Oscar Niemeyer

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Oscar Niemeyer
Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer Soares Filho (born December 15, 1907) is a Jewish Brazilian architect who is considered one of the most important names in international modern architecture. He was a pioneer in the exploration of the constructive possibilities of reinforced concrete.

Although he was a defender of utilitarianism, his creations did not have the blocky coldness frequently criticized by post-moderns. His buildings have forms so dynamic and curves so sensual that many admirers say that he is more monumental as a sculptor than as an architect. Some critics consider the same to be a defect.

Oscar Niemeyer and his contribution to the construction of the city of Brasília is portrayed and somewhat parodied in the 1964 French movie L'homme de Rio (That Man From Rio), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo.

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Early Life

Oscar Niemeyer, whose father is of German descent, was born in the city of Rio de Janeiro in 1907, on a street that later would receive the name of his grandfather Ribeiro de Almeida. He spent his youth as a typical young Carioca of the time: bohemian and relatively unconcerned with his future. He concluded his secondary education at age 21. The same year, he married Annita Baldo, daughter of Italian immigrants from Venice. Marriage gave him a sense of responsibility: he decided to work and enter university.

He started to work in his father's typography house and entered the Escola de Belas Artes, from which he graduated as engineer architect in 1934. At the time he had financial difficulties but decided to work without fee anyway, in the architecture studio of Lúcio Costa and Carlos Leão. He felt unsatisfied with the architecture that he saw in the streets and believed he could find a career there.

In 1945, already an architect of some repute, he joined the Brazilian Communist Party. Niemeyer was a boy at the time of the Russian Revolution, a young idealist during the Second World War and lived most of his life during the Cold War. He was enthusiastically communist, a position which would cost him much later in his life. During the military dictatorship of Brazil his office was raided and he was forced into exile in Europe. The Minister of Aeronautics of the time reportedly said that "the place for a communist architect is Moscow." He visited the USSR, met with diverse socialist leaders and became a personal friend of some of them. Fidel Castro once said: "Niemeyer and I are the last Communists of this planet."

First works

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Copan Building

In 1937, the architecture studio of Lúcio Costa and Carlos Leão, where he worked, won the bid to design the new building of the Ministry of Education in Rio De Janeiro. This project should be seen in the political context of the new Republic: Getúlio Vargas, president of Brazil, wanted to use architecture and urbanism to illustrate the country's transformation from an agricultural coffee-exporting power into an industrialized country.

The project, named the Capanema palace, was extremely bold for the time. It was one of the first large buildings rigorously following modernist standards. The studio even asked for help from the main modernist theoretician, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Although he had written diverse books, he had never had the chance to put his ideas into practice, save in some European summer houses, and so soon became a great friend of Lúcio Costa and Niemeyer. Le Corbusier described Niemeyer as a boy prodigy. The palace, finished in 1943, is raised above the street, supporting itself only with columns of concrete that leave the space below free as a public passway. The building joined the biggest names of the Brazilian modernist movement, alongside the tiles of Di Cavalcanti and gardens of Burle Marx .

In 1939 Niemeyer traveled with Lúcio Costa to design the Brazilian pavilion in the New York World's Fair. At a time when Europe and the United States were concentrating their industrial powers on World War II, Brazil was investing in architecture. The country placed itself in the vanguard of international modernist architecture, where it remained until decades later, in large part thanks to the talent of Niemeyer.

The Pampulha project

In 1940 Niemeyer met Juscelino Kubitschek, who was at the time the mayor of Belo Horizonte, capital of the state of Minas Gerais. He wanted to develop an area to the north of the city called Pampulha, and called Niemeyer to design a series of buildings to be known as the "Pampulha group". This would be Niemeyer's first solo work, at 33 years old.

The building was completed in 1943, and provoked some controversy --- which also meant that Niemeyer would come to the attention of the world for the first time. The Catholic Church refused to bless the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, in part due to its unorthodox form, in part due to the modern mural painted by Candido Portinari. The mural was abstract and its only recognizable form was that of a dog, possibly representing Saint Francis of Assisi.

In Pampulha, Niemeyer started to mark his style: he used the structural properties of the armed concrete to give sinuous forms to the building. When Niemeyer draws a building he makes it with the minimum of possible traces, as organic and trembling as a gesture of the hand. However, he denies that his buildings have an aesthetic more important than function: he often wrote elaborate justifications of the details of his projects, wherein he described the function of each curve of the building. He said that if he could not justify an idea in one paragraph, he gave it up. Also later he would say that a form that conveys beauty is useful in itself.

The 1940s and 1950s

In 1947, his world-wide recognition was confirmed when Niemeyer traveled to the United States to design the headquarters of the United Nations in New York. In the previous year he had received an invitation to teach at Yale University; however, his visa was denied because of his socialist beliefs. In 1950 the first book about his work was published in the USA by Stamo Papadaki.

In Brazil, he designed São Paulo's Ibirapuera (an exposition pavilion) and in 1951 the COPAN. In 1952 he built his own house in Rio De Janeiro, the House the Canoes (casa das canoas), which would later become the headquarters of the Oscar Niemeyer Foundation.

Then Juscelino Kubitschek, elected president of Brazil in 1956, once again came in contact with Niemeyer. This time his plans were far more ambitious: he put Niemeyer in the head of Novacap, a project to move the national capital to a depopulated region in the center of the country.


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Cathedral of Brasília

Niemeyer organized a competition for the urbanistic lay-out 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 residence of the President (Palácio da Alvorada), the House of the deputy, the National Congress, the Cathedral of Brasília, diverse ministries, not to mention residential buildings. Viewed from above, the city can be seen to have elements that repeat themselves in every building, giving it a formal unity. The cathedral of Brasília is especially beautiful, with diverse modern symbolism. Its entrance is a dimly-lit corridor that contrasts with the bright, naturally illuminated hall.

Behind the construction of Brasília lay a monumental campaign to construct an entire city in the barren center of the country, thousands of kilometers from any major city. The brainchild of Kubitschek, his aims included stimulating the national industry, integrating the country's distant areas, populating inhospitable regions, and bringing progress to a region where only cattle ranching had a foothold (many historians compare the construction of Brasília with the American colonization of its west). Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa used it to test new concepts of city planning: streets without transit (Niemeyer would say that it is a disrespect to the human being that it takes more than 20 minutes in the transport of a region to another one), 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. Of course 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 Architects Institute of the United States; the same year, he received a Soviet prize, the Lenin peace prize.

In 1964, after being invited by Abba Hushi, the mayor of Haifa, Israel, to plan the campus of the University of Haifa, he came back to a completely different Brazil. In March president João Goulart, who succeeded president Jânio Quadros in 1961, was deposed in a military coup. A General assumed command of the country, changing the lives of all Brazilians.

Exile and projects overseas

The leftist position of Niemeyer would cost him much during the CIA-backed Cold War military dictatorship. His office was pillaged, the headquarters of the magazine he coordinated was destroyed, his projects mysteriously began to be refused and clients disappeared.

In 1965, two hundred professors asked for his resignation from the University of Brasília, in protest against the government treatment of universities. In the same year he traveled to France for an exhibition in the Louvre museum.

In the following year, his work hindered in Brazil, Niemeyer moved to Paris. There he started a new phase of his life and workmanship. He opened an office on the Champs Elysées, and had customers in diverse countries, especially in Algeria where, among others he designed the University of Constantine. In France he created the headquarters of the French Communist Party, and in Italy that of the Mondadori publishing company.

1980s to the present

The dictatorship lasted 21 years. In the 1980s 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), the last a beautiful 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.

He designed at least two more buildings in Brasilia, small ones that are arguably among his greatest, the Memorial dos Povos Indigenas (http://www.fredcamper.com/R/Brazil/Brasilia.html#Memorial) ("Memorial for the Indigenous People") and the Catedral Militar, Igreja de N.S. da Paz (http://www.fredcamper.com/R/Brazil/Brasilia.html#Catedral).

In 1996, at 89 years old, he created what many consider his greatest work: the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (in the city of 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.

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The Niterói Contemporary Art Museum

In 2003, Niemeyer was called to construct a serpentine gallery in London, a gallery that each year calls a famous architect for his own reconstruction.

On December 10, 2004, a tombstone of Communist Carlos Marighella, in Salvador, Bahia will be inaugurated to celebrate the 35th anniversary of his death. The tombstone was designed by Niemeyer.

Today, Niemeyer is over 96 and still discerning, active and brilliant. Niemeyer is still involved in diverse projects, mainly sculptures and readjustments of old works of his that, protected by national (and some cases international) historic heritage regulations, can only be modified by him.

External links

es:Oscar Niemeyer fr:Oscar Niemeyer nl:Oscar Niemeyer no:Oscar Niemeyer pl:Oscar Niemeyer pt:Oscar Niemeyer ru:Нимейер Суарис Филью, Оскар


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