Still working at the grand old age of 101 in 2009, Oscar Niemeyer is the greatest architect Latin America has produced. He’s best known for his unique contribution to Brasília, but during his long and highly productive life he has also left his mark on virtually all of Brazil’s major cities, especially Rio and Belo Horizonte. Widely regarded as the most influential modernist architect of the twentieth century after Le Corbusier, he has also designed important buildings in Europe, notably the Serpentine Gallery in London and the Le Havre Cultural Centre in France.
Born in Rio in 1907, he was influenced as a student by Le Corbusier’s geometric ideas on urban planning and design; his first major commission, the building of the Ministry of Education in Rio in 1937, now known as the Palácio Gustavo Capanema, shows this influence clearly. By the 1940s Niemeyer began to show his independence and originality with a series of buildings in the Belo Horizonte suburb of Pampulha, which gave a recognizably Brazilian twist to Le Corbusier, adding curves, ramps and buttresses to buildings decades ahead of their time. But Niemeyer’s designs were controversial: the São Francisco church in Pampulha was completed in 1943 but not consecrated until 1959, so reluctant was the Catholic Church to endorse such a radical departure. But the germs of Brasília were clearly evident in his work in Pampulha, a decade before the new capital was begun.
After Brasília, Niemeyer became an international star and beyond criticism in his own country, which had its advantages: he was the only militant communist never to be troubled by the military dictatorship. He built a number of other unforgettable buildings, the most spectacular being the Museum of Modern Art in Niterói, across the bay from Rio, perched like a modernist flying-saucer over the sea. As the nation’s leading architect, with major buildings spread over multiple countries, Niemeyer has made a major contribution to Brazilian culture and modern history.