Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012)

At points across his long career an uncomfortable, arguably luxurious, figure, the Brazilian architect’s work neverthless persisted with a vision of democratic utopia, where all have access to beauty

Jesso alves oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Jesso alves oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Source: Jesso Alves

In 2003, at the age of 96, Oscar Niemeyer designed the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London’s Hyde Park. At the time, he was a living legend: the last active modern architect. After projects by Zaha Hadid (2000), Daniel Libeskind (2001), Toyo Ito (2002), an invitation was made to Niemeyer. In a space dedicated to contemporary art and architecture, the last of the living and active modern architects entered the 21st century. It might be said that Niemeyer prolonged the modern to the extent that he became contemporary, and this unusual encounter led to a repositioning of his own work. In fact, the most persistent criticism of Niemeyer’s work by Modernist critics, such as Max Bill’s sharp attack when he visited Brazil in 1951, published in Manchete magazine in 1953, was based on an excess of form and individuality, which sidelined the social function of modern architecture. These days, with the architecture of Hadid and Gehry, such criticism of indulgent formalism is no longer unique.

For my generation, who lived through Postmodernism in the late 1980s, Niemeyer was an uncomfortable figure. His position and historical importance was indisputable, but in recent times, his work was becoming repetitive, as if he had nothing more to add, other than the hedonistic exercise of self-reference. We became weary of the curves and redundant formalism. Why not stop?

‘Despite Niemeyer’s anti-functionalist bravado, form requires as much control as any other practical or technical constraint’

At a time when Brazil was embarking on a process of re-democratisation, after years of dictatorship, Niemeyer continued to be the favourite of politicians who with new mandate wanted to build monumental government buildings. It was very difficult for us to accept the collectivist discourse and the defence of the communist utopia (which he never concealed), while he carried out an architecture of luxury and expenditure, engaging with the rhetoric of populist governments.

Projects that might be considered visibly ‘lazy’ during this era would include the Juscelino Kubitschek Memorial, the Latin America Memorial and the Sambadromes for Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. All seemed to confirm that Niemeyer’s time had passed.

Yet in 1996, the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum appeared. There was no way of denying it, the ‘old man’ had returned to form. Niterói is an impressive work of architecture, a perfect symbiosis between built form and landscape, without recent precedent. Other prominent (if controversial) works from the same period stood out, such as the Museum Oscar Niemeyer – The Eye – and the Popular Theatre of Niterói, the Serpentine Pavilion’s obvious antecedent.

W4bbc5 niterói contemporary art museum oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

W4bbc5 niterói contemporary art museum oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Source: A PAES / ALAMY

The Niterói Contemporery Art Museum is a flying saucer set in Rio’s extreme topography

By then, I was no longer the young newly graduated architect. I had a greater knowledge of the history of Brazilian architecture and a better understanding of the historical position of Niemeyer within this milieu. Strictly speaking, since the beginning, his work defined a critical shift in modern architecture. It indicated the limits of rational functionalism, in favour of invention and freedom of artistic creation. Niemeyer despised the rigid positivism of the functionalist logic, seeing it as an imprisonment of the architect’s creative force. It catalysed the rebellion of his youth and he amazed the world with his first great work, the Pampulha Modern Ensemble of 1940. Founded in the architecture of Le Corbusier (who he met in 1936 in a project for the Ministry of Education and Health), Niemeyer took in the master’s language with unexpected freedom and brought it to unexpected solutions. It was not, as many thought, a process of taking the five points of the new architecture and applying these in a literal way. Nor was he articulating these points under the constraints of regular geometry. The free plan, the free plane, the expansive volume, the open pilotis were all taken as an opportunity to go beyond what had been presented up until then. What was being suggested in the volumetric extroversion of the Pampulha Casino assumes radicalism in the São Francisco Church, articulated as a sequence of parabolic curves. Similarly, in the House of Dance, the undulating marquee dances over the lake.

Pampulha photo20070301120941 oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Pampulha photo20070301120941 oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

The Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, Pampulha

After this initial work, Niemeyer continued to produce remarkable projects in the major Brazilian cities. The theme of the free plan was developed in his own home, Das Canoas House (1951-53) in the middle of the lush forest of Tijuca in Rio, as well as in the amazing Edifício Copan (1951-57), a large residential building in the heart of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest metropolis. In this city, another cultural complex, Ibirapuera Park (1951-54), allowed him to develop the themes discovered in Pampulha.

Pampulha woman sketch oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Pampulha woman sketch oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

A characteristically fluid sketch by Niemeyer of the Pampulha Modern Ensemble arranged around a lake (left) Niemeyer enjoyed sketching the female form (right)

Brasília (1956-60), the new federal capital, is considered the greatest achievement of Niemeyer and of modern architecture in Brazil, as well as being a moment of critical reassessment. According to Niemeyer (in a statement of 1958), this was a moment of severe self criticism, which led to changes in his way of designing. His evident preoccupation with conciseness and purity indicated he felt a certain weariness with existing formal strategies. However, the reason for this reassessment was, in his own words, political. The works in the new capital led him to look back at himself and his past and reiterate, yet again, architecture’s sense of irrelevance in the face of serious social contradictions. Niemeyer continued to design for the wealthy classes, and his architecture could only be seen as a ‘luxury item’, something that made the left uncomfortable. Recognising the profession’s limitations, Niemeyer confessed that he practised architecture with a certain ‘carelessness’, even inattention, which led him to have an exaggerated confidence in his own capacity to improvise and inclination to be original.

Ibirapuera small dscf2251a oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Ibirapuera small dscf2251a oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Source: Ciro Miguel, commissioned for the Access for All exhibition catalogue, Architekturmuseum der TU München at the Pinakothek der Moderne

Skaters underneath the marquee in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park

The actions taken by Niemeyer in the face of such contradictions led him to reduce his output, refuse commercial projects and simplify the relationship between form, programme and structure. The palaces of Brasília are evidence of this new phase. It is not by chance that these assume a Classical resonance, with regular and unified volumes, and the predominance of the colonnade and arch. The Cathedral of Brasília (1958-70) is practically defined by its structure, a group of curved beams supported on a ring beam, creating a sense of spatial openness and transparency that is unusual for a sacred space. The National Theatre is a complex pyramidal volume with a cut vortex and distinct faces, while abroad, the Communist Party Headquarters (1964-72) in Paris and the Mondadori Editorial Headquarters (1968-75) in Milan concluded his golden decade with a defiant flourish.

Neptuul united nations headquarters in new york city, view from roosevelt island oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil

Neptuul united nations headquarters in new york city, view from roosevelt island oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil

Source: NEPTUUL

Niemeyer was part of the international Board of Design for the UN headquarters in New York

Niemeyer’s anti-functionalist position never led him to consider compromise solutions such as Art Deco, Postmodern Historicism or even Critical Regionalism. The formal liberation that he advocated was practised by means of a rigorously modern vocabulary, composed of lines, planes and abstract volumes. In his own way, Niemeyer understood through Le Corbusier the liberation of the modern formal sign. As in Cubism, the sign is liberated from the casual bond with its referent, enabling and freeing it to develop itself according to its own internal logic and with as many possibilities as imagination allows.

Edifício copan foto 074 oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Edifício copan foto 074 oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Source: CASIOPEA

The Edifício Copan, São Paulo, one of the largest apartment blocks in Brazil

Critics have characterised the work of Niemeyer using terms such as ‘lightness’, ‘grace’ and ‘volumetry’. Yet, to uphold such qualities implies a paradox: they depend on the sculptural properties of reinforced concrete, but in order to achieve lightness and grace, they must elevate from the resistances of matter, erase the loadbearing forces and dissolve the weight in the white light that resonates on sharply profiled geometric surfaces.

Suspense usually characterises the kind of architecture that searches for a new technical, formal and spatial challenge and conceals, in the moment of its realisation, all the complexities that make it feasible. In order to overcome the inexorability of gravity, the architect performs a lifting, fluctuating act. This entails not burying or sinking the building in the ground, but rather positioning, levitating and suspending. Between the requirements and the overcoming of the empirical, between this disappearing and appearing, the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer reveals its grace.

Biography

Key works
Pampulha Modern Ensemble, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 1940
UN Headquarters, New York, USA, 1952 
Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo, Brazil, 1954
Edifício Copan, São Paulo, Brazil, 1957
Various buildings in Brasília, Brazil 1956-2012
French Communist Party HQ, Paris, France, 1972
Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1996
Oscar Niemeyer Museum, Curitiba, Brazil, 2002
Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, London, 2003

Awards
Lenin Peace Prize, 1963
Pritzker Prize, 1988
RIBA Royal Gold Medal, 1998
Praemium Imperiale, 2004

Quote
‘I am a Brazilian before I am an architect. I cannot separate the two’

The easiness, the spontaneity, the disdain for the idea of work, the dissimulation of all technique, are well known aspects of that idea of art that appears effortless. Yet I do not share the view that the grace in Niemeyer signifies gratuity. Despite the anti-functionalist bravado, form requires as much control as any other practical or technical constraint. The spontaneous grace of Niemeyer’s lines is obtained with an extreme economy of means. He achieves an excess of form with synthetic and continuous gestures. Criticisms of gratuity and luxury are based on the excess; admiration for simplicity and purity originate in the restraint.

Modulo memoirs cover oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Modulo memoirs cover oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Sketch of Brasília’s almost implausibly transparent Cathedral on the cover of Niemeyer’s memoirs The Curves of Time (1998) and an unbuilt project for the Museum of Modern Art in Caracas (right) featured on the cover of Módulo, the architecture magazine founded by Niemeyer in 1955

Another contested dichotomy is the interior/exterior. In the functionalist convention, both are defined by the same term – the function. In Niemeyer, to move from exterior to interior (and vice versa) seems to define a single movement, denoting a complex topological reasoning, demonstrated in the continuous planes (whether these are floors, slabs, walls or roofs). Perception of these planes occurs during the body’s movement in space. This is the reason why it is said that Niemeyer’s volumes and plans are, as with a Moebius strip, exteriorised, as these do not suggest an ideal interiority, and so they are in a state of continuous reversibility. Form does not decompose. On the contrary, it reaffirms its unity throughout the movement.

Grant smith view auditorium paris hq french communist party oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Grant smith view auditorium paris hq french communist party oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Source: GRANT SMITH / VIEW

auditorium in the Parisian HQ for the French Communist Party

Niemeyer’s architecture accomplishes, in this sense, what is conventionally called ‘topological’ form, or pure movement. I believe that the affinities with contemporary form, where continuous surfaces define space, derive from this. The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion was an accomplishment of this kind. It took the form of an elegant and slender volume, in which the inside and outside had a seamless continuity, to the extent of suspending conventional polarities to let free movement flow. Access ramps led up into the pavilion, a partly submerged volume, which appeared to float lightly over the park, capped by an undulating roof.

Still from  that man from rio 1965 philippe de broca niterói oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Still from that man from rio 1965 philippe de broca niterói oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Exiled in Paris, Niemeyer went to watch That Man from Rio at the cinema. When Brasília’s Ministeries Esplanade and the Three Powers Square appeared on screen, the audience started to clap ‘remained quiet, anonymous and happy. It was the highest compliment I have ever been given in my life’ said Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer may have exacerbated the division between the beautiful and the political, since he belonged to the working world, to the unfortunate reality of inequality and social strife, but the integrity of his artistic attitude is clear and emphatic. For this reason, Niemeyer’s architecture gives the impression of inhabiting an ideal place, in which tensions are pacified and forms find their natural place. Such idealism might connote a profound disagreement with the presently conflicted socially progressive ideals of architecture. In fact, it points to an inevitable utopia, in which everyone would be able to participate and have access to beauty.  

Gettyimages 55723625 dmitri kessel the life picture collection oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Gettyimages 55723625 dmitri kessel the life picture collection oscar niemeyer reputations architectural review brazil 1465

Source: Dmitri Kessel / THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION / GETTY IMAGES

This piece was translated from the Portuguese by Angela Marquito, and features in the AR October issue on Brazil – click here to purchase your copy today