Page C1.1 . 01 February 2012                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Oscar Niemeyer - Brazilian Modernist

by Styliane Philippou

As the preeminent figure of one of the most innovative national interpretations of architectural Modernism, and a radical critic of orthodox Modernist aesthetic formulae and moralizing ideologies, Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer occupies a unique place in the pantheon of great builders.

Tirelessly exploring the structural and formal possibilities of reinforced concrete over more than seven decades, and still in practice at over 100 years old, Niemeyer has designed over 600 buildings.

Taking advantage of Brazil's advanced reinforced-concrete technology and working closely with highly committed structural engineers, Niemeyer found in concrete an ideal means to achieve what he refers to as an architecture of "spectacle... plastic freedom and... inventiveness," rooted in Brazil's native traditions and tropical landscape and challenging the dominance of clean white walls, straight lines, and right angles, which, for him, "issued from a European ethical tradition."

Conjugating architectural, structural, and topographical events to achieve maximum fluidity, he prioritized the sensual reality of the architectural experience. Concrete, a material suited to the local economic and technological conditions, permitted Niemeyer to launch what he conceived as a "new" and "bolder architecture in the dimensions of Brazil," proclaiming the country's unequivocal modernity as well as its emancipation from Western prototypes.

Architect of Brazilian Modernism

Born Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida de Niemeyer Soares Filho, in Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer stresses his "diverse ethnic roots" — that is, his Brazilianness, in accordance with the national ideology of ethnic amalgamation.

Niemeyer studied at the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes from 1929 to 1934, where the patriarch of modern Brazilian architecture, Lúcio Costa, had added a "Functional Course" and appointed as professor Gregori Warchavchik, a pioneer of the Modern Movement in Latin America, with Affonso Eduardo Reidy as his assistant.

The short-lived course provoked explosive opposition from the school's Beaux-Art majority, but it was popular with the students Costa described as "a purist battalion dedicated to the impassioned study of Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and especially Le Corbusier."   >>>

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This article is excerpted from The Great Builders, edited by Kenneth Powell, copyright © 2011, with permission of the publisher, Thames & Hudson.

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Oscar Niemeyer designed many of the major governmental buildings for the new Brazilian capital city, Brasília, in the late 1950s, including the National Congress Building, shown here. Image does not appear in book.
Photo: Jorge Andrade Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Edifício Liberdade (1960) in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, is a 20-story residential building whose sinuous concrete floor plates extend beyond the cement-tiled walls to form brises-soleil. The building was later renamed Edifício Niemeyer after the architect's brother. Image does not appear in book.
Photo: Pedro Kok


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