Editorial Feature

The Modernist Buildings of Oscar Niemeyer 

Discover the work of this influential Brazilian architect

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1907, Oscar Niemeyer was a Brazilian architect who is considered to be one of the key figures in the development of modern architecture. Among his many projects, Niemeyer is best known for his designs of civic buildings of Brasília—a planned city that became Brazil’s capital in 1960.

Niemeyer was highly influential in the late 20th and early 21st centuries for his explorations with reinforced concrete and often whimsical ideas in his projects. The architect was partly influenced by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who broke away from historical architectural styles and wanted to create buildings that were purely functional and new. In contrast to Le Corbusier, Niemeyer’s approach saw him favor curves and abstract forms over straight lines and inflexible shapes “created by man”.

Unlike many of his peers, Niemeyer was never a scholar or interested in theories, jargon, or clichés. Though he had strongly held political views and was a noted communist, unlike some other Modernists they were not especially apparent in his work. His goal was simple: give beauty to the world.

After his death in 2012, Niemeyer left the world with more than 500 works scattered throughout the Americas, Africa, and Europe. Here we take a tour of some of his most significant works and the impact they had on the places they were built.

Oscar Niemeyer at the Cathedral of Brasilia by David Drew Zing (From the collection of Instituto Moreira Salles)

Gustavo Capanema Palace, Rio de Janiero, Brazil

The Gustavo Capanema Palace building was also known as the Ministry of Education and Health Building. It was the first modernist project in Brazil and as such is historically important to the architectural development of Modernism in Brazil. Designed in 1935 and 1936, it was imagined by a team composed of Lucio Costa (future designer of the master plan of Brazil's modernist capital Brasília), along with Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Ernani Vasconcellos, Carlos Leão, Jorge Machado Moreira, and Roberto Burle Marx. Le Corbusier was overseeing the whole project and Niemeyer, aged just 29, was Le Corbusier’s draftsman.

When Le Corbusier left Brazil, the young architect made changes to the design that impressed Costa, so much so that by 1939, he appointed Niemeyer as the project’s lead architect. The building is 15 stories high and is raised 3 metres above the sidewalk on pillars. The tropical sunshine on northern glass walls was controlled by brises-soleil (sun-shades) made adjustable in a system that was the first of its kind in the world.

Oscar Niemeyer Museum, Curitiba, Brazil

The Oscar Niemeyer Museum was completed in 2002, when the architect was 95 years old. The museum focuses on the visual arts, architecture and design and the building showcases Niemeyer’s signature elements, including 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.

The distinctive annex adjacent to the museum is reminiscent of a human eye and gave the museum a new identity. Previously named the Novo Museu, in 2003 it was renamed the Oscar Niemeyer Museum. The architect has always been associated with the modernist movement, but in his later years many of his designs began to have a more postmodern aesthetic, which reacts against minimalism in favor of a more experimental and hybrid approach.

Cathedral of Brasília, Brasília, Brazil

The Cathedral of Brasília is the Roman Catholic cathedral serving the city of Brasília in Brazil and demonstrates Niemeyer’s creative vision. Completed in 1970, Niemeyer designed the building as a hyperboloid structure—a structure designed using a hyperboloid in one sheet, a shape reminiscent of concrete water tanks. The building is constructed from 16 concrete columns, each weighing 90 tons each and a 12-meter wide, 40-centimeter deep reflecting pool surrounds the cathedral roof, helping to cool the cathedral.

In the square access to the cathedral are four three-meter tall bronze sculptures representing the four Evangelists, created by sculptor Dante Croce in 1968. Inside, visitors walk through a dark tunnel and emerge into a bright space with a glass roof. Suspended within the roof, a 2,000-square-meter stained glass work, originally created in 1990 by Marianne Peretti, hangs in shades of blue, green, white, and brown.

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The Niterói Contemporary Art Museum is situated in Niterói in Rio de Janeiro and is one of the city’s main landmarks. It was completed in 1996 and Niemeyer worked on the project with structural engineer Bruno Contarini, who the architect had worked with before. The museum is 16 meters high and the flying saucer-like structure has a diameter of 50 meters containing three floors.

The backdrop to the museum is Boa Viagem beach and the cylindrical base of the film is surrounded by a reflecting pool, which Niemeyer described as the building rising from the ground like a flower. As an extra touch, the modernist structure also has a wide access slope that leads to a Hall of Expositions, which has capacity for 60 people. The building was said to be one of Niemeyer’s favorites.

Edifício Copan, São Paulo, Brazil

The Edifício Copan is a 118.44-meter tall, 38-story residential building in downtown São Paulo, Brazil. It has 1,160 apartments and is one of the largest buildings in Brazil. Niemeyer and his team designed the structure in a bid to create a mixed cross-section of Brazilian society. Originally the project contained two buildings, the other being a hotel but in the end only the residential block was built.

Construction began in 1952 and, with a few interruptions, was completed in 1966. The outside of the building has a sinuous and curving façade, which is elegantly sheathed in brise-soleil. Since 2014, the building has been covered by a transparent blue-black drape, to protect pedestrians from the building’s loose mosaic tiles. The facade contains 72 million little tiles and a project to repair and replace them is under consideration.

Palácio do Planalto, Brasília, Brazil

Palácio do Planalto is the official workplace of the President of Brazil. Located in the national capital of Brasília, the building was inaugurated in 1960. It is one of the official palaces of the Presidency, along with the Palácio da Alvorada, which was also designed by Niemeyer.

The presidential palace was a major feature in the building of Brasília and Niemeyer hoped to project an image of simplicity and modernity using fine lines and waves to compose the columns and exterior structures of the building. The palace also has a ramp leading to the hall and the ‘parlatorium’ (speaker’s platform), from where the president and foreign heads of state can address the public. A reflecting pool was built in 1991 to increase security around the palace and balance humidity levels during the dry season in Brasília.

Cláudio Santoro National Theater, Brasília, Brazil

A multi-theater building in Brasília, Brazil, the Cláudio Santoro National Theater was completed in 1966. Built in the shape of a truncated pyramid, it is the largest building in Brasilia designed by Niemeyer specifically for the arts. The building is home to three venues: the 60-seat Alberto Nepomuceno theater, the 407-seat Martins Pena theater, and the 1,407 seat Villa-Lobos theater. The complex also includes an exhibition gallery that is accessible to the public.

The theater complex has been through a cycle of closures and renovations over the decades. After its opening it was used for ten years and then closed for renovations until 1979. In that same year it was closed again for an annex, which would include offices and rehearsal rooms, to be built. It opened again in 1981, but since 2014 has undergone another long renovation process, which is still to be completed due to budget constraints and the government not prioritizing the project.

National Congress building, Brasília, Brazil

The National Congress building sits in pride of place among Niemeyer’s other government buildings in Brasília. In this building you can see Le Corbusier’s strong influence on the architect, but also glimmers of Niemeyer’s more romantic and whimsical ideas that eventually became his signature.

The building is essentially composed of large three-dimensional shapes that seem like they’re balancing on top of each other. The semi-sphere on the left is the seat of the Senate, and the semi-sphere on the right is the seat of the Chamber of Deputies. Between them are a pair of vertical office towers. The Congress also occupies surrounding office buildings, some of which are interconnected by tunnel.

Complexo Cultural da República, Brasília, Brazil

The Complexo Cultural da República is a cultural center located along the Eixo Monumental in the city of Brasília. The site contains the National Library of Brasília and the National Museum of the Republic, both of which were designed by Niemeyer.

Completed in 2006, it launched on Niemeyer’s 99th birthday and opened with an exhibition of the architect’s work on the development of Brasília. The building contains a 14,500 square meters exhibition space, two 780-seat auditoriums, and a laboratory. The space is covered with a smooth, white dome with ramps leading to the entrance. Today, the building is mainly used to display temporary art exhibits.

French communist headquarters, Paris, France

Niemeyer found himself in Paris after fleeing to France in 1965 as the Brazilian government had been overthrown by a right-wing military dictatorship. As a noted communist and political leftist, Niemeyer set about establishing an office in the French capital.

Soon after arriving, the French Communist Party commissioned Niemeyer to design its new headquarters. Set in a corner, the guiding principle for the project was to carefully balance the open space with architectural volume. As a result Niemeyer avoided occupying too much of the site with the building and instead aimed to maximize green space both for the client and the city’s residents. Built between 1967 and 1980, the architect created a curving six-story structure and its serpentine appearance is heightened by the tinted glass curtain wall, which was designed by French industrial designer, engineer, and architect Jean Prouvé.

Oscar Niemeyer Cultural Center, Asturias, Spain

The Oscar Niemeyer International Cultural Centre in Asturias, Spain is a cultural complex that was inaugurated in 2011. Its imposing size, and its white, red and yellow exterior make it a highly visible landmark on the town’s landscape.

The center is comprised of 5 elements that complement each other: the open square for activities to take place in; the auditorium that acts as a concert hall; the dome, which provides a space for exhibitions; the tower for sightseeing that contains a restaurant; and a final building that houses a film centre, cafe, shop and meeting rooms.

Brasilia Digital TV Tower, Brasilia, Brazil

The Brasilia Digital TV Tower is a broadcast tower that made digital television signal available for the whole Federal District and its surroundings. The tower was one of Niemeyer’s final designs and was inaugurated in April 2012, just months before the architect’s death.

Niemeyer described the tower as a flower, as the structure leads to an antenna and has two observatories that sit like leaves on a stem. The highest one, 80m above ground, contains a restaurant with a panoramic view and the other is used as an art gallery.

Credits: All media
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