“Brazil lost today one of its geniuses," Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, said in a statement issued Wednesday night. “Few dreamed so intenselly, and accomplished so much, as he did."
Allied with the far left for most of his life, he suffered career setbacks during the rule of Brazil’s right-wing military dictatorships of the 1960s and ’70s, and he was barred from working in the United States during much of the Cold War era. As modernism later came under attack for its sometimes dogmatic approach to history, his works were marginalized.
Still, Niemeyer never stopped working; he churned out major new projects through his 80s and 90s. And as the Cold War divide and architecture’s old ideological battles faded from memory in recent years, a younger generation of architects began embracing his work, intrigued by the consistency of his vision and his ability to achieve voluptuous effects on a heroic scale.
For his part, Niemeyer never wavered from a conviction that, as he once put it, “Form follows beauty."
Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho was born in Rio de Janeiro on Dec. 15, 1907, one of six children of a typographer and his wife. His father owned a graphic arts business, and a grandfather was a judge on the country’s Supreme Court.
A precocious talent, Niemeyer was trained at the National School of Fine Arts, where he soon drew the attention of its dean, Lucio Costa. Costa was at the center of a small group of architects working to bring the message of modernist architecture to Brazil.
The timing was ideal. Costa was then designing the Ministry of Education and Health’s headquarters in Rio, and invited Niemeyer to join his firm as a draftsman. In 1936, the ministry hired the Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier to contribute ideas for the design. Le Corbusier was already a legend in architecture, and the building would become the first major public project by a modernist architect in Latin America.
One of several draftsmen assigned to the project, Niemeyer absorbed Le Corbusier’s vision of a modern world shaped by the myth of the machine, and drew on the master’s belief in an architecture of abstract forms enlivened by a sensitive use of light and air.
A vision emerges
But Niemeyer was also a self-confident apprentice with a vision of his own; under Costa’s supervision, he made significant changes to Le Corbusier’s scheme. The columns supporting the building’s main office block were more than doubled in height, giving the structure a more slender profile. An auditorium that Le Corbusier had envisioned as a separate structure was tucked under the office block, creating a more compact urban composition.
Shielded from the sun behind rows of elegant baffles, the building had a clean, stripped-down style that made it a sparkling example of classical modernism while heralding Brazil’s emergence as a vibrant center of experimentation.
Niemeyer’s name soon became synonymous with the new Brazilian architecture. In 1939, he collaborated with Costa on the Brazilian Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair. Three years later, he completed his first house, a simple, modern box resting on slender columns on a mountainside overlooking the magnificent Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon.
In these and other early projects, Niemeyer was beginning to develop a distinctive architecture of flowing lines, structural lightness and an open relationship to natural surroundings.
At the same time, he was becoming politically outspoken. Reared in a quiet upper-middle-class Rio neighborhood by his maternal grandparents, Niemeyer joined the Communist Party.
When the Brazilian government released hundreds of political prisoners, including Communists, as a gesture of good will in the 1940s, Niemeyer turned over to the party the first floor of his Rio office for use as a headquarters.
To him, architecture’s social impact had its limits.
“Architecture will always express the technical and social progress of the country in which it is carried out," he once said. “If we wish to give it the human content that it lacks, we must participate in the political struggle."
Yet the project that established him as a major architectural force was essentially a playground for the nouveaux riches in a wealthy suburb on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte, an industrial city. Commissioned in 1940 by a local mayor, Juscelino Kubitschek, who later, as president of Brazil, would hire Niemeyer to design Brasilia’s major buildings, the project included a casino, a yacht club, a dance hall and a church arrayed around an artificial lake.
The casino was particularly striking. A concrete-and-glass shell, it was conceived as part of an architectural promenade that fused the complex with the natural landscape around it. The dance hall was distinguished by its free-form canopy made of cast concrete, its contours meant to suggest the flowing movements of the samba.
That project never functioned as planned. The casino was transformed into an art museum soon after gambling was outlawed by the Brazilian government in 1946. And the Roman Catholic authorities were offended by the church’s unusual curved concrete form and refused to consecrate it until 1959.
The complex’s bold, sweeping lines and snaking walkways, gently echoing the surrounding hills, suggested a subliminal hedonism that was at odds with the public’s image of mainstream modernism as determinedly functional and emotionally cool. The design also heralded Niemeyer’s war against the straight line, whose rigidity he saw as a kind of authoritarian constraint.
Niemeyer’s international status was confirmed by the Brazil Builds exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1943, a show that also introduced his work to a U.S. audience. Four years later, he joined Le Corbusier again, this time as an equal, when the two were selected to take part in designing the United Nations complex in New York.
Supervised by Wallace Harrison, the U.N. design was a collaboration that also included international luminaries like the Soviet architect Nikolai Bassov and Max Abramovitz of New York. The final design was a compromise of sorts between Niemeyer’s concepts and those of his aging idol Le Corbusier.
Set amid gardens and plazas, the slim, glass-clad Secretariat tower and the sculptural concrete General Assembly building remain testaments to the belief in rationalism as a means to resolve international disputes and disparities.
Harmony meets dissonance
In his designs for Brasilia, the capital city built in the vast undeveloped lands of the Brazil’s central region, Niemeyer got the opportunity to create his own poetic vision of the future on a monumental scale.
The city’s cross-shaped master plan, with repetitive rows of housing set around a formal administrative center, was designed by Costa, Niemeyer’s old mentor. But it was Niemeyer who gave Brasilia its sculptural identity.
The speed with which the city was created, between 1956 and 1960, reinforced its image as a utopian dream that had sprouted magically out of a primitive landscape. Its crisp, abstract forms seemed to sum up the aspirations of much of the developing world: the belief that modern architecture and the faith in technological progress that it embodied could help create a more egalitarian society.
Arranged along a vast, grassy esplanade, Niemeyer’s buildings acquire a certain grandeur in their isolation. The most spectacular is the Metropolitan Cathedral, a circular, crownlike structure that splays open at the top to let light spill into the main sanctuary.
Yet much of Brasilia’s beauty lay in an architectural balancing act. The simple twin towers of its secretariat, for example, play off the geometric bowllike forms of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. The entire complex suggests a world in perfect harmony, even if the politicians and bureaucrats who work there are not.