Biography of Oscar Niemeyer

Portrait of a Brazilian Modernist (1907-2012)

Close-up photo of Brazilian Architect Oscar Niemeyer
Brazilian Architect Oscar Niemeyer. Photo by Paulo Fridman / Sygma / Getty Images (cropped)

Architect Oscar Niemeyer (born December 15, 1907 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) defined modern architecture for all of South America in a career that spanned seventy-five years. From his early work with Le Corbusier to his beautifully sculptural buildings for Brazil's new capital city of Brasilia, Niemeyer shaped the Brazil we see today. He will be forever associated with the Brazilian Communist Party, which he joined in 1945 and led in 1992.

His architecture is often misrepresented as "Communist by Design." Although Niemeyer often said that architecture cannot change the world, many critics claim that his idealism and socialist ideology defined his buildings. In defending his modernist designs over traditional Classic architecture, Niemeyer famously asked a Brazilian general if he would prefer modern or classic weapons to fight a war.

Oscar Niemeyer Ribeiro de Almeida Soares earned a degree from Escola Nacional de Belas Arte, Rio de Janeiro's School of Fine Arts, in 1934, and quickly joined the office of architect and urban planner Lúcio Costa in 1935. As early as 1936, he was collaborating with Costa, Le Corbusier, Jorge Machado Moreira, and Afonso Eduardo Reidy to design the Ministry of Education and Health (now the Palace of Culture) in Rio de Janeiro.

It's been said that successful people are drawn to and surround themselves with other successful people.

Oscar Niemeyer was no exception. This is not to say that Niemeyer's sketches lacked genius and inspiration—other architects have readily admitted that Niemeyer's graphics were the impetus for the United Nations Secretariat building. But while Niemeyer was designing with the likes of Le Corbusier and others, his own singular designs for Brazil were taking form.

Early on in his career, Niemeyer formed a relationship with the future President of Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek, known as JK. Fifteen years before his presidency, Dr. Kubitschek became mayor of Belo Horizonte, and one of his first projects for the city was to build a lake and resort for the Brazilian elite. Kubitschek chose Niemeyer to be its architect, and some critics have written that it was this work in Pampulha that set him apart from his mentors.

His career picked up again when Kubitschek became Brazil's president. In 1956 Niemeyer began implementing Lucio Costa's urban designs for Brazil's new capital city, Brasilia. From 1957 to 1964 Niemeyer served as chief architect for the new capital. However, after a 1966 military coup in Brazil, the architect was forced to flee his homeland. He settled in Europe, mostly in France, and did not return until 1984. In 1988, when Niemeyer was 80 years old, he won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize along with American modernist architect Gordon Bunshaft. "The sharing of the prize is unprecedented," announced the Pritzker committee, "but entirely warranted as a tribute to architects from North and South America whose work has had worldwide influence in this century, and doubtless will continue into the future."

Niemeyer's first wife, Annita Baldo, died in 2004. In 2006, when Oscar Niemeyer was 98 years old, he married his long-time aid, Vera Lúcia Cabreira. Niemeyer continued his architectural practice well into his hundreds. He died December 5, 2012, in Rio de Janeiro (read obituary in The Economist), just shy of his 105th birthday.

Selected Projects and Designs:

The dates of completion vary in the architectural environment in which Niemeyer worked. When a building was consecrated or able to be occupied was often a political decision in Niemeyer's world. What follows is a rough timeline:

  • 1938-1939: With Lucio Costa, the Brazilian Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair
  • 1941: National Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • 1943: Church of St Francis, Pampulha, Brazil
  • 1945: With Le Corbusier and others, the Ministry of Education and Health, Rio de Janeiro

In the Words of Oscar Niemeyer:

"I have always accepted and respected all other schools of architecture, from the chill and elemental structures of Mies van der Rohe to the imagination and delirium of Gaudi. I must design what pleases me in a way that is naturally linked to my roots and the country of my origin."
—Pritzker Prize biography

"My work is not about form follows function, but form follows beauty or, even better, form follows feminine."
—Architectural Record, December 1997, p. 35

"Let me tell you frankly: I believe that life is more important than architecture. What really counts is to build a better world. I think that architecture is only a profession."
—2009 United Nations interview

"It is not the right angle that attracts me,
Nor the hard, inflexible straight line, man-made.
What attracts me are free and sensual curves.
The curves in my country's mountains,
In the sinuous flow of its rivers,
In the beloved woman's body.


~Quoted by Angel Gurria-Quintana in Architect of Optimism, the Financial Times

Surces: "Niemeyer's Century," Azure Magazine Online; The Last of the Modernists, Metropolis Magazine at www.metropolismag.com/story/20060515/the-last-of-the-modernists; a href="http://archive.today/2gCbH">Brazil's 102-year-old architect spends 'crap' birthday, Agence France Presse Newswire, December 15, 2009; Architect Oscar Niemeyer Turns 100, Spiegel International; Oscar Niemeyer Foundation; "UN officials mourn the death of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer," 6 December 2012, UN.org [accessed December 14, 2012]; Pritzker Announcement, 1988, The Hyatt Foundation [accessed December 14, 2016]