Design Icon: Oscar Niemeyer

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By Patrick Sisson
A look back at the iconic modernist buildings designed by legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

Brazil’s modern architectural visionary Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) imagined buildings as sensuous and curvaceous as the beauties he’d see strolling the Copacabana beach, within eyesight of his main studio in Rio. He said "form follows feminine," but music is almost a more potent metaphor for his work with concrete: It was said that the songs of bossa nova legend Tom Jobim were like a house built by Niemeyer. He was considered the last of Modernism's "true believers," with a career that spanned decades and continued until the very end of his 104-year-long life.

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Pampulha Architectural Complex

Belo Horizonte, Brazil (1943)

After starting his career by apprenticing then collaborating with Lucio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer made his mark with this modernization project. The highlight is the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, a revolutionary modernist touchstone with a parabolic roof and polychromatic tiles that was such an unexpected departure from previous chapel designs, one politician suggested demolishing it.

His legendary life—apprenticing and collaborating with Lucio Costa, sparring with Le Corbusier over the UN Building, winning patronage from politician Juscelino Kubitschek (which would lead to the massive commission to shape the capital Brasilia), exile after a military coup and friendship with fellow Communists like Fidel Castro—only seems fitting for a man who brought his own grace and vision to the International style.

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Brazilian National Congress

Brasilia, Brazil (1964)

One of Niemeyer’s numerous contributions to Brasilia, the custom-built capital created out of thin air in the ‘60s, the National Congress building symbolizes the working of the legislative branch; two semicircles, one for the Congress and one for the Senate, are divided by twin office towers. Photo by David Holt.

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Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion

Sao Paulo, Brazil (1957)

Named after an Italian-Brazilian industrialist, this series of gently curving walkways serves as the site of an art biennial, the first ever in the southern hemisphere.

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Cathedral of Brasilia

Brasilia, Brazil (1970)

The tent-like shape of this striking cathedral is formed by 16 curved pillars, jutting towards the sky like the fingers of a hand in prayer. Sunlight enters the roof through a wavy mosaic of blue, white and brown tiles. Photo by Edward Stojakovic.

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Niterói Contemporary Art Museum

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1996)

“A flower that rises from the rock” is how Niemeyer described this organic, saucer-like structure, a home for art and design that boasts beautiful views of Guanabara Bay. An inviting red walkway snakes up towards the entrance towards the main cupola. Photo by Rosa Menkman.

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Mondadori Headquarters

Milan, Italy (1975)

Like a bookshelf filled with volumes of varying width, Niemeyer’s long, horizontal headquarters for this massive publishing concern consists of a series of arches of varying length and size, which sits idyllically on a large lake.

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Memorial Juscelino Kubitschek

Brasilia, Brazil (1980)

The tomb of President Juscelino Kubitschek provide the late leader with a fitting resting place in the modern city that he helped create. A statue of the founder rests atop a large, question-mark shaped sculpture. Photo by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo.

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Communist Party Headquarters

Paris, France (1972)

Built during Niemeyer’s exile from Brazil for no charge—that’s a committed member of the Party, for you—this standout structure in a Paris filled with stylish grandeur makes powerful statements with modest touches, such as the wavy glass facade, domed cupola and textured concrete walls. Photo by Lauren Manning.

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Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1983)

Talk about a project that could truly be called the soul of a country—this massive structure in Rio hosts the annual parade during Carnival and can hold 70,000 revelers. It includes the aptly titled Apotheosis Square, where bleachers are spaced out to create an open space for performances. Photo by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo.

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Niemeyer Center

Aviles, Spain (2011)

Made after the legendary architect hit the century mark, the Niemeyer center exhibits more playfulness than projects made by designers half his age. Subtle, bold flashes of color, and contrasting shapes create a cultural playground and gathering space. Photo by Eduardo Photos.