Yesterday marked the death of Oscar Niemeyer, one of the most important figures in modern architecture and a Brazilian national hero. He was best known as the man who designed the country’s capital city, Brasília, showcasing architectural designs as audacious as the venture itself. Even in his 104th year, he was a familiar sight around his home city, Rio de Janeiro, where he would spend afternoons by the lake or walking the leafy streets of Ipanema. He eventually became a part of the city that so heavily influenced his work. Niemeyer’s ‘world of curves’ was inspired, he says, by Rio’s ‘white beaches, its huge mountains, its old baroque churches, and the beautiful suntanned women’. For anyone who is lucky enough to have experienced this magnificent cityscape, the link is a clear one. Given the architect’s immense legacy, it is no easy task to pin down his best designs. However, time is against us (not everyone lives to 104), so here is a shortlist of five:
In September 1956, Juscelino Kubitschek visited Oscar Niemeyer with an idea. The president’s vision was simple, but undeniably bold; to raise a capital city from the ground, hundreds of miles from any other major city, with the intention of uniting, flaunting, and modernising his country. Niemeyer was commissioned with designing the Brasília’s buildings, whilst his old friend and former master, Lúcio Costa, drew up plans for the city’s layout. Perhaps the most famous of all the structures that Niemeyer designed is the Cathedral of Brasilia, or to give its full name, Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida. The cathedral is a prime example of Niemeyer’s innovative use of concrete, which he exploited for its strength, allowing the architect to incorporate huge curves and other previously impossible forms. The building is said to represent two hands reaching up to heaven. Niemeyer designed government buildings (like the National Congress, above), residential buildings and ‘natural’ features – all in the same modernist vein. As much as the city was a place to live and work, Brasília was also a utopia. It represented socialism and the modern age, and the harmony with which they could co-exist. The government would own, and rent out all of the city’s accommodation, in which government workers would, themselves, live alongside manual labourers. Over the years, this socialist dream was forgotten. Brasília remains a bastion of modernism, and one of the largest-scale architectural feats in South American history.
Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, Belo Horizonte
One of Niemeyer’s first designs was the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, which sits beside a placid lake in Pampulha, Belo Horizonte. Like the many of his most characteristic buildings, the church uses great concrete parabolas, breaking away from the rigidity of straight-line architecture, creating a seamless flow between the building and its natural surroundings. Oscar writes in his memoirs, ‘I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves.’ When it was built in 1943, the church was as controversial as it was beautiful. To the Archbishop of Belo Horizonte, it was ‘the devil’s bomb shelter.’ Eventually, its good looks were enough to win the church over, and it was consecrated in 1953. The church in Pampulha remains, arguably, one of Niemeyer’s most underappreciated works.
United Nations Headquarters, New York
Niemeyer’s architecture was certainly not confined to his home country, or continent. As an outspoken communist, he spent twenty years in exile, only returning to Brazil once the military dictatorship had ended in 1985. During this time, he designed structures in Lebanon, Israel, France, Algeria and many other countries. Although the majority of Niemeyer’s overseas work was completed during this time, perhaps his most famous foreign commission was the United Nations Headquarters in New York, which he helped design in 1947. The team of architects was made up of leaders in the field from all over the world. Of the fifty designs evaluated by the commissioning team, it was Niemeyer’s joint design with Le Corbusier (Oscar’s most important influence), that made the grade. The Brazilian famously advised the construction team, ‘beauty will come from the buildings being in the right space.’ The 39-story, glass-and-concrete giant is now a modernist landmark and tourist hotspot. Niemeyer’s affiliation with the Communist Party held him back somewhat when it came to completing further projects in the United States. He was invited to teach at both Yale and Harvard, yet was refused a visa on both occasions.
Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo
It is often said that Ibirapuera Park is to São Paulo what Central Park is to New York City. When it was inaugurated in 1954, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the city, South America was beginning to close the gap on its northern neighbours. This is no ordinary park; it houses several museums, university buildings, exhibition centres and a flying saucer-shaped planetarium. It was around this time that Niemeyer pioneered the V-shaped pilotis that made buildings look as though they were floating, whilst creating all-important space underneath. These pilotis became very fashionable indeed, and are still incorporated into designs all over the world. The park has become one of São Paulo’s greatest icons. Every day, thousands of ‘Paulistas’ take advantage of Niemeyer’s space to relax, exercise, or to make use of its various housings.
Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, Niterói
At first sight, alarmed tourists may think they have spotted a UFO on Rio de Janeiro’s coast. Indeed, in the film Oscar Niemeyer, an architect committed to his century, the architect is seen flying over Rio in a UFO, which then touches down in the exact spot where the museum stands. The reality is not quite as exciting (aliens are traditionally more exciting than museums), but the design is hardly a dull one. The building has panoramic views over Guanabara Bay, Rio’s white beaches and Sugarloaf Mountain, whose cable car is perfectly in tune with Niemeyer’s Bond-esque design. A serpentine walkway leads up to the museum entrance, hovering above an 817 square metre pool. The result is simple, striking and modern – Niemeyer all over.
Oscar Niemeyer’s work not only remains integral to the daily life of many, but also acts a bold representation of what can be achieved when one has vision. As the World Cup and Olympic Games edge closer, the long-abandoned Hotel Nacional – another of Niemeyer’s carioca landmarks – is set to be renovated. His vision of progress and renewal, it seems, lives on.