Oscar Niemeyer passed away last December in his home city of Rio de Janeiro at the age of 104. Niemeyer designed many of the most important public buildings in Brasilia, as well as museums, homes, libraries, churches and even sambadromes that can be seen all over Brazil, from Belo Horizonte to São Paulo. Over the last 10 years, his career had received a new impulse and his projects can also be seen around the rest of the world.
In 1940, the young Niemeyer met the mayor of Belo Horizonte, Juscelino Kubitschek, who commissioned him with his first major project: the design of a church and a casino on the shores of Lake Pampulha. Niemeyer’s designs created an impact. His reputation spread and in 1952 he was invited to take part in the design of the United Nations Building in New York, working with architects such as the Swiss-French Le Corbusier. Two years later, his rapidly-growing fame would be finally consolidated with his design for his home in Rio de Janeiro. In 1956, he was commissioned by the-then President Kubitschek to design the principal buildings of a new city: Brasilia. Niemeyer’s hand is also believed to have left its mark on the drawings by Le Corbusier for the Ministry of Education building in Rio de Janeiro, one of the few projects the Swiss architect carried out in Latin America.
Despite his early success which would be sustained throughout his career and the recognition he received towards the end of his life, Niemeyer would also be ostracised for his political ideas. Persecuted for his associations with the constitutional government of President Juscelino Kubitschek, he was forced into self-exile in France during the 1960s.
Between 1991 and 1996 he worked on what many consider to be his finest achievement, the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, described as a sculpture projected in stone overlooking Guanabara Bay and the city of Rio. The foundation that bears his name was set up in 1988.
Niemeyer was the last witness of an age in which architecture was considered to be synonymous with progress, democracy and social justice. They were the most messianic days of what was known as the Modern Movement whose great messiahs included Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.
Winner of the 1988 Pritzker Award, considered to be the Nobel prize in architecture, and the Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts in 1989, right up until the end of his life he continued working in his studio with its large curved windows overlooking the famous Copacabana Beach. There he spent his time working on Novos Caminhos, his magazine dedicated to architecture, and on new projects, such as the Arab-South American Library, commissioned by the Government of Algeria.
Despite the success he enjoyed throughout his career, Niemeyer always claimed that architecture was not the most important thing in the world, and nor was politics. Niemeyer said that for him, life was more important than anything else. With more than 600 completed works to his name and around twenty projects in progress both in Brazil and abroad, this fragile looking man with his penetrating gaze had said that what he wanted was to continue “surprising”.
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