Feature

Oscar Niemeyer, 1907–2012

The architect who designed Brazil’s space-age capital

Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic, modernist buildings were considered so out of this world that even space travelers were impressed. Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut and first man in space, once recalled flying into Brasília, the Brazilian capital city created from scratch in the 1950s, and gazing at Niemeyer’s sculpted buildings as he descended. “The impression,” he said, “was like arriving on another planet.”

Niemeyer got his start working for architect Lúcio Costa, “one of the few modernists practicing in Brazil” in the 1930s, said The Guardian (U.K.). His first completed project, the “serene, high-rise” Ministry of Education building in Rio de Janeiro, was “ecstatically received,” and he was subsequently invited to collaborate with the famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier on the United Nations building in New York. His architecture combined the functional simplicity of modernism with a distinctly Brazilian, sensual expressionism. “What attracts me are free and sensual curves,” he once said. “The curves we find in mountains, in the waves of the sea, in the body of the woman we love.”

But Niemeyer “will be best remembered” as the chief architect of Brasília, said The Wall Street Journal. Niemeyer designed a range of buildings “meant to evoke a more egalitarian future”—a presidential palace, a National Congress building “seemingly topped by giant milk saucers,” and a cathedral “resembling an upturned shuttlecock.” Completed within four years, Brasília remains controversial today. Some consider it an “otherworldly sculpture garden,” others an abstract graveyard designed to serve an aesthetic rather than its residents. Niemeyer shrugged off the criticism. “You may not like Brasília,” he said, “but you can’t say you have seen anything like it.”

Niemeyer’s fortunes turned in 1964, said The Economist, when, as a “lifelong communist,” he was forced out of Brazil by the military dictatorship that ruled the country for 20 years. His politics meant he was denied a work visa in the U.S., so he visited Europe and the Soviet Union, designing buildings such as the Communist Party Headquarters in Paris. Although his communism was “more an abstract utopia than everyday politics,” there was no doubting his commitment. “There are only two communists left in the world,” Fidel Castro once joked. “Niemeyer and myself.”

After returning to live in Rio de Janeiro in 1985, Niemeyer never stopped looking into the future, discussing projects with engineers from his hospital bed days before his death. “Humanity needs dreams to be able to survive the miseries of daily existence,” he once said, “even if only for an instant.”

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