People typically go to museums and art galleries to view great works of art, but the greatest art may be the building itself. Great art breaks through barriers and disassembles preconceptions. Oscar Niemeyer is the very definition of this. He creates sculptural masterpieces on a grand scale.
Born in 1907, in Rio de Janeiro, Oscar Niemeyer hinted at his powerful imagination by outlining imaginary buildings with his hands at an early age. But it wasn’t until this carefree youth from the Laranjeiras neighborhood of Rio got married that he became serious about work and study. While attending the Escola de Belas Artes (School of Fine arts), he studied architecture and became convinced of his true calling.
In 1934, the newly graduated engineer architect started working free of charge with Lucio Costa and Carlos Leao. An idealist with a passion for architecture, Oscar Niemeyer was confident he could do better works than the architecture he saw every day.
This pioneer philosophy was shared with the other architects he collaborated with and when they designed the Brazilian ministry headquarters of education and health, the fruits of their combined imaginations resulted in the first state-sponsored modernist skyscraper.
Their next project of renown was actually outside of Brazil and helped put the spotlight on the style of modernist architecture Niemeyer was presenting to the world. Niemeyer traveled to New York City with Lucio Costa and designed the Brazilian Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair.
Mayor LaGuardia was so impressed with the modernist design that he presented Niemeyer with the keys to the city. Perhaps because Niemeyer’s flowing work seemed to be so evolved compared to the blocky, rigid skyscrapers of New York.
This project in particular brought attention to the modernist architecture of Brazil and was merely the beginning of a long career that brought Niemeyer to Europe, Africa, Asia, and back to North America in the 1950s when he collaborated on the United Nations building again in New York City.
Most works of art from this master designer are found in his home country of Brazil. One that gave his career a major push was the first project he was commissioned to do on his own; the Pampulha Project. Not just one building or two, this was a whole series of structures in the city of Belo Horizonte and included a church that wasn’t consecrated until 1959 because it was deemed too modern!
The other largest and most famous work Niemeyer carried out in Brazil is arguably that of designing buildings for Brasilia. Niemeyer’s modernist structures of flowing, reinforced concrete captures one’s attention at all turns. A walk through this capital city is a bit like strolling through a massive open air art gallery.
In addition to receiving the keys to New York City, other awards include the Pritzker Architecture Prize, The Lenin Peace Prize, and The Price of Asturias Award for the Arts.
At almost 103 years of age, the passion for his work has yet to diminish.