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Oscar Niemeyer: Biography, Buildings & Works

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

Benjamin has a Bachelors in philosophy and a Master's in humanities.

Oscar Niemeyer was a Brazilian architect known for his sensuous, curvy, nature-inspired designs. He was an important figure in modernist architecture. During his prolific career, he designed buildings throughout Brazil and abroad.

Oscar Niemeyer

'In architecture, the most important thing is astonishment.' - Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer
Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer loved four things from a young age: drawing, nature, women, and communism. All of these loves combined in Niemeyer's breathtaking work, which has defined Brazilian architecture and spread to the world.

Niemeyer's love of curves and natural lines inform all of his projects, and Niemeyer's buildings not only are breathtaking works of engineering, but also incredible works of beauty. Niemeyer's 104 years on earth were incredibly productive in the world of architecture and public space. 'Oscar', as he is affectionately known by all in Rio de Janeiro, built a legacy that reaches every corner of Brazil.

Oscar Niemeyer: Biography

Oscar Niemeyer was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1907. His mother noted that, as a baby, he always seemed to draw in the air with his fingers. She made sure that young Oscar held a pencil in his hands as soon as he could, after which Oscar never stopped drawing. Niemeyer was born into a wealthy family and felt no drive or compulsion to work in his early years, living a carefree and bohemian lifestyle. Niemeyer graduated from Barnabitas College in 1923 and received a degree in architecture in 1934 from the National School of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro.

Oscar Niemeyer's Architecture

Niemeyer was hired by architect Lucio Costa shortly before he graduated from the National School of Fine Arts. Costa was tasked with developing the Ministry of Education and Health Building and he brought on the young Niemeyer to work on the design. Work on this building connected Niemeyer with Le Corbusier, who was brought in to evaluate the design. The team worked and developed the Ministry of Education and Health Building in 1936. The building still stands today as the Palecio Gustavo Capanema and, while constructed in the functional style that defines modernism as form following function, it stands out from other modern structures, as Niemeyer's aesthetics are clearly present in its distinctly Brazilian look. Costa and Niemeyer worked together on many projects including the design and planning of the city of Brasilia.

Palecio Gustavo Capanema, formerly the Ministry of Education and Health Building
Palecio Gustavo Capanema

Niemeyer was hired in 1940 to design the Church of St. Francis de Assisi. His design for the church rejected the harsh lines of many modern buildings and focused on the use of curves. Niemeyer believed that buildings should seek to find harmony with nature and believed that feminine curves were more pleasing than hard edges and lines. Niemeyer's drawings were often interspersed with nude sketches as he sought to extract from the female nude the curves that most pleased the eye, in order to apply them to his designs. Unsurprisingly, the church's design was controversial and it didn't actually open for nearly 20 years after its completion.

In 1947, Oscar Niemeyer joined again with Le Corbusier to develop the United Nations building in New York City. Each architect created his own unique design, but it was a combination of the two schemes that was finally approved by the Board of Design. The building was completed in 1953. Niemeyer returned to Brazil where his collaboration with Le Corbusier had gained him great national pride and respect.

In 1956, Juscelino Kubitschek, the new President of Brazil, decided to order the construction of the new capital of Brasilia, and he invited Niemeyer to design the city's public buildings. Niemeyer plunged into the work and designed monuments and structures that incorporated his love of natural design, feminine curves, and open spaces, which spoke to his strong communist beliefs. His buildings, from the Palacio do Planalto to the Cathedral of Brasilia, are greatly admired today for their individual designs and because, combined, they show that the city is one shaped by Niemeyer's ambitions. If you look at pictures of Brasilia from overhead, you can definitely see Niemeyer's hand in the city's planning.

Brasilia from the Air
Brasilia from the Air

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