Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho (born December 15, 1907) is a Brazilian architect who is considered one of the most important names in international modern architecture. He was a pioneer in exploring the formal possibilities of reinforced concrete solely for their aesthetic impact. His buildings are often characterised by being spacious and exposed, mixing volumes and empty space to create unconventional structures. Both lauded and criticised for being a "sculptor of monuments", he has been praised for being a great artist and one of the greatest architects of his generation by his supporters.

He started to work in his father's typography house and entered the Escola de Belas Artes (Brazil), from which he graduated as engineer architect in 1934. At the time he had financial difficulties but decided to work without fee in the studio of Lúcio Costa and Carlos Leão, a team of Brazilian architects collaborating with Le Corbusier. This proved a formative experience. Niemeyer felt dissatisfied with the architecture that he saw in the streets and believed he could find a career there.

In 1942, Niemeyer created a series of recreational buildings, which embodied a highly expressive style that borrowed extensively from the Brazilian Baroque style of architecture. In 1956, Niemeyer was appointed Architectural Advisor to Nova Cap–an organisation charged with implementing Luis Costa's plans for Brazil's new capital. The following year, he became Chief Architect, designing most of the city's important buildings. The epoch of Niemeyer's career, these buildings mark a period of creativity and modern symbolism.

Niemeyer organised a competition for the layout of Brasília, the new capital and the winner was the project of his old master and great friend, Lúcio Costa. Niemeyer would design the buildings and Lucio the plan of the city.

In the space of a few months, Niemeyer designed a large number of residential, commercial and government buildings. Among them were the residences of the President (Palácio da Alvorada), the House of the deputy, the National Congress of Brazil, the Cathedral of Brasília (a hyperboloid structure), diverse ministries and residential buildings. Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa used it to test new concepts of city planning: streets without transit, buildings floating off the ground supported by columns and allowing the space underneath to be free and integrated with nature. The project also had a socialist ideology: in Brasília all the apartments would be owned by the government and rented to its employees. Brasília did not have ‘nobler’ regions, meaning that top ministers and common laborers would share the same building. Many of these concepts were ignored or changed by other presidents with different visions in later years. Brasília was designed, constructed and inaugurated within four years. After it, Niemeyer was nominated Head Chief of the College of Architecture of the University of Brasília. In 1963, he became an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects in the United States; the same year, he received a Soviet prize, the Lenin peace prize.

Niemeyer continued to work on Brasilia until 1964 when his political affiliation with the communist party forced him into exile in France. In the late 1960s he resumed his career in Brazil, teaching at the University of Rio de Janeiro and working in private practice. He was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architecture in 1970.

In 1966, his work hindered in Brazil, Niemeyer moved to Paris. There he started a new phase of his life and workmanship. Also in 1966, he travelled to Lebanon (city of Tripoli) to design the International Permanent Exhibition Centre. He opened an office on the Champs-Élysées and had customers in diverse countries, especially in Algeria where, among others he designed the University of Science and Technology-Houari Boumediene. In Paris he created the headquarters of the French Communist Party, Place du Colonel Fabien and in Italy that of the Mondadori publishing company. In Funchal on Madeira, Niemeyer removed a 19th century hotel to build a casino. Another prominent design of his was the Penang State Mosque in George Town the state capital ofPenang, Malaysia in 1970s.

While in Paris, Niemeyer began designing furniture, which was produced by Mobilier International. He created his easy chair and ottoman composed of bent steel and leather in limited numbers for private clients. Later, in 1978, the Japanese company Tendo, then Tendo Brasileira, produced this chair and other designs including the’Rio’ chaise lounge in Brazil. The easy chairs and ottomans were made of bent wood and were placed in different Communist party headquarters around the world. Much like his architecture, Niemeyer's furniture designs were meant to evoke the beauty of Brazil, with its sensuous curves mimicking the female form and the hills of Rio de Janeiro.

The dictatorship lasted 21 years, until 1985. Under João Figueiredo's rule it softened and gradually turned into a democracy. At this time Niemeyer decided to return to his country. He himself defines this time as the beginning of the last phase of his life. During that decade he made the Memorial Juscelino Kubitschek(1980), the Pantheon (1985) and the Latin America Memorial (1987) (dubbed by The Independent of London to be "...an incoherent and vulgar construction"), the last a sculpture representing the wounded hand of Jesus, whose wound bleeds in the shape of Central and South America.

In 1988 Oscar Niemeyer was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, together with the American architect Gordon Bunshaft.
From 1992 to 1996 Niemeyer was the President of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB); as a lifelong activist, Niemeyer was chosen as a powerful public figure that could be linked to the party at a time when it appeared to be in its death throes after the demise of the USSR. Although not active as a political leader his image helped the party to survive through its crisis, after the 1992 split and to remain as a political force in the national scenarios, which eventually lead to its reconstruction. Zuleide Faria de Mello replaced him in 1996, remaining as a close figure until today.
He designed at least two more buildings in Brasilia, small ones, the Memorial dos Povos Indigenas("Memorial for the Indigenous People") and the Catedral Militar, Igreja de N.S. da Paz.

In 1996, at 89 years old, he created what many consider his greatest work: the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (in Niterói, a city next to Rio de Janeiro). The building flies from a rock, giving a beautiful view of the Guanabara Bay and the city of Rio de Janeiro. Critics of the museum say the building is so exotic that it upstages the works of art inside it.

In 2002 was inaugurated the Oscar Niemeyer Museum complex, in the city of Curitiba, Paraná. This building is locally known as "Niemeyer's Eye".
In 2003, Niemeyer was called to design the Serpentine Gallery Summer Pavilion in Hyde Park London, a gallery that each year invites a famous architect who has never previously built in the UK, to design this temporary structure.

In 2004, a Niemeyer designed tombstone for Communist Carlos Marighella, in Salvador da Bahia in the northeast of Brazil, was inaugurated to commemorate the 35th anniversary of his death.

In 2005, one of his projects entitled "ESTAÇÃO CIÊNCIA, CULTURA e ARTES" was approved to be built atJoão Pessoa, the easternmost point of the Americas, at 34º 47' 38" west longitude and 7º 9' 28" south latitude.

In 2006, Niemeyer (98) wed long time aide Vera Lucia Cabreira (born in mid-1940s) at his apartment in Rio de Janeiro's Ipanema district a month after fracturing his hip in a fall. On 15th December 2006, almost 50 years belatedly, Brasilia gained a pair of Niemeyer's buildings, the National Museum and the National Library. The inauguration coincided with Oscar Niemeyer’s 99th birthday. Both buildings are located at the ‘Esplanada dos Ministérios,’ making part of the Republic Cultural Complex, next to Niemeyer's Cathedral. On Niemeyer's 100th birthday, Russia's president Vladimir Putin awarded him the Order of Friendship.

In April 2008, the building of one of his biggest European projects started in the Principality of Asturias, Spain. As thanks to the Prince of Asturias Award received in 1989, his design of a big cultural centre was donated to Asturias. The ‘International Cultural Centre Óscar Niemeyer’ (also known as Centro Niemeyer), will be located in Avilés, Asturias (north Spain). He described these modern buildings as “una gran plaza abierta a todos los hombres y mujeres del mundo, un gran palco de teatro sobre la ría y la ciudad vieja” (a big square open to all men and women of the World, a big loge between the river and the ancient town).

Recognised as one of the first to pioneer new concepts in architecture in this hemisphere, his designs are artistic gesture, with underlying logic and substance. His pursuit of great architecture linked to roots of his native land has resulted in new plastic forms and a lyricism in buildings, not only in Brazil, but also around the world. For his lifetime achievements, the Pritzker Architecture Prize is bestowed upon him. Although semi-retired, Oscar Niemeyer still works at the drawing board and welcomes young architects from all over the world. Oscar Niemeyer hopes to instill in them the sensitivity to aesthetics that allowed him to strive for beauty in the manipulation of architectural forms. In the late 1960s he resumed his career in Brazil, teaching at the University of Rio de Janeiro and working in private practice. As of 2009, Niemeyer is 101 and still involved in diverse projects, mainly sculptures and a readjustment of old works of his that, protected by national (and some cases international) historic heritage regulations, can only be modified by him. One of the master's newest designs will be an attraction at the future Museu Pelé in Santos: a monument representing Pelé and a ball, which, according to reports on Brazilian media, Niemeyer drew in about three hours.

His Influence:
The Corbusian influence is evident in the early works of Oscar Niemeyer. However, the architect gradually acquired his own style: the lightness of the curved forms created spaces that transformed the architectural scheme into something that was hitherto unknown; harmony, grace and elegance are the adjectives that are most appropriate to describe the work of Oscar Niemeyer. The adaptations produced by the architect to connect the baroque vocabulary with modernist architecture made possible formal experiences in spectacular volumes, executed by famous mathematicians including the Brazilian Joaquim Cardoso and the Italian Pier Luigi Nervi. The use of reinforced concrete to form curves or as a shell and the unique use of the aesthetic possibilities of the straight line were translated into factories, skyscrapers, exhibition centres, residential areas, theatres, temples, head office buildings for public and private sector companies, universities, clubs, hospitals and buildings for various social schemes.

His Philosophy:
President Vargas imported Le Corbusier in 1936 to design the new Ministry of Education in Rio, but he made sure that six of Brazil’s finest Young Turks – Niemeyer included – were shadowing, learning and being responsible for the Ministry that had assumed the task of shaping the ‘novo homem, Brasileiro e moderno’ (new and modern Brazilian man). Niemeyer emerged as the greatest of this new generation, the first in the postcolonial architectural world to take the culture issuing forth from the Old World – in this case the International Style – pull it apart and reconstruct it. The Old World Modernists such as Le Corbusier and Gropius were dismissive and envious of this new architecture – definitely modern with its exposed concrete and abstraction, but not ‘their’ modern: this was tropical Modernism. Niemeyer and his generation were the first really to understand reinforced concrete – unlike steel and glass, easily and cheaply tractable by unskilled Brazilian labour and able to create larger, more expressive liquid forms.  He was completely against Bauhaus, as he didn’t quite approve of ‘rules’. In exile he simply exported his tropical Modernism round the world, increasingly hankering after iconic forms. But he never matched the vigour of his youth: at his absolute best, from the Forties to the Sixties, form, function, ego and social purpose melt into each other.

His expressions:
“Life is very fleeting. It’s important to be gentle and optimistic. We look behind and think what we’ve done in this life has been good. It was simple; it was modest. Everyone creates their own story and moves on. That’s it. I don’t feel particularly important. What we create is not important. We’re very insignificant.”

"Here, then, is what I wanted to tell you of my architecture. I created it with courage and idealism, but also with an awareness of the fact that what are important are life, friends and attempting to make this unjust world a better place in which to live."— Oscar Niemeyer. The Curves of Time: the memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer

"Architecture must express the spirit of the technical and social forces that are predominant in a given epoch; but when such forces are not balances, the resulting conflict is prejudicial to the content of the work and to the work as a whole. Only with this in mind may we understand the nature of the plans and drawings, which appear in this volume. I should have very much liked to be in a position to present a more realistic achievement: a kind of work which reflects not only refinements and comfort but also a positive collaboration between the architect and the whole society."

"I have always," says Oscar Niemeyer, "accepted and respected all other schools of architecture, from the chill and elemental structures of Mies van der Rohe to the imagination and delirium of Gaudi. I must design what pleases me in a way that is naturally linked to my roots and the country of my origin.

Pampulha, says Niemeyer, offered him the opportunity to 'challenge the monotony of contemporary architecture, the wave of misinterpreted functionalism that hindered it and the dogmas of form and function that had emerged, counteracting the plastic freedom that reinforced concrete introduced.

“I was attracted by the curve — the liberated, sensual curve suggested by the possibilities of new technology yet so often recalled in venerable old baroque churches.”

“I deliberately disregarded the right angle and rationalist architecture designed with ruler and square to boldly enter the world of curves and straight lines offered by reinforced concrete. […] This deliberate protest arose from the environment in which I lived, with its white beaches, its huge mountains, its old baroque churches and the beautiful suntanned women.' (Niemeyer, Oscar, 2000, The Curves of Time: The Memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer (London: Phaidon)

It is not the right angle that attracts me, nor the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. 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.

My ambition has always been to reduce a building’s support to a minimum. The more we diminish supporting structures, the more audacious and important the architecture is. That has been my life’s work.

We hated Bauhaus. It was a bad time in architecture. They just didn’t have any talent. All they had were rules. Even for knives and forks they created rules. Picasso would never have accepted rules. The house is like a machine? No! The mechanical is ugly. The rule is the worst thing. You just want to break it.
His Legacy - His Projects:

  1. Brazilian Pavilion, New York World Fair,1939.
  2. Church of St Francis, at Pampulha, Brazil, 1943.
  3. Ministry of Education and Health (now the Palace of Culture), (with Le Corbusier, Lucio Costa, Jorge Machado Moreira and Afonso Eduardo Reidy) at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1937 to 1943.
  4. National Stadium, at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1941.
  5. United Nations Headquarters, with others, at New York, New York, 1947 to 1953.
  6. Cathedral at Brasilia, at Brasilia, Brazil, 1957 to 1964.
  7. Communist Party Headquarters, at Paris, France, 1967 to 1972.
  8. Samba Stadium, at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1983.
  9. Museo Oscar Niemeyer, at Curitiba, Brazil, 2000.
  10. The Duchen factory, São Paulo (1950-51)
  11. House, Canoas, Brazil (1952-53

    http://www.niemeyer.org.br/projetos.pdf has a list of all projects of Oscar Niemeyer, but in Portuguese and running into several pages.