Oscar Niemeyer

Scarano Architect
5 min readJun 26, 2023
Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer, in full Oscar Niemeyer Soares Filho, was born on December 15, 1907, and died on December 5, 2012, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is considered one of the key figures in the development of modern architecture. Niemeyer’s architecture is known for its free-form sculpture and lyrical style. He studied architecture at the National School of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro. Shortly before he graduated in 1834 with a BA in architecture, he entered the office and worked in the project studio of Lucio Costa. This was the beginning of Niemeyer’s career in architecture.

Niemeyer is best known for his designs of civic buildings in Brasilia, a planned city that became Brazil’s capital in 1960. Some of his most famous works include the National Congress of Brazil, the Cathedral of Brasilia, and the Palacio da Alvorada.

After graduating, he worked in his father’s typography house. Although he was not financially stable, he insisted on working in the architecture studio of Lucio Costa, Gregori Warchavchik, and Carlos Leao, 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 advantages 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.

In 1936, at 29 years of age, Lucio Costa was appointed by the Education Minister to design the new headquarters of the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro. Costa himself, although open to change, was unsure of how to proceed. He assembled a group of young architects (Carlos Leao, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Jorge Moreira, and Ernani Vasconcellos) to design the building. He also insisted that Le Corbusier himself should be invited as a consultant. Though Niemeyer was not initially part of the team, Costa agreed to accept him after Niemeyer insisted. During the period of Le Corbusier’s stay in Rio, he was appointed to help the master with his drafts, which allowed him close contact with the Swiss. After his departure, Niemeyer’s significant changes to Corbusier’s scheme impressed Costa, who allowed him to progressively take charge of the project, of which he assumed leadership in 1939.

He ultimately worked with Costa from 1937 to 1943 on the design of the Ministry of Education and Health building, considered by many to be Brazil’s first masterpiece of modern architecture. 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 1939–1940.

Oscar Niemeyer’s first solo project was the plan for a complex with Pampulha, a new suburb of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Commissioned in 1941 by Juuscelino 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 façade 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.

When in 1956 Kubitschek was elected president of Brazil, and he asked Niemeyer to design the new capital city of Brasilia. Niemeyer agreed to design the government buildings but suggested a national competition for the master plan, a competition subsequently won by his mentor, Lucio Costa. Niemeyer served as chief architect for NOVA-CAP, the government building authority in Brasilia, from 1956 to 1961. Among the Brasilia buildings designed by Niemeyer are the President’s Palace, the Brasilia Palace Hotel, the Ministry of Justice building, the presidential chapel, and the cathedral. In 1961 Niemeyer returned to private practice and for a time lived in Paris and Israel. In 1966 he designed an urban area in Grasse, near Nice, France, and a building for the French Communist Party in Paris. From 1968 he lectured at the University of Rio de Janeiro.

Niemeyer’s other architectural projects include the Ministry of Defense building in Brasilia in 1968 and Constantine University (now Mentouri University) in Constantine, Algeria, in 1969. In the mid-1980s he began rethinking and renovating some of his former designs in Brasilia. He changed the shape of the exterior arches on the Ministry of Justice building and replaced the windows of the cathedral with stained-glass panels. He continued to design new buildings, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Niteroi, Brazil, which opened in 1996. Even after celebrating his 100th birthday and despite criticism that his newer work lacked the elegance of his earlier projects, in 2007 he began designing a cultural center for Aviles, Spain, where in 1989 he received the Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts. The building was inaugurated in 2011.

Niemeyer was the recipient of many other international awards, including the Lenin Peace Prize in 1963, the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1988 (co-winner Gordon Bunshaft), and the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale Prize for Architecture in 2004. Niemeyer’s work has been recognized with numerous awards and honors throughout his career. His career spanned over eight decades and he designed more than 600 projects throughout his life.

The Oscar Niemeyer Foundation, dedicated to architectural preservation and research, was founded in 1988, and a new headquarters designed by Niemeyer opened in Niteroi in 2010. With a lifetime spanning one hundred years, Oscar Niemeyer was involved in many types of buildings and architectural styles, his favorite being modern architecture. His influence and inspiration can be seen throughout Latin America. At Scarano Architect, PLLC, we regard Oscar Niemeyer as an award-winning architect who helped change the face of Brazil. Our goal is to help you change any part of your home you would like to. Please call us and we would be glad to meet with you.

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