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Oscar Niemeyer
Image: AP

The curve master

Carlos Albuquerque / kbm
December 6, 2012

As one of the most significant architects of the 20th century, the Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer was involved in several hundred projects. He passed away in Rio de Janeiro at the age of 104.


The elegant collection of city buildings in Brasilia, the United Nations headquarters in New York City, and innumerable projects in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, London, Paris and Berlin - Oscar Niemeyer's designs are known all over the world.

"If you only worry about function, the result stinks," Niemeyer once said of his design philosophy. Fluid lines and a respect for nature characterize his style.

Niemeyer was one of the last major representatives of modern architecture, which had been established by his predecessors and role models like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Alvar Aalto. At the same time, he is credited with the transition to post-modernism. The curves in his architecture, he said, were a protest again the International Style.

In his later years, Niemeyer had the privilege of witnessing how his buildings influenced his successors. The two most significant are British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas of Holland, both of whom have received the renowned Pritzker Prize just as Niemeyer had in 1988.

The early years

Oscar de Almeida Soares was born into a Catholic family in Rio de Janeiro in 1907. But neither the regular Masses held in his maternal grandparents' house nor his Catholic high school could interest young Oscar in religion.

"What counts for me is the big bang: Stars and planets that form in endless space and we, the animals of the earth, that try to survive," he said. That world view would accompany him his entire life.

Later, Niemeyer took his paternal grandparents' German last name - just as architect Ludwig Mies had added his mother's "van der Rohe."

In the late 1920s, Niemeyer - who had married and had a daughter - started studying architecture. "I liked to draw," he explained. After graduating in 1934, he worked for Lucio Costa, who would later serve as urban planner for Brazil's capital city, Brasilia. Niemeyer and Costa joined Le Corbusier and his group of architects who designed the ministry of culture in Rio in 1936. The great Swiss architect had a major influence on the two young Brazilians.

Costa, just five years older than Niemeyer, quickly recognized his talent. After winning the bid to create Brazil's pavilion for the 1939 World's Fair in New York, Costa invited Niemeyer - who'd taken second in the bid - to join him on the project. Shortly thereafter, Costa passed a major assignment from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais on to Niemeyer: a hotel in Ouro Preto, a city recognized by UNESCO because of its outstanding Baroque architecture.

In designing the hotel, Niemeyer networked with politicians, which led to additional large projects. Among his important new contacts was Juscelino Kubitschek, who would later become Brazil's president and commission the construction of Brasilia.

Progress through technology

Unlike the romantics of the Organic architecture movement, Niemeyer viewed technology as progress. Concrete construction made possible the curves with which he complemented modern design and protested against the right angles of Rationalism.

"It is not the right angle that attracts me, nor the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man," said Niemeyer. "What attracts me is the free and sensual curve - the curve that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuous course of its rivers, in the body of the beloved woman."

Niemeyer rejected "social" architecture, as it was later implemented in social housing projects in communist countries - although he leaned to the left, politically. He always made a building's location the leitmotiv in its design.

"Pampulha" is the project that first made Niemeyer famous. It was followed by further important projects abroad, including the United Nations headquarters in New York in 1947 and the apartment complex on V-shaped stilts built in the 1950s for the International Architecture Exhibition in Berlin.

Niemeyer's big breakthrough came in 1956. Juscelino Kubitschek hired Niemeyer to design the buildings for the country's new capital city, Brasilia. Lucio Costa took on the urban planning. After four years of work, Brasilia was inaugurated in April 1960. It was a symbol not only of the country's modernity, but also of the modern architecture as a whole - the first city to be built entirely according to the principles of modern architecture as they were laid down in the so-called Athens Charter in 1933.

Perhaps more importantly for Brazil, the capital city marked the establishment of a national cultural identity, in which Niemeyer played a pivotal role.

Exile and homecoming

Despite his national and international reputation, Niemeyer felt obligated to leave his country in 1966. A military dictatorship had taken over in 1964. The architect, who had been a member of the Communist Party for 40 years, boycotted the new government.

Niemeyer remained faithful to his political convictions despite the problems they caused him. As a communist and good friend of Fidel Castro, he was not allowed to enter the United States. But he did manage to immigrate to Paris with a visa pushed through by French President Charles de Gaulle himself.

In the late 1960s, Niemeyer returned to Brazil, but his connections abroad remained strong and his work took him to Algeria, Israel, Italy and Portugal. He was also very active in France, where he designed the headquarters of the French Communist Party.

In the early 1980s, then in his mid-70s, Niemeyer permanently returned to his home. But it wasn't to enter retirement. He continued to work long days and even took on assignments beyond the age of 100, including the Oscar Niemeyer International Cultural Center in Aviles, Spain, and the Arab-South American Library in Algiers.

Niemeyer's architectural legacy encompasses, alongside numerous books and articles, over 500 building designs, over half of which were realized. As George Eliot once said, "Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them." And Niemeyer, with such a massive and influential oeuvre, will certainly be remembered for a long time to come, on many different continents.

The headquarters of the French Communist Party in Paris
The headquarters of the French Communist Party in ParisImage: AP
Statues of the apostles are seen in front of the Cathedral of Brasilia
Statues of the apostles are seen in front of the Cathedral of BrasiliaImage: AP
Planalto government palace in Brasilia
The Planalto government palace in Brasilia celebrated its 52nd anniversary this yearImage: AP
Oscar Niemeyer
Niemeyer was vocal about his leftist political leaningImage: Juliana Zucolotto/Archive Oscar Niemeyer
United Nations headquarters in New York
Construction on the UN headquarters in New York began in 1947Image: Getty Images/AFP
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