Skip to Content

Who was Oscar Niemeyer and what was his Impact on Design?

Oscar Niemeyer was a Brazilian architect, an early exponent of modern architecture in Latin America, the recipient of many international awards, and an elegant designer and architect. Let’s take a look at his life, work, and some of his most striking designs. 

Niemeyer studied architecture at the National School of Fine Arts, Rio de Janeiro. Shortly before he graduated in 1934, he entered the office of Lúcio Costa, a leader of the Modernist movement in Brazilian architecture. He worked with Costa from 1937 to 1943 on the design for the Ministry of Education and Health building, considered by many to be Brazil’s first masterpiece of modern architecture. Even though he was not financially stable, he insisted on working in this architecture studio even though they could not pay him. Niemeyer joined them as a draftsman, an art that he mastered (Corbusier himself would later compliment Niemeyer’s ‘beautiful perspectives). The contact with Costa would be extremely important to Niemeyer’s maturation. Costa, after an initial flirtation with the Neocolonial movement, realized that the advances of the International Style in Europe were the way forward for architecture. His writings on the insights that could unite Brazil’s traditional colonial architecture (such as that in Olinda) with modernist principles would be the basis of the architecture that he and his contemporaries, such as Affonso Eduardo Reidy, would later realize. The design reveals the influence of the Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier, who was a consultant on the construction. Niemeyer also worked with Costa on the plans for the Brazilian Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1939–40.

Niemeyer’s first solo project was the plan for a complex within Pampulha, a new suburb of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Commissioned in 1941 by Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira, then mayor of Belo Horizonte, the scheme included a church, casino, dance hall, restaurant, yacht club, golf club, and the mayor’s weekend retreat, all situated around an artificial lake. The complex’s buildings are notable for their free-flowing forms. One writer described the facade of the church as resembling “the trajectory of a bouncing ball.” In 1947 Niemeyer represented Brazil in the planning of the United Nations buildings in New York City.

In 1939, at age 32, Niemeyer and Costa designed the Brazilian pavilion for the New York World’s Fair (executed in collaboration with Paul Lester Wiener). Neighbouring the much larger French pavilion, the Brazilian structure contrasted with its heavy mass. Costa explained that the Brazilian Pavilion adopted a language of ‘grace and elegance’, lightness and spatial fluidity, with an open plan, curves and free walls, which he termed ‘Ionic’, contrasting it to the mainstream contemporary modernist architecture, which he termed ‘Doric’. Impressed by its avant-garde design, Mayor Fiorello La Guardiaawarded Niemeyer the keys to the city of New York.

With the success of Pampulha and the Brazil Builds exhibition, Niemeyer’s achieved international recognition. His architecture further developed the brazilian style that the Saint Francis of Assissi Church and, to a lesser extent (due to its primary Corbusian language) the Ministry building, had pioneered. Works of this period shows the traditional modernist method in which form follows function, but Niemeyer’s (and other Brazilian architects) handling of scale, proportion and program allowed him to resolve complex problems with simple and intelligent plans. Stamo Papadaki in his monography on Niemeyer mentioned the spatial freedom that characterized his work. The headquarters of the Banco Boavista, inaugurated in 1948 show such an approach.Dealing with a typical urban site, Niemeyer adopted creative solutions to enliven the otherwise monolithic high rise, thus challenging the predominant solidity which was the norm for bank buildings. The glazed south façade (with least insulation) reflects the 19th century Candelária Church, showing Niemeyer’s sensitivity to the surroundings and older architecture. Such austere designs to high rises within urban grids can also be seen in the Edifício Montreal (1951–1954), Edifício Triângulo (1955) and the Edifício Sede do Banco Mineiro da Produção.

In 1947, Niemeyer returned to New York City to integrate the international team working on the design for the United Nations headquarters. Niemeyer’s scheme 32 was approved by the Board of Design, but he eventually gave in to pressure by Le Corbusier, and together they submitted project 23/32 (developed with Bodiansky and Weissmann), which combined elements from Niemeyer’s and Le Corbusier’s schemes. Despite Le Corbusier’s insistence to remain involved, the design was carried forward by the Director of Planning, Wallace Harrison and Max Abramovitz, then a partnership.

Both lauded and criticized for being a “sculptor of monuments”, Niemeyer was hailed as a great artist and one of the greatest architects of his generation by his supporters. He said his architecture was strongly influenced by Le Corbusier, but in an interview, assured that this “didn’t prevent [his] architecture from going in a different direction”.  Niemeyer was most famous for his use of abstract forms and curves and wrote in his memoirs:

“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein.”

Late Career Contraversy 

At a time when Brazil was embarking on a process of re-democratisation, after years of dictatorship, Niemeyer continued to be the favourite of politicians who with new mandate wanted to build monumental government buildings. It was very difficult for us to accept the collectivist discourse and the defence of the communist utopia (which he never concealed), while he carried out an architecture of luxury and expenditure, engaging with the rhetoric of populist governments.

Projects that might be considered visibly ‘lazy’ during this era would include the Juscelino Kubitschek Memorial, the Latin America Memorial and the Sambadromes for Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. All seemed to confirm that Niemeyer’s time had passed.

Yet in 1996, the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum appeared. There was no way of denying it, the ‘old man’ had returned to form. Niterói is an impressive work of architecture, a perfect symbiosis between built form and landscape, without recent precedent. Other prominent (if controversial) works from the same period stood out, such as the Museum Oscar Niemeyer – The Eye – and the Popular Theatre of Niterói, the Serpentine Pavilion’s obvious antecedent.

Niemeyer despised the rigid positivism of the functionalist logic, seeing it as an imprisonment of the architect’s creative force. It catalysed the rebellion of his youth and he amazed the world with his first great work, the Pampulha Modern Ensemble of 1940. Founded in the architecture of Le Corbusier (who he met in 1936 in a project for the Ministry of Education and Health), Niemeyer took in the master’s language with unexpected freedom and brought it to unexpected solutions. It was not, as many thought, a process of taking the five points of the new architecture and applying these in a literal way. Nor was he articulating these points under the constraints of regular geometry. The free plan, the free plane, the expansive volume, the open pilotis were all taken as an opportunity to go beyond what had been presented up until then. What was being suggested in the volumetric extroversion of the Pampulha Casino assumes radicalism in the São Francisco Church, articulated as a sequence of parabolic curves. Similarly, in the House of Dance, the undulating marquee dances over the lake.


Oscar Niemeyer’s 10 Most Incredible Buildings

1.Cathedral of Brasilia 

The “Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasília”is the Roman Catholic cathedral serving Brasília, Brazil, and serves as the seat of the Archdiocese of Brasília. The building’s appearance, with its striking shape and gorgeous stained glass ceiling, is just as intriguing as its history. It was designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and calculated by Brazilian structural engineer Joaquim Cardozo, and was completed and dedicated on May 31, 1970. The cathedral is a hyperboloid structure constructed from 16 concrete columns, weighing 90 tons each. President Juscelino Kubitschek was overseeing the construction of Brasília, Brazil’s new capital, when his term ended in 1961. Construction stalled on numerous projects, including the cathedral. To get things moving again, the cathedral was handed over to the Catholic Church, despite Kubitschek’s initial idea of creating a state-funded and interdenominational cathedral open to all faiths.

In the square access to the cathedral, are four 3-meter tall bronze sculptures representing the four Evangelists created by sculptors Alfredo Ceschiatti and Dante Croce in 1968. A 20-meter tall bell tower containing four large bells donated by Spanish residents of Brazil and cast in Miranda de Ebro also stands outside the cathedral, to the right as visitors face the entrance. At the entrance of the cathedral is a pillar with passages from the life of Mary, mother of Jesus, painted by Athos.

A 12-meter wide, 40-centimeter deep reflecting pool surrounds the cathedral roof, helping to cool the cathedral. Visitors pass under this pool when entering the cathedral. The cathedral is capable of holding up to 4,000 people.  The baptistery is to the left of the entrance, and can be entered either from the cathedral or via a spiral staircase from the entrance plaza. The walls of the oval baptistery are covered in ceramic tiles painted in 1977 by Athos Bulcão. Offices for the Archdiocese of Brasilia were completed in 2007 next to the cathedral. The 3,000-square-metre  building connects directly to the cathedral underground. 

2. Museu Oscar Niemeyer

This Museum is located in the city of Curitiba, in the state of Paraná, in Brazil. It was inaugurated in 2002 with the name Novo Museu or New Museum. With the conclusion of remodeling and the construction of a new annex, it was reinaugurated on July 8, 2003, with the current denomination to honor its famous architect who completed this project at 95 years of age. It is also known as Museu do Olho or Niemeyer’s Eye (Eye Museum or Niemeyer’s Eye), due to the design of the building. The museum focuses on the visual arts, architecture and design. For its magnificence, beauty and for the importance of the collection, it represents a cultural institution of international significance. The complex of two buildings, installed in an area of 35 thousand square meters (of which 19 thousand are dedicated to exhibition space), it is a true example of architecture allied with art. The first building was designed by Oscar Niemeyer in 1967, faithful to the style of the time, and conceived as an educational institute, which was opened in 1978. 

The museum features many of Niemeyer’s signature elements: bold geometric forms, sculptural curved volumes placed prominently to contrast with rectangular volumes, sinuous ramps for pedestrians, large areas of white painted concrete, and areas with vivid murals or paintings. Though rooted in modern architecture since his involvement in the international style, Niemeyer’s designs have much in common with postmodern architecture as well and this is as contemporary a building as the artwork it displays.

3.Niterói Contemporary Art Museum

The Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, also know as the MAC, was designed by the famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1996. This was much later in his career, after many had already discounted the architect’s later work as being lazy and reproductive of his earlier. This buildings broke down the criticism and returned the acclaim and awe to Niemeyer that he saw earlier in his career. This iconic saucer-shaped structure, situated on a cliffside above Guanabara bay in the city of Niterói, brilliantly frames the panoramic views of the city of Rio De Janeiro and encapsulates the simple, yet brilliant signature aesthetic of Niemeyer.Speaking of the MAC’s rocky cliffside site, Niemeyer claimed that the “field was narrow, surrounded by the sea and the solution came naturally.” This “natural,” intuitive solution was an elegant, curvy structure that rises from a water basin, creating an ambient sense of lightness and allowing for full panoramic views of Sugar-Loaf Mountain and the Guanabara bay.

Although the MAC is often described as UFO-like, Niemeyer’s poetic intention was for the form to emerge “from the ground” and “continuously grow and spread,” like a flower that rises from the rocks. The sixteen-meter high structure is situated on a paved public square, accessed via a swirling, red-carpeted, 98 meter-long ramp. The 50 meter diameter copula contains three floors, set on a 2.7 meter diameter cylinder, anchored in a 60 centimeter deep 817 square meter pool. The hexagonal main hall provides 400 square meters of a column-free exhibition space surrounded by a circular viewing promenade with windows slanted at a forty degree angle.

4. Oscar Niemeyer Cultural Center

The Cultural Center was designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer and named after him. It is located in the city of Goiânia in the state of Goiás, Brazil, and was built on a 26 thousand square meter flat land called Esplanada da Cultura, a square dedicated to concerts and events, paying homage to former President Juscelino Kubitschek. The complex consists of four geometrically pure buildings: a rectangle that holds a public library, a cylinder where the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) is located, a dome that shelters the Music Palace, and a 36-meter-high pyramid that houses the Human Rights Monument.

The Library building is a smoked glass box raised on pilotis that contrasts with the white shades of the MAC and the Music Palace, and also with the vibrant red on the large triangle of the Human Rights Monument. The 700 square meter Monument houses an auditorium with capacity of 166 seats, a sunroom and an exhibition hall. It is not an easy task to fit Oscar Niemeyer’s work into the architectural movements, especially as historians, critics, and architects are very polarized and dualistic in their discourses, which, for various reasons, either endorse or condemn his work, sometimes associating it with the modern architectural movement and sometimes echoing other movements. The deviation from formal and functional standards proves the challenge of approaching his projects according to architectural rationalism. Whether functional or not, Niemeyer’s works are expressions of a modern, clean, undulating, and precise architecture that sometimes flirts with other traditional styles, like neoclassicism and cubism.

Niemeyer’s formalism is regarded as a deviation from the original principles of the Modern Architecture movement. There is an emphasis on artistic expression and for this reason, he becomes associated with free-form modernism. Moving away from functionalism and the formal constraint of the modern movement’s earlier projects and “setting free the imagination of forms,” one must understand Niemeyer’s desire to maximize the construction capabilities of the concrete. While technique deals with issues related to material, construction, detailing, etc., form concerns architecture as an artistic expression. Therefore the technical data must be invisible in order not to jeopardize the statute of architecture, being “potentialized” to the fullest as a desire to extract from it the resources to achieve a will to express the purest and most clear form. 

5. National Congress

The move of the capital from the coast to the interior of the country was not the result of a new idea. From the 18th century, a transfer of the administrative center to a safer space had been continuously campaigned for by various people.  On assuming the Presidency of the Republic in 1956, Juscelino Kubitschek brought with him that same ideal and, above all, a firm decision to fulfill it and transform it into what would be his most important political project: the construction of Brasília. A favorite work of its creator, Oscar Niemeyer, the National Congress Palace assumed a prominent position in the city’s design, visually dominating the Esplanade of Ministries, and becoming an icon of the new capital and symbol of its values. In an attempt to emphasize the importance of the legislative chambers and the debates that take place in them, Niemeyer gave prominence to the domes. With the roof of the main building at the level of the Monumental Axis, the architectural design he adopted allows those arriving to see from the road, over the Palace, between the domes, up to the Square.

Oscar Niemeyer’s concern was not limited to the Palace’s external forms. In the initial project or even in later interventions, he paid special attention to detail, inviting artists such as Athos Bulcão, Burle Marx, and Marianne Peretti to create works that integrated with the Palace’s architecture. In addition, Niemeyer gave instructions on how the composition of some environments should be and, together with his daughter, Anna Maria Niemeyer, designed pieces of furniture for the building. Over time, it became necessary to build new annexes to house legislative and administrative activities. Other architectural proposals were made by Oscar Niemeyer, some of which can be seen in the maquettes in the Green Hall.

6. Ibirapuera Auditorium

The auditorium completes the group of buildings in Ibirapuera park, as designed originally by the architect in the 1950s. Compared to the original proposal it is lacking only the access square that would separate it from the Oca, which would serve as the main entrance to the park. At the 2008 Latin Grammy Awards the Brazilian Field awards were presented at the Ibirapuera Auditorium. The building possesses volumetric simplicity, composed of a single block that in plan has the form of a trapezoid and, in section, the form of a triangle. As well as the other buildings in the park such as the Oca dome, and a great part of the architect’s work, the auditorium is composed of reinforced concrete painted white.

The unique form and spatial massing sets it apart from other auditoriums for concerts since the conception of the Paris Opera in the 19th century. It is composed of a separation of three parts, which makes a sequence of foyer, audience, stage from the exterior to the interior. The group formed by the auditorium together with the Oca, which is a semi-sphere, composing two buildings of pure and white geometrical volumes, is considered the most important of the project from an architectural point of view. The articulation of the group would be made complete by a great civic square, marquee, and footbridge, that have not been realized. A marquee, executed in red painted metal, covers the main access and gives identity to the building, characterizing it and differentiating it from other buildings. For this reason, the form and color of this element have transformed the branding of the auditorium and act as an architectural logo. It is called officially the Labareda – Portuguese for flame.

7. Pampulha Modern Ensemble

The Pampulha Modern Ensemble is located in Belo Horizonte – Minas Gerais, Brazil, but once there you can feel transported to another world. The Ensemble comprises bold forms that exploit the plastic potential of concrete, while fusing architecture, landscape design, sculpture and painting into a harmonious whole. It reflects the influence of local traditions, the Brazilian climate and natural surroundings on the principles of modern architecture. When visiting the complex you can feel dazzled by its beauty. Its history and culture are present in each building that forms part of this architectural setting. The story of these fantastic works involves a former president of Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek, who was mayor of Belo Horizonte and commissioned structural projects. Around the Pampulha artificial lake, a casino, a church, a ballroom, a club and a hotel were built. With the exception of the hotel, the complex was inaugurated with an opening that took place on May 16, 1943.The set, when built, involved the modernist thinking of the time. In addition to Niemeyer’s architecture, the buildings’ gardens were designed by Burle Marx. The panels are by Cândido Portinari and the sculptures by Alfredo Ceschiatti, among other artists.

8. Oca

Oca is the Urhütte of Brazil, constructed from a delicate network both strong and slender wooden beams and covered with fern and palm leafs. Oca meant in the language of the Tupi-Guarani a big house initially without subdivisions, where many families live in common, while in Brazil today it is generic for the “Urhütte”-type. The houses with usually rounded floor plans give shelter up to one hundred people and were built over centuries of time with very simple means. It was formed out of a very special kind of wood craft, which is different from ours, especially concerning the typology of the components, the joints, and the building arrangement.

Today, the architecture of Brazil is internationally known for its prominent concrete buildings of the past decades, where especially Oscar Niemeyer plays an important role. In 1954 Niemeyer erected an exhibition building in Sao Paulo Ibirapuera Park, which he himself called “Oca”. Although Niemeyer`s concrete building refers to the traditional concept, concerning the openness of the interior and the closure towards the exterior, the material is used in a way that is distant to the simplicity of the former manual labor.  The seminar will travel to understand the traditional, archetypal designing with wood practically and to compare them with the characteristics of industrial materials exemplified by the concrete structures of Brazilian modernism. The technical-constructive change within the building materials should become apparent just as much as the cultural-aesthetic change.

9. Itamaraty Palace

The Itamaraty Palace (Portuguese: Palácio do Itamaraty) is the headquarters of the Ministry of External Relations of Brazil. It is located in the national capital of Brasília. It is located to the east of the National Congress building along the Ministries Esplanade, near the Praça dos Três Poderes.

“With arches reflected in a mirror of water with islands of tropical plants, the headquarters of the Foreign Office has the appearance of a palace built of glass. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer and situated next to the Square of the Three Powers (Praça dos Tres Poderes). With its works of art integrated into the architectural scheme with spans extending to 30 and 36 metres, a spiral staircase linking the floors and indoor gardens designed by the landscape painter, Roberto Burle Marx, the building is considered to be a masterpiece of contemporary architecture. As the focus of Brazilian foreign policy, the building has a facade that is adjacent to a sculpture by Bruno Giorgi symbolizing the union between the five continents and is acclaimed as a symbolic view of Brasilia. In addition, the building incorporates unusual features such as marble walls by Athos Bulcao; works depicting Brazil in previous centuries by foreign artists such as Frans Prost, Jean-Baptiste Debret and Rugendas; it houses a great collection of objects and works by Brazilian artists. The Palace is open to visitors daily.”

10. Palace of Justice

The Palace of Justice, inaugurated in 1972, is located in Brasilia, Brazil, in the monumental area of ​​the city, between the northern part of the “Esplanada de los Ministerios” and the “Congresso Nacional”. It was designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer , according to a project by the engineer Joaquim Cardozo, and serves as the headquarters of the Ministry of Justice. The peculiar and imposing construction draws attention for its contemporary architecture that reinterprets the Gothic style.

The facade of the building has arches that are similar to those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs , but it also has concrete waterfalls, a water garden made up of tropical plants from the Amazon and a water mirror created by the landscaper Burle Marx , in addition to the garden of winter on the third floor. The Palace is marked by the rectangular and prismatic geometry, as well as by the external structure that characterizes its facade. The Palace of Justice Library, specialized in law, has a collection of approximately one hundred thousand volumes – books, rare works, brochures, newspapers and electronic resources -. This space preserves the table where the lawyer, Bernardo Pereira de Vasconcellos, wrote the Criminal Code of 1830 and the former Brazilian president, Affonso Augusto Moreira Penna, registered all his work in the “Constituinte Mineira”.

Oscar Niemeyer challenged the functionalist tendencies in architecture, pushing the boundaries of what was possible, and bringing a freedom and sense of play to his creations. He made a huge impact on the landscape of Brazil, as well as the field of architecture.