Get to Know a Brazilian – Oscar Niemeyer

This week’s entry looks at the (in)famous architect Oscar Niemeyer, one of the most prolific and best-known figures of modernist architecture in the mid-20th century and a figure whose impact on Brazilian culture and art cannot be denied, even if it continues to cause fierce reactions both praising and criticizing his aesthetic and his politics.

Oscar Niemeyer (1907- ), Brazil’s most well-known architect, whose aesthetic is as recognizable as it is polemic.

Niemeyer was born in December 1907 in Rio de Janeiro, the grandson of a minister in Brazil’s Supreme Federal Tribunal, the highest judicial institution in the country. With a relatively well-off family, Niemeyer lived a fairly cultured existence in Rio, passing time in the bohemian neighborhood of Lapa. Upon marrying in 1928, Niemeyer started to settle down, first working for his father as a typographer before enrolling in the National School of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro in 1929, graduating in 1934 with a degree in architecture.

Upon graduation, he began working in the architectural firm of Lúcio Costa, an architect and urban planner who had begun with a neocolonial aesthetic before embracing emerging architectural trends that would make up the “Modernist” aesthetic most clearly articulated by Swiss-French Architect Le Corbusier. Though Niemeyer initially worked for free, his efforts, vision, and idealism quickly helped him build his reputation. In 1937, the first building he designed individually, the Obra do Berço in the neighborhood of Lagoa, Rio de Janeiro, was completed. Though it lacked the curves for which he would become renowned, the overall modernist aesthetic, with its emphasis on glass and concrete, plazas, and pillars, was already clear.

The Obra do Berço in Lagoa, Rio de Janeiro, the first building Oscar Niemeyer individually designed.

Even while the Obra do Berço was being completed, Niemeyer joined a project to design a building for the new Ministry of Education and Health, part of Getúlio Vargas’s broader project of centralizing government in Brazil. The project was headed by Costa, and embraced many of the ideals and designs of Le Corbusier’s understanding of modernism, including an emphasis on windows, a reliance on pillars, and the use of a rooftop garden or leisure space atop the building. While Le Corbusier provided guidance on the building, it also had uniquely Brazilian elements included in it, and was actually on a much greater scale than anything Le Corbusier had built up to that point; indeed, the Ministry became the first state-sponsored Modernist skyscraper to be built in the world. Meanwhile, the experience as a leader on the team helped Niemeyer cement both his own architectural philosophy and aesthetic.

The building for the Ministry of Education and Public Health, the first modernist skyscraper built anywhere in the world and a key example of modernist architecture more generally.

While Niemeyer was a rising star in the modernist world, he also was growing tired of some of its patterns, most notably, the emphasis on straight lines. In a (highly-gendered/sexualized) description of the shift in his aesthetic, Niemeyer began to focus on curves in architectural spaces, a feature that would define his work up to the present. In his memoirs, he commented that “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.”

After working on Brazil’s Pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York, he returned to Brazil where, in 1940, he had a chance to work on this new vision. He met Juscelino Kubitschek, who was then mayor of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the interior state of Minas Gerais, who wanted to build a suburb north of the city that would embrace the most recent innovations of technology and design. Niemeyer ended up designing the Igreja São Francisco de Assis (Saint Francis of Assissi Church), which employed new techniques in reinforced concrete and design to give it the curvaceous form that would come to define much of Niemeyer’s subsequent designs across the decades. The building’s originality led to him gaining international attention, including in New York, where the Museum of Modern Art highlighted his work. However, the church also caused controversy back home, as the Catholic hierarchy refused to consecrate it until the late-1950s.

The Igreja São Francisco de Assis in Pampulha, Minas Gerais. The building marked a turning point in Niemeyer’s aesthetic, even as his politics themselves were transforming.

Even while his aesthetic changed, so, too, did his politics. As Vargas’s Estado Novo came to an end in 1945 and politics briefly opened up again, Niemeyer ended up joining the Leninist Partido Comunista Brasileiro (Brazilian Communist Party; PCB), and proclaimed himself to be a Stalinist (though at the time of his allegiance to the party, the horrors of Stalin’s use of terror in the 1930s were not yet common knowledge). He remained affiliated with the PCB for the rest of his life, serving as its president in 1992.

Though his affiliation with Brazil’s communists would prevent his entrance into the United States in later years, the Cold War was only just underway in 1947, when he was invited to help design the headquarters for the new United Nations. Ultimately, the UN headquarters would combine Niemeyer’s design with Le Corbusier’s, though more elements of Niemeyer’s design made it through to the final product.

The United Nations Headquarters in New York City, which Niemeyer played no small role in designing.

Already famous worldwide, Niemeyer’s best-known and largest project was still ahead of him. After Vargas’s suicide, Brazilians elected Juscelino Kubitschek, the mayor of Belo Horizonte in the 1940s, to the presidency. Kubitschek sought to modernize Brazil, including expanding its industrial output, improving infrastructure, creating growth in the business sectors, and strengthening ties with the United States. However, for Kubitschek, these modernizing projects needed a visible component that made clear to the world the extent to which Brazil was coming into its own. With this in mind, he decided to act on a relatively-overlooked constitutional clause that declared the country’s capital should eventually be relocated from the coast to a more “central” location inland. Kubitschek proclaimed that in five years, a brand new capital in the central plains of Brazil would be built out of nothing, revealing to the world both the technological capabilities and the aesthetic modernity of Brazil. Thus was Brasília born.

To design the city, Kubitschek turned to Niemeyer, who had designed the church in Pampulha for him in the 1940s. Niemeyer was tasked with designing the entire city’s buildings, including the Presidential Palace, Supreme Federal Tribunal, Congress, the buildings for the ministries, the cathedral for the city, and other buildings. In turn, Niemeyer picked his old boss, Lúcio Costa, to design the layout of the city, which would ultimately resemble an airplane from above. Without hyperbole, the work was one of the biggest challenges not just of Niemeyer’s career, but in the history of architecture, as he had only months to design governmental buildings as well as residential and commercial buildings. Drawing on his understandings of communism and socialism, Niemeyer created the idea of “superquadras,” with large and uniform residential buildings that the government-owned where its public employees lived and where everybody’s residences were similar, regardless of office or status. While Niemeyer envisioned the buildings as a step towards utopian egalitarianism, others were critical of them even before their completion, citing the reduction of individuality, the dependency on cars in the city’s layout, and the lack of street life. Even after completion, the Superquadras continue to be the subject of criticisms from architects, the general population, and even social scientists.

A single residential building in Brasilia.

The layout of an entire residential area in Brasília, made up of numerous “Superquadras” as Niemeyer designed them. The uniformity was designed to create a sense of social democracy and a lack of differentiation based on class for government workers; in practice, however, it fell far short of its goals.

As for the governmental buildings, they were more distinctive, reinforcing the idea of the government as the central organ of Brasília (and of Brazilian society more abstractly). In the Palácio do Planalto [Presidential Palace], Supremo Tribunal Federal, and Congress, elements of Niemeyer’s aesthetic from the curved lines on the two houses of Congress to the pillars on the presidential palace to the plaza where the three buildings were located, were on display for all to see. Likewise, the National Cathedral perfectly embodied not just Niemeyer’s aesthetic, but the modernist form in general. As a result, Brasília became the world’s first centrally planned city, one whose entire design was (and remains) modernist, leading to it becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site. And in keeping with Kubitschek’s mandate, it was officially inaugurated in 1960, though it would take several years for all of the government offices (to say nothing of more reluctant government bureaucrats) to relocate from the old capital of Rio de Janeiro, with its beaches, mountains, and cosmopolitanism, to the new city of Brasília, located in the middle of nowhere when compared to Rio de Janeiro.

Niemeyer’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasília.

A panorama of the Praça dos Três Poderes [Plaza of Three Powers] in Brasília, including the Supremo Tribunal Federal (left, #3); Congress (center, #12), and Palácio do Planalto (right, #16).

In spite of his central role in the creation of Brasília, Niemeyer would not have the chance to enjoy it. In April 1964, the Brazilian military overthrew constitutional president João Goulart, installing a right-wing authoritarian regime that would govern until 1985. An avowed communist, Niemeyer entered into exile, even as his offers for projects in Brazil dried up in the new political and cultural context. Like many other political exiles, Niemeyer ended up settling in Paris, where he designed buildings for clients in other countries, including Algeria, France, and Italy. He was able to return to Brazil in the wake of a general amnesty that allowed exiles to return (but that also pardoned state agents who had tortured or killed dissidents during the first 15 years of the regime). In spite of his age, he continued to go to his office daily, designing buildings into the second decade of the 2000s, with each building adding to his presence and influence in the world of architecture. He never abandoned his innovation or emphasis on curves, even while his work created no middle ground, with people either loving or hating it.

The Museu de Arte Contemporânea in Niterói, across Guanabara Bay from Rio de Janeiro. The building is another Niemeyer design, and was completed in 1996.

Though he was born in December of 1907, Niemeyer is still alive today, nearing his 105th birthday. He also continues working, albeit in a limited capacity, and there are forthcoming buildings that are the product of his mind and hand, including the new headquarters for Brazil’s União Nacional dos Estudantes (National Students Union; UNE), whose original headquarters were burned down shortly after the coup of 1984. Regardless of what one thinks of modernist architecture (and there are very few who don’t have an opinion one way or another), Niemeyer’s achievements have made him Brazil’s best-known architect both domestically and internationally, and he continues to a variety of honors, including most recently,his own series of Converse All-Star shoes. Of course, the fact that shoes commemorating (and, in one case, even quoting) one of Brazil’s best-known Communists are produced by Nike, a company notorious for its poor pay and working conditions for workers overseas, is an irony that perfectly encapsulates the contradictions not just of Niemeyer, but of the 21st century, in many ways.

Niemeyer at 100.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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