A Comment on the Passing of Brazilian Architect Oscar Niemeyer

By: Paula Beatriz Mian, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

“Today, Brazil lost one of its geniuses.” This sentence opens the official statement released by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a response to the recent loss of the country’s globally recognized architect, Oscar Niemeyer.[1]  After being hospitalized for nearly a month in Rio de Janeiro, the “poet of the curves” died Wednesday at the age of one hundred four.

Source: Blog do Planalto

Mr. Niemeyer’s family accepted Rousseff’s invitation to hold his funeral at the presidential palace, Palacio de Planalto. An airplane belonging to the Brazilian Air Force was provided to carry Niemeyer’s body from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília. Thousands of mourners arrived yesterday, December 6, to say a last farewell to this great Brazilian architect.

The passing of this rather challenging figure caused a great commotion throughout Brazil, home to an extensive number of his magnificent contributions to the architectural world. Niemeyer’s designs range from monuments to well-known buildings, such as the presidential palace, which served as the location in which the architect’s wake was observed. Niemeyer’s most outstanding work in his native Brazil is perhaps the city of Brasilia, the country’s capital, but cities such as São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, amongst others, also owe to him many of their most famous landmarks.

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1907 during the Belle Époque, Oscar was about to turn 105 on the 15th  of December. He will be interred today in a cemetery in Botafogo, a neighborhood located in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

A new angle

At his unpaid job (“I did not want a salary, I just wanted to learn,” he would say) working for Lucio Costa, one of the best architects in Rio de Janeiro, the young Mr. Niemeyer took his first meaningful step towards becoming an architect while still a student at the National School of Fine Arts.[2] Under Costa’s supervision, Mr. Niemeyer worked on several projects, including a handful with the French-Swiss Le Corbusier (1887-1965), a pioneer of modern architecture.

Among these projects was the Brazilian pavilion for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Inspired by the undulating landscape of his hometown, Mr. Niemeyer began to develop what would become his unrivaled skill of using curves in his projects while refusing the rules of right angles and straight lines. Young Niemeyer had a strong desire to apply to his works the elaborate curve found widely in Brazilian nature, in sinuous rivers and mountains, in the waves of the ocean, and on the woman’s body. This unique style caused him to become known as the “poet of the curves.”

By creating a unique trend in architecture, Mr. Niemeyer contributed to the modernist movement in Brazil, which was inaugurated by the Week of Modern Art, held in São Paulo between February 13th and 17th, 1922. This event marked the point at which prominent writers (Oswald de Andrade and Mário de Andrade), painters (Tarsila do Amaral), musicians (Heitor Villa-Lobos), and poets (Manuel Bandeira) had the courage to face down traditionalism as they broke with all the existing rules.

From the UN to the Central Plateau

Being one of the 10 foreign architects invited to propose the design of the United Nations headquarters in New York in 1947, Mr. Niemeyer worked jointly with Le Corbusier and saw his preliminary design for the building complex receive initial approval. This accomplishment provided him with visibility in prestigious institutions such as Yale University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, both of which invited him to become a member of their faculty. Mr. Niemeyer, however, was never given an American visa due to his affiliation with the Communist Party. The architect, who even traveled to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, counted amongst his many left-winged friends the Brazilian communist militant Luiz Carlos Prestes and the Cuban leader Fidel Castro.[3]

In 1956, Mr. Niemeyer accepted Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek’s (JK) invitation to design the central buildings of the Brazilian capital that was being moved from Rio de Janeiro to the newly constructed city of Brasília. Kubitschek, elected president in 1955, had a strong governmental program designed to develop the country as a whole. In his plan, Kubitschek urged a fully explored and inhabited central plateau. In order to achieve that goal, the president made the controversial decision of moving the center of federal power from the coast, evidently more developed than the countryside, to the dry landlocked Brazilian savanna in the state of Goiás.

Using curved angles, large avenues, green area, and ramps, Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer brought modernity to that hostile region. When seen from above, these designs are all settled in an airplane-like format. Asked by General Henrique Teixeira Lott, the current War Minister of President JK, if he was going to design classic buildings for the new city, Mr. Niemeyer answered: “General, when you are at war, do you prefer classic or modern guns?”

Conclusions

Mr. Niemeyer leaves an unquestionable legacy in modern architecture, having designed some 400 buildings scattered around the world. From the Auditorium Oscar Niemeyer in Italy, to the University of Science and Technology in Algeria, and the Serpentine Gallery in London, Niemeyer never stopped creating. In spite of turning one-hundred years old in 2007, Mr. Niemeyer did not abandon his office on the fancy Atlantica Avenue of Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. In 2008 it took him only 3 hours to draft the design of a monument to the ex-soccer player Pelé.

Winner of the Pritzker Prize in 1988, the most honored award in architectural design, Mr. Niemeyer was granted yesterday the post mortem title of Prominent Citizen of Mercosur. The award was initially proposed by the Venezuelan delegation. “His story does not fit the drawing board,” Dilma Rousseff wrote on her official note. This statement would most definitely be a fitting eulogy for the much beloved Brazilian.

Paula Beatriz Mian, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

 

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[1] “Dilma lamenta morte de Oscar Niemeyer,” Blog do Planalto, December 5, 2012, http://blog.planalto.gov.br/dilma-lamenta-morte-de-oscar-niemeyer/

[2] Silvio Cioffi, “’Minha arquitetura não aceita regras’, disse Niemeyer,’ disse Niemeyer,” Folha de São Paulo, June 12, 2012, http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ilustrada/1196827-minha-arquitetura-nao-aceita-regras-disse-niemeyer.shtml

[3] “Fidel Castro envia coroa de flores a velório de Niemeyer,” Estadão, December 7, 2012, http://www.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,fidel-castro-envia-coroa-de-flores-a-velorio-de-niemeyer,970596,0.htm