiers (1968), an imaginative formulation of the notion of controlled growth by separate urban nuclei of about 500,000 inhabitants each, connected by efficient transport systems: this was a scheme reminiscent of the solution to the problem of housing the families of the workers who built Brasília (whose cause Niemeyer repeatedly pleaded), and the rural migrants it attracted, in a series of relatively unplanned satellite settlements around the capital.

Niemeyer worked in Algeria throughout the 1970s, designing an extensive range of buildings (1969–1972) for the University of Constantine, in which the emphasis on form referred to the work of Le Corbusier, although without the planning rationale and rarely with concern for the hot, arid site conditions. In the 1980s he generated a plan for the business center of the city of Algiers and its zoological gardens. The most notable European designs of this period are the Mondadori Building (1968–1975), Milan, and the FATA building in Turin, designed in 1977 with the engineer Riccardo Morandi. The repeated monumental arches of the Mondadori building echo the design of Brasília’s Palácio dos Arcos, and themselves seem to have inspired Niemeyer’s Ministry of Defense (1968).

Niemeyer continued to design and build in Brazil upon his return in the 1970s. Official samba competitions of Rio de Janeiro’s famed Carnaval take place in the Niemeyer-designed Sambadrome (1983–1984), a 90,000-seat, open-air stadium often featured in television depictions of Carnaval. The jewel-like cathedral (designed 1958; completed 1986–1987) in Brasília, however, departs from the media-savvy use of grand scales and sweeping, quasi-empty landscape settings. Despite its comparatively small size, the Brasília Cathedral punctuates the middle distance of the main vista from all directions. Based on a circular plan, it has a tent-like, inward-sloping structure that opens out gently toward the sky at high level; the spaces between the concrete structural members are filled with glass. Perhaps Niemeyer’s most famous late work is the Museu de Arte Contemporânea, which clings to a cliff across Guanabara Bay from Rio de Janeiro in the city of Niterói.

Images of Niemeyer’s mediagenic buildings were disseminated widely in the mid-20th century, and have long been the international image of an essentially Brazilian Modernist architecture. He received the Pritzker Prize for architecture in 1988, and designed the Serpentine Gallery Summer Pavilion in London in 2003.

Writings

  • “Ce qui manque a notre architecture.” Archit. Aujourd’hui 13–14 (1947).
  • Minha experiência em Brasília. Rio de Janeiro, 1961.
  • A forma na arquitetura. Rio de Janeiro and Milan, 1978.
  • Rio, de província a metrópole. Rio de Janeiro, 1980.
  • Como se faz arquitetura. Petrópolis, 1986.
  • Meu sosia e eu. Rio de Janeiro, 1992 [with Eng. text].
  • Conversa de arquiteto. Rio de Janeiro, 1993.
  • The Curves of Time: The Memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer. London, 2000.
  • Minha arquitetura: 1937–2005/My Architecture: 1937–2005. Rio de Janeiro, 2005.

Bibliography

  • Goodwin, P. L. and Kidder Smith, G. E. Brazil Builds: Architecture New and Old, 1652–1942. New York, 1943.
  • Pampulha. Intro. by P. L. Goodwin. Rio de Janeiro, 1944 [Port. and Eng. text].
  • Papadaki, S. The Work of Oscar Niemeyer. New York, 1950.
  • Mindlin, H. E. Modern Architecture in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro and Amsterdam, 1956.
  • Papadaki, S. Oscar Niemeyer. New York, 1960.
  • Bacon, E. N. Design of Cities. London, 1967; rev. 1975, 237–241.
  • Spade, R. Oscar Niemeyer. London, 1971.
  • Evenson, N. Two Brazilian Capitals: Architecture and Urbanism in Rio de Janeiro and Brasília. New Haven, CT, 1973.
  • Mocchetti, E., ed. Oscar Niemeyer. Milan, 1975.
  • Sodré, N. W. Oscar Niemeyer. Rio de Janeiro, 1978.
  • Oscar Niemeyer, architetto: catalogo della mostra. Venice, 1979.
  • Hornig, C. Oscar Niemeyer: Bauten und Projekte. Munich, 1981.
  • Fils, A., ed. Oscar Niemeyer: Selbstdarstellung, Kritiken, Oeuvre. Munsterschwarzach, 1982.
  • Harris, E. D. “Le Corbusier and the Headquarters of the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Health, 1936–1945.” Diss., U. Chicago, IL, 1984.
  • Penteado, H., ed. Oscar Niemeyer. São Paulo, 1985.
  • Luigi, G. Oscar Niemeyer: une esthétique de la fluidité. Marseille, 1987.
  • Puppi, L. Guida a Niemeyer. Milan, 1987.
  • Oscar Niemeyer. Barcelona, 1990. Exhibition catalog.
  • Katinsky, J. “Brasilia em tres tempos.” In Arquitetura de Oscar Niemeyer na capital. Rio de Janeiro, 1991 [Port. and Eng. text].
  • Pereira, M. A. “Architecture, Text and Context: The Discourse of Oscar Niemeyer.” PhD diss., U. Sheffield, 1993.
  • Dos Santos Camisassa, M. M. “Modern Architecture and the Modernist Movement in Brazil during the 1920s and 1930s.” Diss., Colchester, U. Essex, 1994.
  • Underwood, D. K. Oscar Niemeyer and the Architecture of Brazil. New York, 1994.
  • Borges Lemos, C. “The Modernization of Brazilian Urban Space as a Political Symbol of the Republic.” J. Dec. & Propaganda A. 21 (1995): 219–237.
  • Petit, J. Niemeyer, poète d’architecture. Paris, 1995.
  • Puppi, L. Oscar Niemeyer. Rome, 1996.
  • Sá Corrêa, M. Oscar Niemeyer: Ribeiro de Almeida Soares. Rio de Janeiro, 1996.
  • Niemeyer 90 anos: projeto raízes do memorial. São Paulo, 2000.
  • Oscar Niemeyer: Notebooks of the Architect. Brussels, 2002.
  • Andreas, P. and Flagge, I. Oscar Niemeyer: eine Legende der Moderne/A Legend of Modernism. Frankfurt, Basel, and Boston, 2003.
  • Frampton, K. “Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer: Influence and Counter Influence 1929–1965.” In Latin American Architecture, 1929–1960: Contemporary Reflections, edited by C. Brillembourg, 35–49. New York, 2004.
  • Oscar Niemeyer: a marquise e o projeto original do Parque Ibirapuera. São Paulo, 2006.
  • Styliane, P. Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence. New Haven, 2008.
  • As Igrejas de Oscar Niemeyer. Rio de Janeiro, 2011.
  • Jodidio, P. Oscar Niemeyer, 1907: The Once and Future Dawn. Cologne, 2012.
  • Segre, R. Ministério da Educação e Saúde: ícone urbano da modernidade brasileira, 1935–1945. São Paulo, 2013.
  • Jodidio, P. Oscar Niemeyer: 1907–2012: The Once and the Future Dawn. Cologne, 2016.