Hailed as one of the most influential architects of the global modernist movement and one of Brazil’s greatest, Oscar Niemeyer was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1929. Having enjoyed a professional mentorship with legendary architects like Lucio Costa and Le Corbusier at an early age, Niemeyer blossomed into an exponent of modern architecture in Latin America, particularly noted for his work on Brasília, the new capital of Brazil. In fact when he passed away at the age of 104, Niemeyer left behind a legacy of over five hundred works across the Americas, Africa, and Europe.
Niemeyer first made his mark in Brazil, aged 29, to collaborate and design the headquarters of the Ministry of Education and Health, located in the center of Rio de Janeiro. The building, a horizontal bar that intersects a vertical blade, became the hallmark of modern Brazilian architecture, attracting international attention.
It was this project that pitchforked Niemeyer to iconic status when he was appointed by the President of Brazil to be the chief architect of Brasilia, the new capital of Brazil. Among the Brasília buildings designed by Niemeyer are the President’s Palace, the Brasília Palace Hotel, the Ministry of Justice building, the Presidential Chapel, and the Cathedral.
Commenting on this landmark assignment, Niemeyer would say, "As an architect, my concern in Brasilia was to find a structural solution that would characterise the city's architecture. So I did my very best in the structures, trying to make them different with their columns narrow, so narrow that the palaces would seem to barely touch the ground. And I set them apart from the facades, creating an empty space through which, as I bent over my work table, I could see myself walking, imagining their forms and the different resulting points of view they would provoke.’’
Soon enough he became an internationally sought architect, designing and executing prestigious works like the design for the United Nations Headquarters in New York, in collaboration with Le Corbusier; an office building for Renault and the Communist Party Headquarters both in Paris; a cultural centre for Le Havre in Italy; the Mondadori Editorial Office in Milan; and the FATA Office Building in Turin.
Even the many houses that he designed are considered masterworks of midcentury modernism; along with spectacular high-rise housing and museums. His own house in Rio de Janeiro has become a landmark architectural piece for posterity.
Niemeyer was not apologetic of his style of architecture, conceived as lyrical sculpture, symbolising the principles and innovations of Le Corbusier to become a kind of free-form sculpture. No wonder he said, “My architecture followed the old examples -- beauty prevailing over the limitations of the constructive logic. My work proceeded, indifferent to the unavoidable criticism set forth by those who take the trouble to examine the minimum details, so very true of what mediocrity is capable of… I must design what pleases me in a way that is naturally linked to my roots and the country of my origin.”
Niemeyer died at the age of 104—and even in his later years he continued to revisit and renovate his own buildings in Brasilia, as well as create new designs, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Niterói, Brazil, which opened when he was in his late 60s. In Brasilia, he changed the shape of the exterior arches on the Ministry of Justice building and replaced the windows of the cathedral with stained-glass panels.
Niemeyer was bestowed with many international awards, including the Pritzker Architecture Prize; the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for architecture; and Lenin Peace Prize.
Interestingly, he was a staunch communist, but never mixed his political idealism with his professional rigour. Ironically, he had to go into exile to Paris in the 1960s, after a military dictatorship took over the government of Brazil. Think of it: Niemeyer who had designed the national capital, set himself up in Paris, and there he ended up designing the headquarters of the French communist party!
Even during his sunset years, he kept working and investing time on young architects worldwide-- instilling in them the sensitivity to strive for beauty in the manipulation of architectural forms.
On his death in 2012, Paul Goldberger writing a piece for Vanity Fair (Dec 2, 2012) headlined, “Remembering Oscar Niemeyer: The Architect Who Gave Modernism a Little Samba Flair” had this to say: ‘It really did seem as if Oscar Niemeyer would live forever. He died on Wednesday, 10 days short of his 105th birthday, his architectural career continuing quite literally to the end—he was still giving direction to employees about ongoing projects from his hospital bed in Rio in his final days. His commitment to the notion that modernism could make life richer, freer, more spirited, and more meaningful also remained fully intact. You could call Niemeyer the last of the true believers, but he was more than that: an extraordinary blend of passion, arrogance, and naivety, seasoned, I suspect, with more than a little craftiness…’
Hemalatha is a Chennai-based architect with experience in practicing & teaching architecture, and co-founder of SIDART Photography.