White concrete , graceful curves, and primary-color accents are signatures of Oscar Niemeyer, the modernist behind most important civic buildings in Brazil’s capital city, Brasília. His pared-down aesthetic and love of undulating lines first garnered international attention when he completed the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and the global praise continued for each building he designed before his death in 2012 at the age of 104. Born in Rio de Janeiro and loyal to his homeland throughout his life, Niemeyer developed a distinct style that has become synonymous with Brazil’s modernist architecture, earning him a range of accolades, such as an appointment as inaugural head of architecture at the University of Brasília, an honorary membership in the American Institute of Architects, and the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 1988. Here, we present his most celebrated buildings, civic and otherwise, that demonstrate his eye for sculptural beauty.
Shown: Known informally as Niemeyer’s Eye, the Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba, Brazil, was completed in 2002 as the Novo Museo, then remodeled and reopened in 2003 as a place to honor the architect's work. The ocular structure is actually the museum’s annex, while the main building for exhibitions is a long, low, linear structure.
Designed in collaboration with the structural engineer Bruno Contarini and completed in 1996, the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum resembles a flying saucer hovering above Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay. In addition to exhibition space, the structure includes a viewing gallery, whose windows offer panoramic views of the water below and Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance.
Completed in 2011, the Oscar Niemeyer International Cultural Centre is a complex in Avilés, Spain, composed of five structures: the Auditorium, a sloped red, white, and yellow building with concert seating; the Dome, a serenely rotund structure built for exhibitions; the Tower, a sightseeing disk with panoramic windows that sits atop a corkscrew staircase; the gently curved Multipurpose Building, with a movie theater, meeting space, and visitor perks like a café; and finally the open square itself, described by Niemeyer as “a place for education, culture, and peace.”
The swooping columns of the Cathedral of Brasília form a coronal shape called a hyperboloid structure. The Roman Catholic cathedral, most of which is set underground, is surrounded by a reflecting pool, under which worshipers pass to enter the building. It was completed in 1970 and is complemented by a similarly shaped bell tower and bronze sculptures of the four Evangelists by Dante Croce.
Located in the middle of Brasília’s Monumental Axis, the city’s main thoroughfare, the National Congress building is made up of a low structure topped by a dome on one side, where the Senate works, and an inverted dome on the other, where the Chamber of Deputies resides. The second structure is a pair of towers, visually in the middle of the two domes, that house governmental office space. The complex was completed in 1960.
In Brasília, 2006 saw the completion of the Cultural Complex of the Republic, a plaza made up of the National Museum, set underneath a billowing dome with ramps that wind toward the entrance, and the modular National Library. The museum contains exhibition space, two auditoriums, and a laboratory.
Set on a “floating” platform, Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court features a winglike colonnade surrounding the glass-encased judicial work space. Completed in 1958, the building forms one-third of Brasília’s Three Powers Plaza, along with the National Congress building and the Presidential Palace.
Also known as the Palácio da Alvorada (“Palace of Dawn”), Brazil’s Presidential Palace is the official residence of the country’s president. The structure, whose design echoes the Supreme Federal Court, was completed in 1958.
Four parabolic sections constitute the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, accented by a tall campanile at the front. Completed in 1943, the building was inspired by a statement by the French poet Paul Claudel: “A church is God’s hangar on earth.”
Completed in 1970, Itamaraty Palace, or Palace of the Arches, is the headquarters of Brazil’s Ministry of External Relations, in Brasília. The building’s namesake arches mimic the colonnade of the nearby Supreme Federal Court and Palácio da Alvorada.
Inaugurated in 1989, the Latin American Memorial in São Paulo is a complex of seven buildings, including a gallery, an auditorium, and a library. The site’s most recognizable feature, however, is Mão, a hand-shaped concrete sculpture inset with a stylized map of Latin America, meant to symbolize the sacrifices of the region’s people.
One of the last projects Niemeyer worked on before his death, the Luis Carlos Prestes Memorial in Porto Alegre, Brazil, was completed in 2013. The structure features Niemeyer’s signature aesthetic in gleaming white, complemented by a winding red ramp.
The sinuous Edifício Copan in São Paulo was completed in 1966. The residential building, one of the largest in Brazil, is named for its developer, Companhia Pan-Americana de Hotéis e Turismo.
Two mirrored cylinders, one topped with a starlike crown of concrete, make up the Sede da Procuradoria Geral da República Brasileira, or the Brazilian Attorney General’s office, in Brasília. Completed in 2002, the two-part structure is connected by two sky bridges.
Brasília’s Memorial of Indigenous Peoples, completed in 1987, is designed in the style of a maloca round house, the traditional house of Brazil’s Yanomami people. The disklike structure, accessible by Niemeyer’s signature curving ramp, houses artifacts of the region’s various indigenous tribes.
Inaugurated in 1986, the Tancredo Neves Pantheon of the Fatherland and Freedom is a tribute to its namesake hero, the first civilian elected president of Brazil in 1984 after 20 years of dictatorship. Featuring a graceful, sloped roof inspired by a dove, the building is surrounded by modernist sculptures and a diagonal tower with an eternal flame.