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Oscar Niemeyer ‘s name will always be synonymous with Brasilia, the very beautiful and very flawed new capital of his home country, on which he worked from 1956 to 1964. He created a sequence of astonishing, robust, concrete buildings that have since helped define the image of modern Brazil.
A year younger than Philip Johnson (he was born in Rio in 1907 and trained at the Escola Nacional de Belas Artas, graduating in 1934), Niemeyer too has had a powerful influence on New World Modernism. And, like Johnson, he worked early on with one of the luminaries of Europe’s Modern Movement- in Niemeyer’s case Le Corbusier, whom he joined on the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro in the late 1930s. The project transformed Brazilian Modernism and profoundly influenced Niemeyer, who had previously worked in a Modernist, purified form of Brazilian Baroque.
It is the consistency of Niemeyer’s vision and his intrinsic creativity that sets him apart from his North American contemporary, however. He was wedded not just to the style of the Modern Movement but also to its Utopian political goals and he has remained largely untouched by succeed¬ing architectural fashions. His belief in communism eventually forced him out of his role as chief architect at Brasilia and into exile in Paris, where he found the perfect commission – the Communist Party Headquarters (1972) – before returning to Brazil and Brasilia in the late 1960s once the political climate had improved. He collaborated again with Corb on the United Nations buildings in New York (1952).
For lovers of concrete, Niemeyer is the heir to Le Corbusier’s Brut-alism, engineering his material into brazenly sensuous forms that engage with his early formal concerns and marry the curvaceous to the Utopian. This is evident in his own house, Casa Canoas, in Rio (1954), with its light slabs and floor-to-ceiling windows, but reaches full expression in Brasilia, where Niemeyer was charged with implementing Lucio Costa’s plans. In urban-planning terms it has been problematic but the individual buildings Niemeyer created are glorious. The Crown-of-Thorns symbolism of the roof of the cathedral and the great saucer domes of the National Congress fully exploit concrete’s plastic and sculptural properties. Niemeyer worked on other projects in the city, including the Palace of Justice and the university.
Although Niemeyer has worked in France, Italy and Algeria (where he designed the zoo), it is in his home country that his work achieves a continuation of tradition into the future while maintaining his lifelong concerns. The recently completed Museum of Modern Art at Niteroi, near Rio (1996) is nothing less than a flying saucer lifting off the top of the hill, hovering above the land in the same way that some of his buildings at Brasilia hovered above pools. Niemeyer is always trying to defy concrete’s weightiness. Way before Frank Gehry made architecture as sculpture newly fashionable, he was defying rationalism in pursuit of beautiful abstractions.
As he said himself when he accepted the Pritzker Prize for architec¬ture in 1988, it is reinforced concrete with its ‘soaring spans and uncommon cantilevers’ that gives flight to our imagination: Today’s architecture is not a minor craft bound to straight-edge rules.’