A Life In Architecture: Oscar Niemeyer, 1907-2012
December 6, 2012
Oscar Niemeyer, the last architect of his kind and of an entire architectural period, has died. He passed away yesterday in Rio de Janeiro, just ten days shy of his 105th birthday. Niemeyer had been hospitalized multiple times this year, most recently in October, for various complications, yet each time resurfaced with his doctors’ proclamations that he was healthy and recovering well. He leaves behind a body of work that is unmatched in quality and sheer prolificness. Continue.
In 2007; Image by © Marcelo Sayao/epa/Corbis
Niemeyer’s 75-year career was bookended with triumphs, with lows in between. Having caught the eye of architect Lucio Costa, who would go on to apprentice him, Niemeyer caught his break working on the Ministry of Education and Health (MES) in Rio. The project, overseen by Costa, gave the 30-year old Niemeyer the chance to work alongside the brightest architectural talents of his generation, like Affonso Reidy and Jorge Moreira, and even rub shoulders with arguably the century’s greatest builder, Le Corbusier. The master had served as consultant to the design, offering the team several sketches, which Niemeyer, emboldened by Costa’s encouragement, refined and translated to the Brazilian context.
Ministry of Education and Health (MES), Rio de Janeiro, 1937-42
Following the MES project, Costa and Niemeyer would collaborate on Brazil’s pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, contributing a perfect Modernist trifle collaged from elements of Le Corbusier’s work, particularly his Pavilion des Temps Nouveaux, and the architects’ own work, including the egg-crate facade borrowed from the MES building. The long curving ramp that cut through the heart of the building would find its way into Niemeyer’s cannon of forms, to be deployed in almost all of his institutional projects.
Brazil Pavilion, New York World’s Fair 1939
A year later in 1940, Niemeyer was commissioned to build a cultural and entertainment enclave outside Belo Horizonte by Juscelino Kubitschek, a local mayor who would rise to the head of the country’s government a decade later. The four structures of the Pampulha Complex–a casino, church, yacht club, and dance hall–were linked by novel architectural forms that mimicked the peaks and lolls of the surrounding landscape. Here, we find in Niemeyer’s first commission of his own the voluptuous curved line that would fundamentally shape all subsequent projects to come. He would later say, speaking of his indebtedness and reaction to Le Corbusier, ”He posited the right angle. I posit the curve.”
Church of Saint Francis of Assisi; Photo via
In 1948, Niemeyer traveled to New York to represent his country and continent in the design of the new headquarters for the United Nations. The team of architects responsible for the task, chaired by American architect and impresario Wallace K. Harrison, included Le Corbusier, who found an ally in Niemeyer and even asked the latter’s help on a scheme he was working on. Niemeyer complied, but cooked up another scheme on the side. It was this project that would win out, though Le Corbusier would modify the plans. The UN complex that stands now—the Secretariat bloc and the low-slung General Assemblage building—is a reflection of Niemeyer and Le Corbusier’s provisional plans.
National Congress of Brazil, Brasilia, 1957-64, photo via
The greatest period of Niemeyer’s career would precede one of its gloomiest. After he assumed the Brazilian presidency, Kubitschek laid out his ambitions to build a new capital city for Brazil. He enlisted Lucio Costa to plan the new city, located further inland and without the heightened geography of Rio, and consulted Niemeyer about crafting Brasília’s institutional buildings. Niemeyer’s designs were to become emblematic of the Modernist utopia, one forged along egalitarian principles that would be conferred upon the city through heroic gestures, cast in concrete. Niemeyer had given form to the new heart of Brazil, and his hopeful, lofty structures speak to a humanistic dimension of Modernism long forgotten. As Niemeyer put it, “Architecture was my way of expressing my ideals: to be simple, to create a world equal to everyone, to look at people with optimism, that everyone has a gift.” The aesthetic and social responsibility of building that Niemeyer cultivated at Brasília, and the stark futurism that gave the buildings their socialist space-age aura, would inform his work throughout his career.
Cathedral of Brasília; Photo via
Yet, only a few years after Brasília’s swift completion—the city was miraculously built in just four years, from 1956-60—Brazil’s fate would change. A military coup in 1964 shook the foundations of the country’s rebirth. Niemeyer, who was a card-carrying Communist, was held in suspicion, and his office was soon without work. He moved to Paris, where he set up an office on the Champs Elysees; there, he completed works such as the headquarters for the French Communist Party (1980), an undulating glazed office bloc foregrounded by a white-plastered dome, and the Cultural Center of Le Havre (1982), an giant urban plaza dotted with sculptural elements that foreshadow the architect’s eponymous “Centro Niemeyer” project in Avilés, Spain, some 30 years later.
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Niterói, 1996; Photo by © Alan Weintraub/Arcaid/Corbis
After nearly two decades abroad, Niemeyer would return to Brazil and commence an exciting phase of works that would continue up until the architect’s final years. With age, his works would become increasingly idiosyncratic, willingly strange yet sublime. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Niterói outside of Rio juts out from a cliffside like some martian urban fragment, a giant whirling spaceship that petered out right before takeoff.
Centro Niemeyer, 2011
At the same time, his buildings were being reconsidered and even embraced; he would be awarded the Pritzker prize in 1988. Compared with the dubious architectural culture of the 80s and 90s, one marked by flash and empty promise, Niemeyer’s soaring structures were a refreshing return to a time when alternative ways of life, in art, politics and society, could still be imagined and (partially) realized in the public sphere. Today, as parametric icons flood our screens—each one distinguished by the last with a wibble here and a wobble there—jostling for our 15 seconds of attention, Niemeyer’s work is a welcome relief, a whole architecture that isn’t afraid of being polarizing. The aforementioned Centro Niemeyer in Spain, which closed in December last year and which Niemeyer had described as his most important European project, is a modernist urbanscape set in the middle of a post-industrial city that comprises just a few sculptural landforms, a dome, a flying-saucer like tower, and an auditorium. Though simple in form and humble in proportions, together they form a bracing, if fragile vision that repudiates the exhibitionism of Gehry’ Guggenheim Bilbao and just about any cultural project by Zaha Hadid and her ilk. Yes, there is beauty, but there is something more; here is a thoughtful, dignifying architecture that is worthy of contemplation. The wind-swept plaza has rarely felt so necessary.