Oscar Niemeyer

If you have heard about the striking structures and and flowing curves created by Oscar Niemeyer and would like to learn more about this mastermind of modern architecture, you have come to the right place. In this article, I will share with you what I have learned researching and reading about Niemeyer.

Oscar Niemeyer received the Pritzker-Price in 1988 and was the most notable Brazilian architect to date. He was influenced by modernism, particularly the works of Le Corbusier, but developed his own style characterized by the use of elegant curves and striking structures. He is best known for his buildings created during the construction of the Brazilian capital Brasilia.

What works did Oscar Niemeyer build?

This is a brief overview over some of his most popular works.

Church of Saint Francis of Assisi | 1943

Sketch of the Capela Curial de São Francisco De Assis

This was the first building, in which Niemeyer made ample use of curves. There are no columns or slabs that bear the load of the structure, but hangar-like vaults. For this very reason and the wolf-like appearance of the dog on the mural, the archbishop Antonio des Santos Cabrai called the chapel unfit for religious purposes. Thankfully, the building was protected from destruction by Juscelino Kubitschek, mayor of Belo Horizonte. The small church is now a part of the Pampulha modern Ensemble, a UNESCO designated collection of Niemeyer buildings.

Alvorada Palace | 1958

Sketch of Alvorada Palace

For this symbol of the new Brazilian capital and the residence of the President of Brazil, Niemeyer used expressive columns which decrease in size going upwards. The gentle contact with the ground creates an impression of lightness. These columns free the façade from any load-bearing function, allowing a fully glazed façade which works great in combination to the reflections of the water below.

Niteroi Museum of Contemporary Art | 1996

Sketch of Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói

This work is one of Niemeyer´s signature buildings. The simple yet elegant radial figure is often associated with the form of a UFO. However, Niemeyer intended it to feel more like a flower rising and spreading from the rocky ground below. Indeed, the structure sits on a cylindrical base, elevating it above a circular water basin, rising above the landscape and enabling great panoramic views through the 40-degree angled windows over the iconic Bay of Rio de Janeiro.

National Museum of Brasilia | 2006

Sketch of Museu Nacional

This Museum was built as part of the cultural complex of the republic. The striking concrete dome spans more than 75 meters, in which the exhibition is located. Sculptural ramps lead up to the entrance on the outside but also continue its journey on the inside. With these ramps, the structure looks similar to a ringed planet, complementing the circular structure of the cathedral of Brasilia, just across the street.

The design Philosophy of Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer wants his buildings to be unexpected, surprising, and beautiful. He believes it is most important for an architect to do what he likes, not what others demand of him. An architect should strive for making our world a better place to live, with more dignity and more solidarity.

Niemeyer describes his architecture to be as light as possible, to touch the ground gently and preserve what is beautiful about the site. He wants to make his buildings seem to spring naturally from their sites. The appearance of his buildings is therefore deeply connected with its location.

To students of architecture, Niemeyer suggests not letting technical limitations impact their creativity. Most importantly, they should read as much as they can, especially that which is not directly linked to the profession.

Niemeyer working on Brasilia

Brasilia, the capital of Brazil was planned by Lúcio Costa in 1956 in order to move the capital from Rio de Janeiro to a central location in the country. While Costa did the urban planning, he commissioned Oscar Niemeyer to design some of the best-known monuments in the city.

The objective of the city was to have it shared by people of all classes.

During its three-and-a-half-year construction, Niemeyer lived in a colonial style cabinet called Cetetinho, together with his friends, engineers and Juscelino Kubitschek, the president of Brazil at the time. Niemeyer describes this time as an adventure, he certainly liked the fact that he was able to design in his unique architectural style, while at the same time it was a great discomfort living there.

Looking back, Niemeyer states that Brasilia failed, it became too big, capitals have moved there and society is divided and spoilt. Nevertheless, Brasilia was recognized as a historical and cultural heritage of humanity by the UNESCO as the only 20th -Century city in the world.

Political view of Oscar Niemeyer

Like many of his contemporaries, Oscar Niemeyer was left leaning, politically. He was a member of the communist party since 1945 because he sympathized with the idea to create a world where everyone is equal, has the same opportunities to pursue a better life.

After the military took over the nation and transformed it into a dictatorship in 1964, Niemeyer went to Paris to continue practicing his style of architecture. During this time, he volunteered to design the headquarters for the communist party in Paris for free. In his later life, he was still politically active, planning the capital town for Angola, meeting Fidel Castro and the president of Venezuela.

Where did Oscar Niemeyer´s Inspiration come from?

When looking at his work, the strong influence of the curve is obvious. Unlike many architects of the time like Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe, Niemeyer left the realm of the rectilinear and developed his own style by using undulating forms. Though he respected and accepted the design philosophies and preferences of other architects, he tried to create something that is more rooted the cultural traditions of Brazil and less universal to all nations. For his inspiration, he mentions the curves of the mountains, rivers, and the waves of the ocean. Furthermore, the importance of the curves of the female body is said to have played an important role in his design. He argues that curves are very human forms, which are the natural solution to design problems.

Oscar Niemeyer´s encounter with Le Corbusier

At the time of Niemeyer´s internship at the firm of Lucio Costa, Le Corbusier was already world famous for his innovative design, most notably his 5 pillars of modern architecture. He was invited to Brazil by Lucio Costa and his team to help and oversee the project of the Ministry of Education and Health Building, more commonly referred to as Gustavo Capanema Palace. During this work, Niemeyer was successful in convincing Le Corbusier to include a Portuguese style mural below the pillars better reflects the local traditions and ornamentic of Brazilian culture than the rest of the structure.

The encounter with Le Corbusier led Niemeyer to pursue his own regional style of modernism, not the universal, one size fits all approach developed and practiced by Le Corbusier.

His first house, which Oscar Niemeyer designed for himself in 1942 in Lagoa reflects the strong influence the Masterpiece of Le Corbusier: Villa Savoye had on Niemeyer. Resting the structure on pillars, he makes it float above the landscape. The horizontal windows indicate that the façade is freed from the load bearing structure. A ramp is the only connection between two floors. Unlike Le Corbusier, Niemeyer gave the interior of the house a warmer feeling by cladding it with wood. The slanted rooftop hints at the fact that the structure needs protection from the heavy seasonal monsoon rain.

The next encounter between the two architect-legends was the project for the United Nations headquarters in New York City in 1947. Niemeyer and Le Corbusier were asked to come up with a design and the committee decided to choose that of Niemeyer unanimously. In retrospect, it is hard to differentiate the two distinct designs from one another and there is a confusion as to what elements were designed by whom. Nevertheless, Le Corbusier continued to overlook the project, demanding changes in the design. Niemeyer in an Interview admitted to regretting having compiled to these demands, but he was too young to have known otherwise.


Oscar Niemeyer was a truly unique architect in many respects, from his unprecedented use of curves, to his long lifetime of 104 years to his encounters with Le Corbusier and many other world famous figures, he has greatly shaped the architectural discourse of the 20th and 21st-Century.

If you have found this article helpful and would like to learn more about Brazilian architecture and design, check out this article about Paulo Mendes da Rocha on my website, I promise you won´t be disappointed.


Thanks for reading

~ Julian

Sources used to provide this overview: [accessed April 5th, 2021]

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