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Oscar Niemeyer

[nee-mahy-er]

Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho (born December 15, 1907) is a Brazilian architect who is considered one of the most important names in international modern architecture. He was a pioneer in the exploration of the constructive possibilities of reinforced concrete.

His buildings are often characterised by being spacious and exposed, mixing volumes and empty space to create unconventional patterns and often propped up by pilotis. Both lauded and criticised for being a "sculptor of monuments", his most famous design, the plan for the city of Brasilia, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Oscar Niemeyer and his contribution to the construction of Brasília is portrayed and somewhat parodied in the 1964 French movie L'homme de Rio (The Man From Rio), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Early life

Oscar Niemeyer was born in the city of Rio de Janeiro in 1907 in Laranjeiras neighborhood to Jewish parents, on a street that later would receive the name of his grandfather Ribeiro de Almeida. He spent his youth as a typical young Carioca of the time: bohemian and relatively unconcerned with his future. He concluded his secondary education at age 21. The same year, he married Annita Baldo, daughter of Italian immigrants from Padua. Marriage gave him a sense of responsibility: he decided to work and enter university.

He started to work in his father's typography house and entered the Escola de Belas Artes (Brazil), from which he graduated as engineer architect in 1934. At the time he had financial difficulties but decided to work without fee anyway, in the architecture studio of Lúcio Costa and Carlos Leão. He felt unsatisfied with the architecture that he saw in the streets and believed he could find a career there.

In 1945, already an architect of some repute, he joined the Brazilian Communist Party. Niemeyer was a boy at the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and by the Second World War he became a young idealist. He was an enthusiastic communist, a position which would cost him much later in his life. During the military dictatorship of Brazil his office was raided and he was forced into exile in Europe. The Minister of Aeronautics of the time reportedly said that "the place for a communist architect is Moscow." He visited the USSR, met with diverse socialist leaders and became a personal friend of some of them. Fidel Castro once said: "Niemeyer and I are the last Communists of this planet."

First works

In 1936, Lúcio Costa was appointed by Education Minister Gustavo Capanema architect of the new headquarters for the Ministry of Education and Public Health in Rio de Janeiro. In 1939, Niemeyer assumed the leadership of the team of architects (Lúcio Costa, Carlos Leão, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Jorge Moreira, Ernani Vasconcellos and Oscar Niemeyer, with Le Corbusier acting as a consultant in 1936) responsible for the Ministry that had assumed the task of shaping the ‘novo homem, Brasileiro e moderno’ (new man, Brazilian and modern).

Following Niemeyer's request, it was renamed Palácio Gustavo Capanema in 1985. It was the first state-sponsored modernist skyscraper in the world, and of a much larger scale than anything Le Corbusier had built until then. Completed in 1943, the building which housed the regulator and manager of Brazilian culture and cultural heritage developed all the elements of what was to become recognised as Brazilian modernist movement: it employed local materials and techniques, like the azulejos linked to the Portuguese tradition; the revolutionised Corbusian brises-soleil, made adjustable and related to the Moorish shading devices of colonial architecture; bold colours; the tropical gardens of Roberto Burle Marx; the Imperial Palm (Roystonea oleracea), known as the Brazilian order; further allusions to the icons of the Brazilian landscape; and the specially commissioned works by Brazilian artists.

In 1939 Niemeyer with Lúcio Costa designed the Brazilian pavilion at the New York World's Fair (executed in collaboration with Paul Lester Wiener). Impressed by the executed Pavilion, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia awarded Niemeyer the keys of the city of New York. Costa explained that the Brazilian Pavilion adopted a language of ‘grace and elegance’, lightness and spatial fluidity, open plan, curves and free walls, which he termed ‘Ionic’, contrasting it to the contemporaneous stern Modernist architecture, which he termed ‘Doric’. By mid-twentieth century, Brazilian architectural Modernism had been recognised as the ‘first national style in modern architecture’ (Reyner Bahnam). The international architectural periodicals of the 1940s and 1950s dedicated hundreds of dithyrambic pages to the ‘chosen land of the most original and most audacious contemporary architecture’, followed by monographs on individual architects like Oscar Niemeyer and Affonso Eduardo Reidy.

The Pampulha project

In 1940 Niemeyer met Juscelino Kubitschek, who was at the time the mayor of Belo Horizonte, capital of the state of Minas Gerais. He and Minas Gerais Governor Benedito Valadares wanted to develop a new suburb to the north of the city called Pampulha, and commissioned Niemeyer to design a series of buildings to be known as the "Pampulha complex". Brazil’s first listed modern monument was Niemeyer’s Pampulha Church of São Francisco de Assis, in Pampulha, made part of the national high art canon in 1943, one year after its completion. The Pampulha complex included a casino, a dance hall and restaurant, a yacht club, a golf club, and a 100 room hotel (unbuilt), distributed around the artificial lake. A weekend retreat for the Mayor was also constructed near the lake.

The buildings were completed in 1943, and provoked some controversy. They received international acclaim following the 1943 ‘Brazil Builds’ exhibition, at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The conservative Church authorities of Minas Gerais refused to consecrate the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi until 1959, in part because of its unorthodox form, in part because of the altar mural painted by Candido Portinari. The mural depicts Saint Francis of Assisi as the saviour of the ill, the poor and, most importantly, the sinner.

Pampulha, says Niemeyer, offered him the opportunity to 'challenge the monotony of contemporary architecture, the wave of misinterpreted functionalism that hindered it, and the dogmas of form and function that had emerged, counteracting the plastic freedom that reinforced concrete introduced. I was attracted by the curve – the liberated, sensual curve suggested by the possibilities of new technology yet so often recalled in venerable old baroque churches. […] I deliberately disregarded the right angle and rationalist architecture designed with ruler and square to boldly enter the world of curves and straight lines offered by reinforced concrete. […] This deliberate protest arose from the environment in which I lived, with its white beaches, its huge mountains, its old baroque churches, and the beautiful suntanned women.' (Niemeyer, Oscar, 2000, The Curves of Time: The Memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer (London: Phaidon), pp. 62 and 169-70).

The 1940s and 1950s

In 1947, his world-wide recognition was confirmed when Niemeyer travelled to the United States to be part of the international team (Board of Design) working on the design of the headquarters of the United Nations Headquarters in New York. 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, but was primarily based on Niemeyer's scheme. Despite Le Corbusier’s insistence to remain involved, the conceptual design for the United Nations Headquarters (scheme 23/32), approved by the Board, was carried forward by the Director of Planning, Wallace Harrison, and Max Abramovitz, then a partnership. In the previous year Niemeyer had received an invitation to teach at Yale University; however, his visa was denied. In 1950 the first book about his work was published in the USA by Stamo Papadaki. In 1953, Niemeyer was selected for the position of Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. But his Communist Party membership meant that, for the second time, he was refused a visa to enter the United States, and take his position at the university Richard Nixon had dubbed the ‘Kremlin on the Charles’.

In Brazil, he designed São Paulo's Ibirapuera Park (for the celebrations of the city's 400th anniversary) 1951, the Copan apartment building (1953-66), and the JK Building in Belo Horizonte (1951). In 1952-53 he built his own house in Rio de Janeiro, the House at Canoas (Casa das Canoas), undoubtedly his domestic masterpiece, and in 1954-60 the Niemeyer luxury apartment building, in Belo Horizonte.

In 1954-55 Niemeyer designed the Museum of Modern Art of Caracas (MAM Caracas). According to him, this project marked a new direction his work was beginning to take, exemplified by his government buildings for Brasilia.

It was at the Canoas House that a euphoric Juscelino Kubitschek visited Niemeyer one September morning of 1956, soon after he assumed the Brazilian presidency. While driving back to the city, the politician ‘eagerly’ spoke to the architect about his most audacious scheme: ‘I am going to build a new capital for this country and I want you to help me […] Oscar, this time we are going to build the capital of Brazil.’ (Niemeyer, Oscar, 2000a, The Curves of Time: The Memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer (London: Phaidon), p. 70).

Brasília

Niemeyer organized a competition for the lay-out of Brasília, the new capital, and the winner was the project of his old master and great friend, Lúcio Costa. Niemeyer would design the buildings and Lucio the plan of the city.

In the space of a few months, Niemeyer designed a large number of residential, commercial and government buildings. Among them were the residence of the President (Palácio da Alvorada), the House of the deputy, the National Congress, the Cathedral of Brasília (a hyperboloid structure), diverse ministries, not to mention residential buildings. Viewed from above, the city can be seen to have elements that repeat themselves in every building, giving it a formal unity. The cathedral of Brasília is especially beautiful, with diverse modern symbolism. Its entrance is a dimly-lit corridor that contrasts with the bright, naturally illuminated hall.

Behind the construction of Brasília lay a monumental campaign to construct an entire city in the barren center of the country, hundreds of kilometers from any major city. The brainchild of Kubitschek, his aims included stimulating the national industry, integrating the country's distant areas, populating inhospitable regions, and bringing progress to a region where only cattle ranching had a foothold (many historians compare the construction of Brasília with the American colonization of its west). Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa used it to test new concepts of city planning: streets without transit (Niemeyer would say that it is a disrespect to the human being that it takes more than 20 minutes in the transport of a region to another one), buildings floating off the ground supported by columns and allowing the space underneath to be free and integrated with nature. The project also had a socialist ideology: in Brasília all the apartments would be owned by the government and rented to its employees. Brasília did not have "nobler" regions, meaning that top ministers and common laborers would share the same building. Of course many of these concepts were ignored or changed by other presidents with different visions in later years. Brasília was designed, constructed, and inaugurated within four years. After it, Niemeyer was nominated head chief of the college of architecture of the University of Brasília. In 1963, he became an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects in the United States; the same year, he received a Soviet prize, the Lenin peace prize.

In 1964, after being invited by Abba Hushi, the mayor of Haifa, Israel, to plan the campus of the University of Haifa, he came back to a completely different Brazil. In March president João Goulart, who succeeded president Jânio Quadros in 1961, was deposed in a military coup. General Castello Branco assumed command of the country, which would remain a dictatorship until 1985.

Exile and projects overseas

The leftist position of Niemeyer would cost him much during the military dictatorship. His office was pillaged, the headquarters of the magazine he coordinated was destroyed, his projects mysteriously began to be refused and clients disappeared.

In 1965, two hundred professors, Niemeyer among them, asked for their resignation from the University of Brasília, in protest against the government treatment of universities. In the same year he traveled to France for an exhibition in the Louvre museum.

In the following year, his work hindered in Brazil, Niemeyer moved to Paris. There he started a new phase of his life and workmanship. Also in 1966, he travelled to Lebanon (city of Tripoli) to design the International Permanent Exhibition Centre. Despite completing the construction , the start of the civil war in Lebanon prevented it from achieving its full utility. He opened an office on the Champs-Élysées, and had customers in diverse countries, especially in Algeria where, among others he designed the University of Constantine. In Paris he created the headquarters of the French Communist Party (photos), Place du Colonel Fabien, and in Italy that of the Mondadori publishing company. In Funchal on Madeira, a 19th century hotel was removed to build a casino by Niemeyer. Another prominent design of his was the Penang State Mosque in George Town the state capital of Penang, Malaysia in 1970s.

While in Paris, Niemeyer began designing furniture which was produced by Mobilier International. He created his easy chair and ottoman composed of bent steel and leather in limited numbers for private clients. Later, in 1978, this chair and other designs including the "Rio" chaise longue were produced in Brazil by the Japanese company Tendo, then Tendo Brasileira. The easy chairs and ottomans were made of bent wood and were placed in different Communist party headquarters around the world. Much like his architecture, Niemeyer's furniture designs were meant to evoke the beauty of Brazil, with its sensuous curves mimicking the female form and the hills of Rio de Janeiro.

1980s to the present

The dictatorship lasted 21 years, until 1985. Under João Figueiredo's rule it softened and gradually turned into a democracy. At this time Niemeyer decided to return to his country. He himself defines this time as the beginning of the last phase of his life. During that decade he made the Memorial Juscelino Kubitschek (1980), the Pantheon (1985) and the Latin America Memorial (1987) (dubbed by The Independent of London to be "...an incoherent and vulgar construction"), the last a sculpture representing the wounded hand of Jesus, whose wound bleeds in the shape of Central and South America.

In 1988 Oscar Niemeyer was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, together with the American architect Gordon Bunshaft.

He designed at least two more buildings in Brasilia, small ones, the Memorial dos Povos Indigenas ("Memorial for the Indigenous People") and the Catedral Militar, Igreja de N.S. da Paz

In 1996, at 89 years old, he created what many consider his greatest work: the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (in Niterói, a city next to Rio de Janeiro). The building flies from a rock, giving a beautiful view of the Guanabara Bay and the city of Rio de Janeiro. Critics of the museum say the building is so exotic that it upstages the works of art inside it.

In 2002 was inaugurated the Oscar Niemeyer Museum complex, in the city of Curitiba, Paraná. This building is locally known as "Niemeyer's Eye".

In 2003, Niemeyer was called to design the Serpentine Gallery Summer Pavilion in Hyde Park London, a gallery that each year invites a famous architect who has never previously built in the UK, to design this temporary structure.

On December 10 2004, a Niemeyer designed tombstone for Communist Carlos Marighella, in Salvador da Bahia in the north-east of Brazil, was inaugurated to comemorate the 35th anniversary of his death.

In 2005, one of his projects entitled "ESTAÇÃO CIÊNCIA, CULTURA e ARTES" was approved to be built at João Pessoa, the easternmost point of the Americas, at 34º 47' 38" west longitude and 7º 9' 28" south latitude (in Portuguese).

In 2006, Niemeyer (98) wed longtime aide Vera Lucia Cabreira (born in mid-1940s) at his apartment in Rio de Janeiro's Ipanema district a month after fracturing his hip in a fall.

On December, 15th, 2006, almost 50 years belatedly, Brasilia gained a pair of Niemeyer's buildings, the National Museum and the National Library. The inauguration coincided with Oscar Niemeyer 99th anniversary. Both buildings are located at the "Esplanada dos Ministérios", making part of the Republic Cultural Complex, next to Niemeyer's Cathedral.

As of 2007, Niemeyer is 100 and still involved in diverse projects, mainly sculptures and readjustments of old works of his that, protected by national (and some cases international) historic heritage regulations, can only be modified by him. He is currently designing a statue showing a tiger with its mouth open and a man fighting it raising the Cuban flag against the US blockade of Cuba.

On Niemeyer's 100th birthday, Russia's president Vladimir Putin awarded him the Order of Friendship.

In Dec. 26, 2007 Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic of the New York Times published an article questioning if his recent work is being affected by old age. He considers his "Niterói Contemporary Art Museum" to be of significantly lower quality than his previous works. Most notably, he argues that "the greatest threat to Mr. Niemeyer’s remarkable legacy may not be the developer’s bulldozer or insensitive city planners, but Mr. Niemeyer himself." In particular, he considers that some of his iconic works at "Esplanada dos Ministérios" to "have been marred by the architect’s own hand".

On the 12 April 2008, the building of one of his biggest European projects started in the Principality of Asturias, Spain. As a thanks-giving to the Prince of Asturias Award received in 1989, his design of a big cultural centre was donated to Asturias. The "International Cultural Centre Óscar Niemeyer" (also known as Centro Niemeyer), will be located in Avilés, Asturias (North Spain). These modern buildings were described by himself as “una gran plaza abierta a todos los hombres y mujeres del mundo, un gran palco de teatro sobre la ría y la ciudad vieja” (a big square open to all men and women of the World, a big loge between the river and the ancient town).

References

Niemeyer, Oscar, 2000, The Curves of Time: The Memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer (London: Phaidon).

Emery, Marc, 1983, Furniture by Architects, New York: Harry N. Abrams.

"TRAVEL: IN SEARCH OF... OSCAR NIEMEYER IN BRAZIL" in Independent on Sunday (London). July 6, 2003.

External links

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