“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 is important is life, friends and attempting to make this unjust world a better place in which to live.”
Architect Oscar Niemeyer, one of the last remaining Modernist design icons who were educated and rose to prominence in the early to mid-twentieth century, has died in Rio de Janeiro aged 104 years.
The centenarian designer was revered around the world and especially in his home nation of Brazil as a cultural force who will be best remembered by history for designing an entirely new capital for the country in the 1960s at a remote grasslands site, Brasilia. Among Lucio Costa’s master plan for the new city, Niemeyer designed a series of administrative buildings that adhered closely to the prevalent International Style of the time. That architectural movement’s emphasis upon strict functionalism and rectilinearity was expressed previously in the UN Headquarters in New York City, a project from the late 1940s that was based upon a preliminary concept by Le Corbusier but fully realized after Niemeyer provided significant contributions to the design.
Beyond his assistance with the UN Headquarters project, Niemeyer’s membership and outspoken support for the Communist party prevented him from further commissions in the U.S. even as his architectural prominence rapidly rose and East Coast design institutions were offering him teaching positions throughout the 1940s and 50s.
Niemeyer also collaborated with Corbusier on his first major project in Rio, the Ministry of Education and Health, above, which was completed in 1936 and contains all the Corbusian trademarks: building mass raised on pilotis, bries-soleil shading for the windows, and sculptural rooftop forms. Though he owed much of his early design influence and training to Corbusier, Niemeyer stood apart from many of his fellow modernists and gained widespread recognition for embracing the curve in architecture. In the 1940s, Niemeyer’s stature grew with the realization of a number of huge residential towers in Rio, such as the Edifício Copan, seen below, which employed a curvilinear concrete parti aggressively repeated to a dizzyingly tall and dense effect.
Niemeyer will be best remembered for his tabula rossa design of Brazil’s new capital city at Brasilia, a project spearheaded in the late 1950s by the nation’s President Juscelino Kubitschek, who specifically sought Niemeyer for the work. With the power of the country’s highest office behind him, Niemeyer designed a large number of administrative, residential, and ceremonial buildings within a span of months, all of which were to be operated and leased by the government on a previously uninhabited site located hundreds of miles inland from the country’s established urban centers along the Atlantic coast.
Conceived and completed in four years, Brasilia stands as a grand socialist experiment of spontaneous urban development in the midst of stunning isolation. Characterized by crisply modern administrative building blocks set far apart on grassy lawns but connected via wide, sinewy boulevards and bridges, the city cuts a stark profile on the barren natural landscape. Niemeyer offset the rigidity of these buildings with a series of hyperbolic structures that showcased his penchant for the curvilinear, based ultimately upon the shape of a woman that he found so irresistible.
The Cathedral of Brasilia is the sculptural centerpiece, a building composed of 16 hyperbolic, 90-ton concrete columns, said by Niemeyer to be representative of hands opened upwards toward the heavens. Completed in 1970, well after the rest of the city had been constructed, the religious project designed by an outspoken atheist was not immediately consecrated by the church but nevertheless cemented Niemeyer’s place in the architectural canon, widely admired for its evocative columns and their daring stance towards the sky.
Exiled to Europe because of his communist viewpoints as revolutions took hold in Brazil in the late 1960s, Niemeyer continued to work out of design offices in Paris and Champs-Élysées throughout the 1970s and 80s, focusing on smaller residential and commercial commissions throughout the European countryside. Well into his nineties, Niemeyer eventually returned to Rio and maintained an active role in his design practice, with the saucer ship Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum, standing atop a prominent seaside perch since 1996 and representing the best project from the twilight of his architectural career.
Though he maintained his communist allegiances even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, his work has found admiration in newer generations of designers from the world over, for whom the social and structural upheaval of the mid-20th century is nothing but a faded part of history. Oscar Niemeyer was an architect and educator to the very end, teaching and giving interviews as recently as 2010. His utopian vision will live on in the audacious curvature and monumental concrete blocks of Brasilia and beyond, testaments to his lifelong infatuation with the curve and with the important idea that “form follows beauty” rather than function.