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Oscar Niemeyer in New York in 1947 with fellow members of the United Nations Board of Design including Wallace K. Harrison (United States: chief architect); Nikolai D. Bassov (Soviet Union), Gaston Brunfaut (Belgium), Ernest Cormier (Canada), Charles E. Le Corbusier (France), Liang Seu-Cheng (China), Sven Markelius (Sweden), Howard Robertson (United Kingdom), G. A. Soilleux (Australia) and Julio Vilamajo (Uruguay). (Courtesy Oscar Niemeyer Foundation)
Niemeyer’s illustrious career has spanned continents and centuries, and included many of the world’s best known buildings from the capital of Brazil at Brasilia and the United Nations Secretariat in New York to the Edifício Copan in São Paulo and the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio. His signature style of flowing curves, modern lines, and futuristic forms are instantly recognizable and have helped to shape the course of Modernism over the course of the 20th century. Many of his winding and seemingly gravity-defying buildings were executed in concrete, bringing a new softness to the material. He was awarded the Pritzker Price in 1988 for his soaring and light-filled design of the Brasilia Cathedral.
“He was an inspiration to me – and to a generation of architects,” Lord Norman Foster remembered, lamenting the loss of an architectural legend. “For architects schooled in the mainstream Modern Movement, he stood accepted wisdom on its head. Inverting the familiar dictum that ‘form follows function’, Niemeyer demonstrated instead that, ‘When a form creates beauty it becomes functional and therefore fundamental in architecture’.”
Norman Foster, Oscar Niemeyer, and Gary Hustwit during the filming of Urbanized. (Courtesy Urbanized/Gary Hustwit)
Norman Foster’s full tribute to Oscar Niemeyer:
I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Oscar Niemeyer. He was an inspiration to me – and to a generation of architects. Few people get to meet their heroes and I am grateful to have had the chance to spend time with him in Rio last year.
For architects schooled in the mainstream Modern Movement, he stood accepted wisdom on its head. Inverting the familiar dictum that ‘form follows function’, Niemeyer demonstrated instead that, ‘When a form creates beauty it becomes functional and therefore fundamental in architecture’.
It is said that when the pioneering Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin visited Brasilia he likened the experience to landing on a different planet. Many people seeing Niemeyer’s city for the first time must have felt the same way. It was daring, sculptural, colourful and free – and like nothing else that had gone before. Few architects in recent history have been able to summon such a vibrant vocabulary and structure it into such a brilliantly communicative and seductive tectonic language.
One cannot contemplate Brasilia’s crown-like cathedral, for example, without being thrilled both by its formal dynamism and its structural economy, which combine to engender a sense almost of weightlessness from within, as the enclosure appears to dissolve entirely into glass. And what architect can resist trying to work out how the tapering, bone-like concrete columns of the Alvorada Palace are able to touch the ground so lightly. Brasilia is not simply designed, it is choreographed; each of its fluidly-composed pieces seems to stand, like a dancer, on its points frozen in a moment of absolute balance. But what I most enjoy in his work is that even the individual building is very much about the public promenade, the public dimension.
As a student in the early 1960s, I looked to Niemeyer’s work for stimulation; poring over the drawings of each new project. Fifty years later his work still has the power to startle us. His contemporary Art Museum at Niteroi is exemplary in this regard. Standing on its rocky promontory like some exotic plant form, it shatters convention by juxtaposing art with a panoramic view of Rio harbour. It is as if – in his mind – he had dashed the conventional gallery box on the rocks below, and challenged us to view art and nature as equals. I have walked the Museum’s ramps. They are almost like a dance in space, inviting you to see the building from many different viewpoints before you actually enter. I found it absolutely magic.
Oscar Niemeyer in 1972. (Courtesy Oscar Niemeyer Foundation)