Childhood & Early Life
Niemeyer was born Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho, on December 15, 1907, in Rio de Janeiro. He had five siblings. His grandfather was a judge of the ‘Supreme Court.’ His father, a typographer, ran a graphic art business.
During his early childhood, he used to draw in the air with his fingers. Observing this, his mother gave him a pencil as soon as he was old enough to hold one. Thus, he began drawing from a tender age. He lived a carefree childhood and youth.
In 1928, Niemeyer left the ‘Santo Antonio Maria Zaccaria Priory School’ and joined the ‘Escola Nacional de Belas Artes’ (the ‘National School of Fine Arts’) in Rio, obtaining his BA in architecture in 1934. The school’s dean, modernist architect and urban planner Lúcio Costa, noticed young Niemeyer’s skills. Thus, Niemeyer began working as an intern for Costa much before his graduation (1932).
Continue Reading Below
In 1936, Costa received an assignment from the then-education minister, Gustavo Capanema. It required him to design the headquarters of the ‘Ministry of Education and Health’ in the center of Rio. Niemeyer was added to the team as an apprentice. The famous Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier was invited as a consultant for the project. Niemeyer assisted him as a draftsman.
Later, Niemeyer persuaded Corbusier to make changes that were more suitable for Brazilian conditions. On his suggestions, “Louvres” were added to the windows against the sun. A traditional Portuguese tile work, “Azulejos,” which had abstract motifs, was installed at the ground-floor public area. Earlier, the auditorium had been designed as a separate structure, but Niemeyer placed it under the main block, giving it a compact appearance. In 1939, Costa made Niemeyer the chief architect of the project. It was completed in 1945 and attracted attention as a symbol of Brazil’s modernism. The skyscraper, which was built using local materials and techniques, is still famous as the ‘Palácio Gustavo Capanema.’
In 1938–1939, Niemeyer and Costa teamed up on the design of the ‘Brazilian Pavilion’ for the ‘New York World’s Fair.’ The design won him accolades. The mayor of New York, La Guardia, presented him the keys to the city of New York, which is considered a great honor.
Niemeyer’s first independent work was the ‘Pampulha Project’ in 1940. The then-mayor of Belo Horizonte (the capital of the state of Minas Gerais), Juscelino Kubitschek, commissioned Niemeyer to develop the ‘Pampulha Complex’ as a new suburb of the city. He designed various buildings, including a yacht club, a golf club, a casino, a restaurant, a dance hall, and a church, all around an artificial lake. The mayor’s weekend retreat was also built by the lake.
Niemeyer’s distinctive free-flowing forms and curving lines became evident for the first time in this project. The ‘São Francisco de Assis Church,’ which was part of the complex, attracted maximum attention. Its curving lines were said to “resemble the trajectory of a bouncing ball.” The church’s façade displayed “Azulejos” and tile murals. It became Brazil’s first listed modern structure. However, its unconventional form also invited criticism, especially from the Roman Catholic clergy, who refused to consecrate it till 1959. Archbishop Antonio dos Santos Cabral called it the “Devil’s bomb shelter, unfit for religious purposes.”
The casino of this complex was a striking shell-shaped structure of concrete and glass that merged with the natural background. The dance hall had a free-flowing canopy with graceful contours. In 1946, gambling was outlawed in Brazil. Thus, the casino was converted into an art museum. According to Niemeyer, with this project, he broke away from the rigidity of the straight lines and angles for the first time. He always maintained that he was not attracted to rigid structures and was instead drawn to “free-flowing, sensual curves” that he found “in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman.”
In 1943, the ‘Brazil Builds’ exhibition at the ‘Museum of Modern Art’ (MoMA), New York, earned him recognition from international audiences. He was offered teaching assignments at ‘Yale University’ in 1946 and the ‘Harvard Graduate School of Design’ in 1953. However, because of his leftist political views, he could not get a visa.
In 1947, Niemeyer and Le Corbusier were named among the group of architects assigned to design the ‘United Nations’ complex in Manhattan. A combination of their ideas was approved as the final design. Between 1953 and 1966, he worked on the ‘Copan Apartment’ building in São Paulo, which became a major landmark of the city. In 1955, he designed the ‘MoMA’ in Caracas.
When Kubitschek became the president of Brazil in 1956, he assigned Niemeyer to design Brazil’s capital city, Brasilia, on the undeveloped savanna land of central Brazil. On Niemeyer’s suggestion, a competition was declared for the master plan of the city, which was won by his mentor, urban planner Costa.
Continue Reading Below
Between 1956 and 1961, Niemeyer worked on Brasilia as the chief architect of the ‘NOVA-CAP,’ a government building authority. His noteworthy designs in the new city included the ‘Cathedral,’ the ‘Ministry of Justice’ building, the ‘Brasilia Palace Hotel,’ the ‘President’s Palace,’ and the ‘Presidential Chapel.’
The most spectacular of them all was the crown-like structure of the circular ‘Cathedral,’ which opened at the top, so that the main chapel was filled with light. The complex of the twin towers of the secretariat, with bowl-shaped structures for the senate and the ‘Chamber of Deputies’ created a fluid harmony. The residential apartments were built on stilts, to let greenery grow beneath. Niemeyer was soon made the chief of the ‘College of Architecture of University of Brasilia.’ Designing Brasilia was a career-defining point for him.
Niemeyer also designed several residential houses, including the one for his father in Mendes (1949), the Neto house in Rio (1943–1949), the Gustavo Capanema house (1947), the Miranda house (1952), and the Cavanela house (1954).
Since a tender age, Niemeyer was influenced by Communist principles. In the 1940s, several political prisoners were released by the Brazilian government. Niemeyer provided the first floor of his office to these people, for it to be used it as the ‘Communist Party’ headquarters. He was the president of the ‘Brazilian Communist Party’ (PCB) during 1992–1996.
After the 1964 coup, Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship. Niemeyer was often interrogated for his communist connections. His office was raided and stripped. Soon, his work assignments also reduced considerably. He received commission for a business center in Miami but was denied a visa due to the political tension.
Niemeyer soon moved to Europe. In 1980, he designed the ‘Communist Party’ headquarter in Paris and created an impressive design for the ‘House of Culture’ in Le Havre, France (1982). He opened an office in Paris and also designed its furniture, which was then created by ‘Mobilier International.’
In the early 1980s, Niemeyer returned to Brazil and received several new assignments. He created the ‘Museum of Contemporary Art’ (1996), a saucer-shaped structure near the Guanabara Bay in Niteró, near Rio. In 2002, he created the ‘Oscar Niemeyer Museum’ in Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil. He also created the ‘Pantheon’ and the ‘Latin America Memorial’ (1987).
Niemeyer received innumerable awards and honors during his long career. Some of the most notable of them were the ‘Lenin Peace Prize’ (1963), the ‘Pritzker Architecture Prize’ (1988), the ‘Prince of Asturias Award of Arts’ (1989), and the ‘Japan Art Association’s ‘Praemium Imperiale’ (2004).