The Sensual Vision of Oscar Niemeyer

Lessons from Modernism: Environmental Design Considerations in 20th Century Architecture, 1925–1970

an exhibition at the Cooper Union, New York City, January 29–March 16, 2013
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Leonardo Finotti
The Brazilian National Congress building and its reflecting pools, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, Brasília, 1957–1964

When Oscar Niemeyer died on December 5, 2012, ten days before his 105th birthday, he was universally regarded as the very last of the twentieth century’s major architectural masters, an astonishing survivor whose most famous accomplishment, Brasília, was the climactic episode of utopian High Modern urbanism. That logistical miracle and social adventure took just three and a half years from conception to completion, yet fell far short of its transformative intentions. It was the most audacious planning scheme in a century that saw the creation of several other impressive capital cities prompted by the waning of colonialism and the ascent of nationalism, including Walter Burley Griffin’s Canberra in Australia (1912–1920), Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker’s administrative nexus of the British Raj at New Delhi (1913–1931), and Le Corbusier’s regional seat for the Indian Punjab at Chandigarh (1952–1959).

Brasília, laid out by Niemeyer’s mentor Lúcio Costa in 1957 and built principally by Niemeyer from 1958 to 1960, would have been enough to secure the architect’s place in history. Yet posthumous recapitulations of his epochal career remind us that during the two decades that preceded this colossal undertaking—especially the early 1940s, when South America remained free from involvement in World War II and thus was able to build with abandon—Niemeyer stood at the very peak of architectural innovation and invention. In those dark times he almost single-handedly upheld life-affirming values counter to the industrialized mayhem being visited on so much of mankind.

Niemeyer’s work has rightly been likened to Brazilian music: the swaying lines and swelling contours of his biomorphic 1940s designs evoke the samba, the sensuous and insinuating dance that encapsulates that country’s vibrant multiracial mix and subliminal sexuality. The cooler syncopations of bossa nova were echoed in the measured visual rhythms of the architect’s more self-consciously elegant Brasília phase of the late 1950s and early 1960s. His work was then contemporaneous with the emergence of the “new beat” that caused a global sensation just as fantastic images of his dream-come-true city were splashed across the international press (exuding a visual charisma similarly conveyed by the striking color photos in Philip Jodidio’s introductory Oscar Niemeyer).

Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1907 into a prominent upper-middle-class family of German descent; his father was a typographer and one grandfather a supreme court justice. In 1929 he entered the National School of Fine Arts in Rio and studied architecture under Costa, who, along with his partner, the Russian émigré Gregori Warchavchik, was a founding father of Brazilian modernism. Their seminal work, which helped establish their country as a force in world design, is authoritatively presented in Hugo Segawa’s thorough new survey, Architecture of Brazil, 1900–1990.

Upon receiving his architecture degree in 1934, Niemeyer joined the Costa firm. Two years later …

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