The Life and Architecture of Oscar Niemeyer

Brazil's Most Celebrated Architect

Architect Oscar Niemeyer in his Studio in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Paulo Fridman / Getty Images

Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) defined modern architecture for all of South America in a career that spanned seventy-five years. Here is a sampling of his architecture. From his early work on the Ministry of Education and Health (now the Palace of Culture in Rio de Janeiro) 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. For bringing modernism to South America, Niemeyer was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 1988, when he was only 80 years old.

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum

Niemeyer Museum of Contemporary Arts in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Oscar Niemeyer, architect

Ian Mckinnell / Photographer's Choice Collection / Getty Images

From his early work with Le Corbusier to his beautifully sculptural buildings for the new capital city, Brasília, architect Oscar Niemeyer shaped the Brazil we see today. Explore some of the works of this 1988 Pritzker Laureate, beginning with the MAC.

Suggesting a sci-fi space ship, the Contemporary Art Museum in Niterói seems to hover on top of a cliff. Winding ramps lead down to a plaza.

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum Facts

  • Also Known As: Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói ("MAC")
  • Location: Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Completed: 1996
  • Structural Engineer: Bruno Contarini

Oscar Niemeyer Museum, Curitiba

Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba, Brazil (the NovoMuseu). Oscar Niemeyer, architect

Ian Mckinnell / Photographer's Choice Collection / Getty Images

Oscar Niemeyer's art museum in Curitiba is made up of two buildings. The long low building in the background has curving ramps leading to an annex, shown here in the foreground. Often compared to an eye, the annex rises on a brightly colored pedestal from a reflecting pool.

Museo Oscar Niemeyer Facts

  • Also known as: Museu do Olho or "Museum of the Eye" and Novo Museu or "New Museum"
  • Location: Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil
  • Opened: 2002
  • Museum Website:

Brazilian National Congress, Brasilia

The Brazilian National Congress by Oscar Niemeyer, 2 monoliths between inverted bowls

Ruy Barbosa Pinto / Moment Collection / Getty Images

Oscar Niemeyer had already worked on the committee to design a United Nations Secretariat building when he got the call to serve as the chief architect for Brazil's new capital city, Brasília. The National Congress complex, the center of legislative governance, is composed of several buildings. Shown here is the domed Senate building on the left, the Parliament office towers at the center, and the bowl-shaped Chamber of the Deputies on the right. Note the similar International style between the 1952 UN building and the two monolithic office towers of the Brazilian National Congress.

Similar to the placement of the US Capitol heading the National Mall in Washington, DC, the National Congress heads a large, wide esplanade. On either side, in symmetrical order and design, are the various Brazilian Ministries. Together, the area is called Esplanade of the Ministries or Esplanada dos Ministérios and makes up the planned urban design of Brasilia's Monumental Axis.

About the Brazilian National Congress

  • Location: Brasília, Brazil
  • Constructed: 1958

Niemeyer was 52-years-old when Brasilia became the capital city of Brazil in April 1960. He was only 48 when Brazil's President asked him and urban planner, Lucio Costa, to design the new city from nothing—"a capital created ex nihilo" in UNESCO's description of the World Heritage site. No doubt the designers took cues from ancient Roman cities such as Palmyra, Syria and its Cardo Maximus, the main thoroughfare of that Roman city.

Cathedral of Brasília

Cathedral of Brasília. Oscar Niemeyer, architect

Ruy Barbosa Pinto / Moment Collection / Getty Images

Oscar Niemeyer's Cathedral of Brasília is often compared to the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral by English architect Frederick Gibberd. Both are circular with high spires that extend from the top. However, the sixteen spires on Niemeyer's cathedral are flowing boomerang shapes, suggesting hands with curved fingers reaching toward heaven. Angel sculptures by Alfredo Ceschiatti hang inside the Cathedral.

About the Cathedral of Brasília

  • Full Name: Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida
  • Location: Esplanade of Ministries, within walking distance of the National Stadium, Brasília, Brazil
  • Dedicated: May 1970
  • Materials: 16 concrete parabolic piers; between the piers is glass, stained glass, and fiberglass
  • Official Website:

Brasília National Stadium

Brasília National Stadium in Brasilia

Fandrade / Moment Open / Getty Images

Niemeyer's sports stadium was part of the architectural designs for Brazil's new capital city, Brasilia. As the soccer (football) stadium of the nation, the venue has long been associated with one of Brazil's most famous players, Mané Garrincha. The stadium was renovated for the 2014 World Cup and used for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games held in Rio, even though Brasilia is over 400 miles from Rio.

About the National Stadium

  • Also Known As: Estádio Nacional de Brasília Mané Garrincha
  • Location: Near the Cathedral of Brasília in Brasília, Brazil
  • Constructed: 1974
  • Seating Capacity: 76,000 after renovation

Queen of Peace Military Cathedral, Brasilia

Front and back photos of the Queen of Peace Military Cathedral, Brasilia, Brazil

Fandrade / Moment Open / Getty Images

When faced with designing a sacred space for the military, Oscar Niemeyer did not sway from his modernist stylings. For the Queen of Peace Military Cathedral, however, he smartly chose a variation on the familiar structure—the tent.

The Military Ordinariate of Brazil operates this Roman Catholic church for all branches of the Brazilian military. Rainha da Paz is Portuguese for "Queen of Peace," meaning the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic Church.

About the Military Cathedral

  • Also Known As: Catedral Rainha da Paz
  • Location: Esplanade of Ministries, Brasília, Brazil
  • Consecrated: 1994
  • Church Website:

Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in Pampulha, 1943

Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in Pampulha, 1943

Fandrade / Moment Collection / Getty Images

Not unlike Palm Springs or Las Vegas in the United States, the man-made Lake Pampulha area had a casino, nightclub, yacht club, and a church—all designed by the young Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer. Like other mid-century modernist homes, the Quonset hut design was Niemeyer's outrageous choice for a series of "vaults." As described by Phaidon, "The roof consists of a series of parabolic shell vaults and the main nave space is trapezium-shaped in plan, designed so that the vault diminishes in height from the entrance and choir towards the altar." The other, smaller vaults are arranged to form a cross-like floorplan, with a "bell-tower shaped like an inverted funnel" nearby.

"In Pampulha, Niemeyer produced an architecture that finally broke away from the Corbusian syntax and was more mature and personal..." writes the team of Carranza and Lara in their book Modern Architecture in Latin America.

About the Church of St. Francis

  • Location: Pampulha in Belo Horizonte, Brazil
  • Constructed: 1943; consecrated in 1959
  • Materials: reinforced concrete; glazed ceramic tiles (artwork by Candido Portinari)

Edifício Copan in São Paulo

Oscar Niemeyer's 38-story S-shaped residential building in São Paulo, Brazil.

J.Castro / Moment Open Collection / Getty Images

Niemeyer's building for the Companhia Pan-Americana de Hotéis is one of those projects whose design changed over the many years it took to be realized. What never wavered, however, was the S-shape—which to me is more aptly described as a tilde—and the iconic, horizontal-shaped exterior. Architects have long experimented with ways to block direct sunlight. The brise-soleil are the architectural louvers that have made modern buildings ripe for climbing. Niemeyer chose lines of horizontal concrete for Copan's sun blocker.

About the COPAN

  • Location: São Paulo, Brazil
  • Constructed: 1953
  • Use: 1,160 apartments in different "blocks" that accommodate different social classes in Brazil
  • Number of floors: 38 (3 commercial)
  • Materials and Design: concrete (view more detailed image); a street runs through the building, connecting Copan and its ground-floor commercial area to the city of São Paulo

Sambódromo, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Oscar Niemeyer designed Sambadrome, Carnival parade ground in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Paulo Fridman / SambaPhoto Collection / Getty Images

This is the finish line of the marathon race of the 2016 Summer Olympic games—and the site of samba at every Rio Carnival.

Think Brazil, and soccer (football) and rhythmic dancing come to mind. The "samba" is a centuries-old set of dances known throughout Brazil as the country's national dance. The "Sambódromo" or "Sambadrome" is a stadium designed for parading samba dancers. And when do people do the samba? Anytime they want to, but especially during Carnival, or what Americans call Mardi Gras. Rio Carnival is a multi-day event of great participation. Samba Schools apparently needed their own parade venue for crowd control, and Niemeyer came to the rescue.

About the Sambadrome

  • Also Known As: Sambódromo Marquês de Sapucaí
  • Location: Avenida Presidente Vargas to Apotheosis Square on Rua Frei Caneca, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Constructed: 1984
  • Use: Parades of Samba Schools during Rio Carnival
  • Seating Capacity: 70,000 (1984); 90,000 after renovations for the 2016 Summer Olympics

Modern Houses by Oscar Niemeyer

Modern house by Oscar Niemeyer, with glass, stone, and swimming pool

Sean De Burca / Photographer's Choice Collection / Getty Images

This photo is typical of an Oscar Niemeyer house—modern in style and built with stone and glass. Like many of his buildings, water is nearby, even if it's a designer swimming pool.

One of his most famous houses is Das Canoas, Niemeyer's own home in Rio de Janeiro. It is curvy, glassy, and organically built into the hillside.

Niemeyer's only house in the United States is the 1963 Santa Monica house he designed for Anne and Joseph Strick, a maverick film director. The house was featured in the 2005 Architectural Digest article "A Landmark Home by Oscar Niemeyer."

Palazzo Mondadori in Milan, Italy

Terrace of Palazzo Mondadori in Segrate, Milan, Italy, designed by Oscar Niemeyer

Marco Covi / Mondadori Portfolio / Hulton Fine Art Collection / Getty Images

Like many of Oscar Niemeyer's projects, the new headquarters for Mondadori publishers was years in the making—it was first considered in 1968, construction began and ended in 1970 and 1974, and move-in day was in 1975. Niemeyer designed what he called an architectural advert—"a building that doesn’t need to be identified by a sign but is impressed in people’s memory." And when you read the description on the Mondadori Website, you come away with thinking how did they do all that in just 7 years? Elements of the headquarters complex include:

  • a man-made lake, which Niemeyer had experienced atLake Pampulha
  • a five-story office building within a series of archways
  • "two low, sinuous structures" that seem to emerge from and float like leaves on the artificial lake
  • a surrounding park by landscape architect Pietro Porcinai

Other Niemeyer's other designs in Italy include the FATA building (c. 1977) and a paper mill for the Burgo group (c. 1981), both near Turin.

Oscar Niemeyer International Cultural Centre in Aviles, Spain

The Oscar Niemeyer International Cultural Centre in Aviles, Spain

Luis Davilla / Cover Collection / Getty Images

The Principality of Asturias in northern Spain, nearly 200 miles west of Bilbao, had a problem—who would travel there once Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was completed? The government coaxed Oscar Niemeyer with an arts award, and eventually, the Brazilian architect returned the favor with sketches for a multi-building cultural center.

The buildings are playful and pure Niemeyer, with requisite curves and curls and what looks somewhat like a sliced hard-boiled egg. Also known as Centro Cultural Internacional Oscar Niemeyer or, more simply, el Niemeyer, the tourist attraction in Aviles opened in 2011 and has had some financial instabilities ever since. "Although politicians say the Niemeyer will not become an empty white elephant, its name can be added to a growing list of ambitious publicly-funded projects in Spain which have run into trouble," reported The Guardian.

Spain's "build it and they will come" philosophy has not always been successful. Add to the list the City of Culture in Galicia, a project of American architect and educator Peter Eisenman since 1999.

Nevertheless, Niemeyer was over 100-years-old when el Niemeyer opened, and the architect could say he had moved his architectural visions into Spanish realities.


  • Carranza, Luis E, Fernando L. Lara, and Jorge F. Liernur. Modern Architecture in Latin America: Art, Technology, and Utopia. 2014.
  • 20th-Century World Architecture: The Phaidon Atlas. 2012.
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Craven, Jackie. "The Life and Architecture of Oscar Niemeyer." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Craven, Jackie. (2020, August 27). The Life and Architecture of Oscar Niemeyer. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "The Life and Architecture of Oscar Niemeyer." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).