Brazilian Heroes #1 – Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer is a world renowned architect, made famous by his collaboration with Le Corbusier on the United Nations Headquarters in New York and for his oversight of the architecture of Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. His style is a Brazilian interpretation of modernism, inspired by the right angles of Le Corbusier, but which eventually incorporated the space and curves which have become his trademarks. It was his love of drawing that attracted him to buildings, and it was his idealism that led him to fund the correction of the misaligned brise-soleil on his first project, the Obra de Berco in Rio. As a young architect, he volunteered his services to the famous Lucio Costa, with whom he completed his training. Initially, he embraced modern designs, as a reaction against the fusion of old styles and new techniques that was vaunted by some as a ‘Brazilian architecture’. He considered colonial architecture to be Portuguese, rather than Brazillian, and vowed to express authentic Brazillian architecture in the design of the Brazil Pavilion in New York (“Pavilhão do Brasil na Feira Internacional de Nova Iorque”), 1939. After becoming established on the international stage, Niemeyer was invited to submit a design for the new UN Headquarters in New York. In 1947, Niemeyer won the contest, although Le Corbusier met with him soon after, convincing him to make minor alterations, prior to submission of the collaborative “Project 23-32”, which became the iconic building standing today.

In his more personal buildings, he began to experiment with reinforced concrete, creating light and sensual curves, such as the Open Ballroom in Pampulha. He gradually spurned the right angle in favour of clean lines and bold spaces, resulting in Brasilia’s grand ‘Square of the Three Powers’ and the ‘Palácio da Alvorada’, with the latter featuring the now-classic ‘Alvorada Columns’. In later life, he expressed concerns that Brasilia was becoming too crowded, and that the entire city should be encircled by a green-belt, with newer, peripheral cities becoming the focus for expansion.

During the military coup of 1964, Niemeyer was exiled from Brazil and spent time working in Europe. One of his first developments was the University of Constantine, which was again composed of clean, geometrical shapes and large, open spaces. Several other European buildings were also commissioned, including the Headquarters of the Communist Party, in France, the ‘Oscar Niemeyer Space’ in Le Havre and the Milanese headquarters or Arnoldo Mondadori Editore.

Niemeyer returned to his homeland in the 1980’s, as the military dictatorship transitioned to democracy. His more recent architectural contributions to Rio included Musea Arte Contemporanea (Niterói Museum of Contemporary Art) and the Sambodrome, both of which are at the heart of the cities identity (see below – I’ll add some more photos as I get to see these landmarks with my own eyes). In 1988 Oscar Niemeyer was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize. At 100, he is still actively involved with international projects, including the Centro Niemeyer in Spain, with some commentators believing this is to the detriment of his legacy.

Politically, Niemeyer was a communist and vehement anti-capitalist, showing strong solidarity with Soviet communism and displeasure at the role of property speculators in modern developments. These publicly expressed views led to him being refused entry to America many years later. His rebellious nature continued well into old age, and as his desire to discuss architecture waned, he still championed the working class of Brazil, encouraging them to take to the streets. His motto was reportedly, “Fodido não tem ver”, or, “The fucked have no rights”.


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Alvorada columns adorn the Palácio da Alvorada in Brasília

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Oscar Niemeyer during the construction of Brasília