The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Oscar Niemeyer

by Ana Paula Arato Gonçalves

The modern movement master, Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida de Niemeyer Soares, or simply Oscar Niemeyer, died in Rio de Janeiro in December 2012, just ten days before his 105th birthday. Rio was also the city of his birth, in 1907, and his home and inspiration for most of his lifetime. Niemeyer demonstrated an early talent for drawing, but it was not until he entered the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro, in 1929 that he considered becoming an architect. In 1931 the school was briefly run by Lúcio Costa, who attempted a radical transformation of the classical Beaux Arts curriculum, a revolution that would result in his forced resignation. This short-lived modern curriculum captured the attention of a new generation who would later lead modern Brazilian architecture. After his graduation in 1934, Niemeyer joined Lúcio Costa’s office, where he had the opportunity to work alongside Le Corbusier and a team of modern architects led by Costa in the project for the headquarters of the Ministério da Educação e Saúde- Palácio Gustavo Capanema, Rio de Janeiro (1936-42). The outcome was a project based on Niemeyer’s drawings, and the unveiling of his talents.

Rooted in the principles of the modern movement, in the landscape of Rio and in Brazilian baroque architecture, Niemeyer developed a very personal vocabulary, with a daring use of curves and a collaboration with other forms of art. He used to point to the Complexo da Pampulha, Belo Horizonte, (1940-43) as his architecture’s coming of age, but it was in the buildings for the new capital, Brasília (begun in 1957), that he reached full maturity. During the military dictatorship (1964-84), Niemeyer’s alignment with communism forced him to leave the country. Most of his international work is from this period, such as the headquarters of the French Communist Party in Paris (1955). After returning to Brazil in the 80s, Niemeyer continued to build an impressive career. In the 90s he designed a group of buildings for Niterói, including the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói (1991). He continued to work until his health began to deteriorate in 2009.

Niemeyer was concerned with creating beautiful and surprising buildings capable of communicating with the everyday user. This characteristic, along with the monumentality and symbolism of his civic buildings, made his name familiar to a broad public, and his buildings were appreciated by both laymen and professionals. This recognition confers on Niemeyer’s buildings a degree of protection which goes beyond official listing, and the challenges to the conservation of his work are usually technical or financial in their nature, with the scale of his buildings making even routine maintenance a major project. Furthermore, in his designs Niemeyer fully explored the plastic potential of reinforced concrete, a building material which is difficult to repair properly, especially when a spotless surface is sought. But such a legacy of well-loved buildings is rarely seen, and it is up to us to find the means to take good care of them.

Oscar Niemeyer, born 15 December 1907, died 5 December 2012.

Published May 2013