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  Niemeyer, Oscar (1907 - 2012)        

Oscar Niemeyer: the Architect of the Century - Encontros, 2000 - Itaú Cultural

 Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida de Niemeyer Soares (Rio de Janeiro, 1907 - idem 2012). Architect. Graduated in architecture from the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes (Enba) [National School of Fine Arts] in Rio de Janeiro in 1934. In the same year, he began to attend the office of Lucio Costa (1902-1998). In 1936, he joined the committee created to define the plans for the headquarters of the Ministério da Educação e Saúde (MES) [Ministry of Education and Health], in Rio de Janeiro, under the supervision of the French-Swiss architect, Le Corbusier (1887-1965), whom he assisted as a draughtsman. Based on the architectural Project, Niemeyer suggested alterations that were adopted in the construction of the building. Between 1940 and 1944, he designed the Conjunto Arquitetônico da Pampulha [Pampulha Architectural Complex], as a commission by the then mayor of Belo Horizonte, Juscelino Kubitschek (1902-1976), which became a landmark in his work, due to its break with the rigorous concepts of functionalism and use of new forms and curved surfaces that explored the plastic possibilities of reinforced concrete. In 1947, he was invited by the United Nations (UN) to take part in the committee of architects commissioned with defining the plans for its future headquarters in New York. His design, associated with Le Corbusier's, was chosen as the basis for the definitive plan. In Rio de Janeiro, in 1955, he founded the magazine, Módulo and in the following year, at the invitation of the President of Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek, began to work on the construction of the new capital, Brasília, whose urban plan was entrusted to Lucio Costa. In 1958, he was named chief architect of Brasília, moving to the city and remaining there until 1960. Notable among Niemeyer's most important projects are the Parque Ibirapuera [Ibirapuera park], São Paulo (1951), the headquarters of the French Communist Party, Paris (1965), the School of Architecture of Algiers, Algeria (1968), the headquarters of the publisher Mondadori, Milan, Italy (1968) and the headquarters of the newspaper L'Humanité, Saint-Denis, France (1987).

Critical Commentary
Oscar Niemeyer is the modern Brazilian architect with the greatest international reputation. In 1929, he enrolled in the architecture course of the Enba, but was dissatisfied with his training. Upon graduating in 1934, he sought Lucio Costa and Carlos Leão (1906-1983), in whose office he completed an internship, learning the fundamentals of modern architecture and developing a taste for Luso-Brazilian colonial architecture. Niemeyer still considers Costa to be his principal master, claiming that "I owe [him] my architectural orientation, my relationship with Brazilian tradition and technique, and principally, the example of correctness and an ideal that he offered to all those around him".1

In 1935, Costa and Leão's office was closed and Niemeyer began to work for the Serviço do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional [National Heritage Service] (SPHAN). In 1936, at the indication of Lucio Costa, he was invited to work in Rio de Janeiro as draughtsman to the French-Swiss architect, Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), who had come to Brazil to design the first University City of Brazil, at the request of the Ministry of Education. At the time, Le Corbusier's ideas had already had a considerable influence on modern architects in Rio de Janeiro, and according to Lucio Costa, his writings were "the sacred book of modern Brazilian architecture".2 Niemeyer had intense contacts with Le Corbusier, absorbing his formal rigor and the freedom of his drawing, while becoming interested in his architectural conciseness and his idea of the building as a sculptural unit. Despite Le Corbusier's efforts, his project for the University City was rejected, although he had also designed a project for the future Ministry of Education and Health that was approved as a model for the building to be constructed in the centre of Rio de Janeiro, from 1936 onwards. A group of architects consisting of Affonso Eduardo Reidy (1909 - 1964), Carlos Leão, Ernani Vasconcelos (1912 - 1989), Jorge Machado Moreira (1904 - 1992), Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, was summoned to build and adapt the project. Niemeyer proposed important changes in the design, suggesting the extension of the stilts, the replacement of the windows with sunshades and of the roof with a terrace/garden. These modifications were approved, comprising one of the first landmarks in modern architecture in the country.

During the construction of the ministry building, Niemeyer carried out his first commissions. In 1937, he completed his first solo project: the Obra do Berço crèche. Two years later, Lúcio Costa invited him to assist with the project for the Brazilian Pavilion at the World's Fair in New York. In the work, the undulation of the mezzanine between the columns already suggests the predominance of the curve in Niemeyer's architecture. In 1940, at the invitation of the Mayor of Belo Horizonte, Juscelino Kubitschek (1902 - 1976), he designed a set of sophisticated buildings for the suburb of Pampulha, including the Dance Hall, the Yacht Club, the Church of São Francisco and the Casino. Niemeyer declared that Pampulha was the "start of his life as an architect".3 It was here that he broke with the orthodoxy of functionalism and the monotony of rectilinear structures, in the name of free, curved and sensual forms. Hence, "if the ministry building, designed by Le Corbusier, forms the basis of the modern movement in Brazil, it is to Pampulha that we owe the start of our architecture that aims at free and creative form (...)".4 In realising Pampulha, Niemeyer enjoyed the important collaboration of the engineer, Joaquim Cardozo (1897 - 1978) and the landscaper, Burle Marx (1909 - 1994).

In 1945, Niemeyer's activities within the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) occupied most of his time. Two years later, he was invited to take part in the commission directed by the architect, Wallace Harrison, which designed the future headquarters of the United Nations (UN). The design, together with that of his master, Le Corbusier, was chosen as the basis for the complex.5 Despite political persecution, Niemeyer consolidated his reputation. In 1949, he was nominated as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. At the start of the 1950s, the critical debate concerning Niemeyer's work intensified. The Greek-American architect, Stamo Papadaki, published the first monograph on his work in 1950.6 Three years later, important architects analysed his projects: Walter Gropius (1883 - 1969) and Max Bill (1908 - 1994), with the latter launching a violent attack, criticising most notably the dissociation between form and function.7

In the same year, Niemeyer was invited by Ciccilo Matarazzo (1898 - 1977) to build the Ibirapuera complex in São Paulo. Reinforced concrete was the main material used as it permitted the architect's light and daring forms. The spaces within these buildings became even wider and the columns narrower. Points of support were delicate, with the complex having a light and curvilinear appearance. At the same time, the project underwent significant modifications during its construction, to Niemeyer's discomfort. In 1956, Juscelino Kubitschek, who was now President of Brazil, invited Niemeyer to design the public buildings for the future capital, Brasília, with him starting the project in the following year. According to the architect, the buildings of Brasília are a stance against the limits of functionalism and the ageing of a number of formulas of modern architecture. His "basic concern lay in the conception of a new and different element that did not copy the habitual models in which modern architecture becomes bogged down, but that causes a sensation of surprise and emotion (...) Only its plastic beauty moves us, a genuine permanent message of grace and poetry".8 In 1958, Niemeyer was appointed chief architect in the construction of Brasília. He closed his office and left for the Central Plateau of Brazil. The city was inaugurated in 1960, with an admiring response to his buildings. The writer, André Malraux, claimed that the columns of the Palácio da Alvorada [Presidential Palace] were "the most important architectural event since Greek columns".9 Le Corbusier found Brasília "magnificent in its inventions, its courage and its optimism".10

From the 1960s onwards, Niemeyer executed projects in Beirut, Paris, Tel Aviv and Algiers. He was in Portugal when he learned of Brazil's military coup of March 1964. On returning home, he was subject to constant persecution by the military dictatorship. Many of his projects were interrupted, with the ensuing violence leading the architect to direct his career abroad, where he enjoyed great success. In 1965, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs of the Louvre exhibited his projects. Two years later, he was invited to design the new headquarters of the Arnaldo Mondadori publishing group on the outskirts of Milan. Niemeyer met the request of the owner, Giorgio Mondadori, and created a monumental complex, centred on a long building in glass and steel, "encased in a system of grand concrete arches, with spaces of different breadths that give a rhythm to the façade".11 In 1968, he executed an ambitious project for Constantine University, in Algeria, although the project was long in its completion. Niemeyer worked extensively in Europe, gaining such prestige that in 1974, the French philosopher and sociologist, Raymond Aron (1905 - 1983), proposed him for membership of the Collège de France.

At the start of the 1980s, Niemeyer carried out important public commissions. The Cultural Centre in the French city of Le Havre was inaugurated in 1982, with the complex representing one of his more sculptural works. On a large site, the architect relates large buildings through their plastic elements. In the following year, the Governor of Rio de Janeiro, Leonel Brizola, invited him to design the Passarela do Samba [Samba Promenade], which linked the Sambódromo [Carnival Stadium] to a cultural, educational and sports centre. One of his last works, the Memorial da América Latina [Memorial to Latin America] (1988-1989) in São Paulo, lacks the force of his previous projects. In 1991, he designed the Museum of Contemporary Art of Niterói (MAC-Niterói), built at the edge of the Bay of Guanabara. On his 90th birthday in 1997, he received tributes from all over Brazil.


1. SODRÉ, Nélson Werneck. Oscar Niemeyer. Rio de Janeiro: Edições Graal, 1978. p. 26-27.
2. PEDROSA, Mário. A Arquitetura moderna no Brasil. In: XAVIER, Alberto (org.). Depoimento de uma geração: arquitetura moderna brasileira. São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2003. p. 99.
3. NIEMEYER, Oscar. As Curvas do Tempo: memórias. Rio de Janeiro: Revan, 2000. p. 94.
4. ________________. A forma na Arquitetura. In: XAVIER, Alberto (org.). Depoimento de uma geração: arquitetura moderna brasileira. São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2003. p. 143 [Text originally published in 1978].
5. C.f. Jean Petit. In: PETIT, Jean. Niemeyer: poeta na arquitetura. S.l.: Fidia Edizione d'Arte, c. 1995. p. 26.
6. PAPADAKI, Stamo. The works of Oscar Niemeyer. New York: Reinhold, 1950.
7. BILL, Max. O arquiteto, a arquitetura, a sociedade. In: XAVIER, Alberto (org.). Depoimento de uma geração: arquitetura moderna brasileira. São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2003. pp.158-163 [Palestra realizada na FAU/USP em 1953]. In 1954, Max Bill published the article 'Report on Brazil' in a special issue of Architectural Review magazine. In the text, he attacked the Ibirapuera project, which he regarded as arising from "a spirit lacking in decency and responsibility for human needs". In: PETIT, Jean. Niemeyer: poeta na arquitetura. S.l.: Fidia Edizione d'Arte, c1995. p. 27.
8. Niemeyer In: PETIT, Jean. Niemeyer: poeta na arquitetura. S.l.: Fidia Edizione d'Arte, c1995. p. 28.
9. Idem, ibidem. p. 29.
10. Ibidem, p. 31.
11. Cf. PUPPI, Lionelllo. PUPPI, Lionello. A Arquitetura de Oscar Niemeyer. Rio de Janeiro: Revan, 1988. p. 116.

Updated on 03/10/2013
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