By Leo Byrne, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The architectural community lost one of its greatest luminaries December 5th with the death of Oscar Niemeyer, whose famous building designs are known the world over. Eschewing conventional straight edges and block structures in favor of flowing curves, Niemeyer’s work combined Brazilian flair with modernist architecture.
Born in Rio de Janeiro on December 15, 1907, Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho started his career in the Cidade Maravilhosa. Although his most famous work is in Brasília, Rio hosts numerous architectural treasures that bear Niemeyer’s trademark curves and modernist vision.
His first major project started with him working as a draftsman on Rio’s Gustavo Capanema Palace in 1936, and then taking lead of the design in 1939. The palace is the first state sponsored modernist building in the Americas, and considered by some architects to be one of the more important of the 20th century.
Niemeyer further added to his resume in Rio ten years later, by this time a well-established architect who had worked on the UN building in New York. In the 1940s and 1950s he designed the Headquarters of Banco Boavista in Candelaria and his own residence, the Casa das Canoas in São Conrado.
A Portuguese architecture student living in Rio, Maria Negrao, shared, “From my point of view, Casa das Canoas (1953) is the project that represents in its fullest the essence of Oscar Niemeyer. Being faithful to the principals of modernism like Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House or Philip Johnson’s Glass House, Casa das Canoas has Niemeyer’s unique identity inspired by the poetry and curves of Rio de Janeiro.”
From 1965 Brazil’s military dictatorship meant that the strongly left wing Niemeyer would spend twenty years overseas, doing most of his work on projects around the globe. However he still found the time to design the Centro Musico and the Sambadrome (Marquês da Sapucaí) which leads into the Apotheosis Square during Carnival.
“Niemeyer was one of the first non-European modern architects to gain international acclaim. His flamboyant modernism has been maligned for favoring beauty and spatial drama over functionality but his ability to achieve a sense of lightness and fluidity using concrete and steel was pioneering,” Joseph Hawkins, an architectural researcher at the University of East London told The Rio Times.
Some of Niemeyer’s most famous and recent work can be found in the neighboring city of Niterói. Home to the Niemeyer Route, the city-across-the-bay has more buildings designed by him than any other city outside of Brasília.
First and foremost among them the Museu de Arte Contemporânea, that overlooks Guanabara bay. “The otherworldly curves of the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum are a bold response to the dramatic topography of the nearby bay. Niemeyer’s alignment of the works displayed within the gallery transcends the traditional ‘white cube’ of the gallery space by establishing a dynamic relationship between architecture, art and landscape,” Joseph Hawkins added.
Further along the route is the Popular Theatre of Niterói, the simple, undulating lines are a fantastic example of Niemeyer’s style, while the green and yellow color scheme pays homage to Brazil’s flag.
The Oscar Niemeyer Foundation is both art school and exhibition and lies in Niterói’s center. Inside can be found scale models and drawings from his seventy year career. Completing the route are the adjacent Roberto Silveira Memorial Center and the UFO like Ferry terminal from which it’s possible to get a boat back to Rio.
Niemeyer passed at the age of 104, just days before marking his 105th birthday, from complications after being hospitalized for a respiratory infection in November. President Dilma Rousseff has extended her deepest sympathies to Niemeyer’s family.