Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer was a pivotal figure in Modernism and the building of a new Brazil.

National Congress buildings, Eixo Monumental, Brasilia: the Chamber of Deputies and the Towers of Congress. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection Metropolitan Cathedral under construction, Eixo Monumental, Brasilia. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection Chamber of Deputies and National Congress buildings, Eixo Monumental, Brasilia.© Monica Pidgeon / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Arguably Brazil’s greatest architect, Oscar Niemeyer studied at the National School of Fine Arts and, after graduating in 1934, joined the office of Lucio Costa. In 1937 he was recruited into the Office of the Ministry of Education & Health, which played a large part in laying the foundations of modern Brazilian architecture. During this time he collaborated with Costa on the design of the Brazilian Pavilion for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Oscar Niemeyer, 1990s. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Oscar Niemeyer, 1990s.
© RIBA Library Photographs Collection

During the 1940s Niemeyer completed four projects for the Pampulha residential complex and it was here that he began to develop the new architectural ideals that he aspired to, distancing himself from the strict rationalism of his early career, exploring the freedom offered by reinforced concrete construction and creating daring and unusual forms that shocked the world.

In 1956 the architect was selected to be Director of the Architecture Department of the New Capital Urbanisation Company tasked with the construction of Brazil’s new capital city, Brasilia. Working again with Lucio Costa, who had envisioned the pilot plan, he developed one of the most important examples of modern architecture in the world and designed many of the iconic buildings himself.

Following the completion of Brasilia in 1963, the left-leaning Niemeyer undertook several projects outside of Brazil before escaping the Brazilian military coup and going into exile in Paris. Here he drafted plans for the Headquarters of the French Communist Party in 1971.

He returned to Brazil in 1975 and continued to work until into his 100th year, remaining firmly committed to the Modernist ideal of socially transformative architecture.

Article by Justine Sambrook, Curator, Robert Elwall Photographs Collection, British Architectural Library , RIBA