Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Celebrating Niemeyer, Brazil's Modernist Master

Oscar Niemeyer is known as a dreamer who created utopia.

More than 50 years ago, the architect was already famous, having helped build the United Nations. He then took on a project of epic proportions: designing the monumental buildings of a new city, Brasilia, the capital of Brazil.

Architecture critics hailed him for creating marvelous, inspiring buildings from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.


Today, Niemeyer, nearly 103, is still working. His eyesight is faltering, his hands shake ever so slightly and he is shuttled from one place to another in a wheelchair.

Audacious Buildings In A Once-Empty Space

But Niemeyer's mind is lucid. He remembers what it was like in 1956, when Brasilia was on the drawing board.

Niemeyer says he went with President Juscelino Kubitschek to Brazil's vast, dry savanna, the so-called Cerrado region, where Brasilia is now located, and thought it was too far away, too empty.

But Kubitschek, Niemeyer recalls, wanted to build no matter what.


And so in four years, Brasilia was built from scratch, with Niemeyer designing its audacious buildings: the Brazilian foreign ministry with its slender arches rising from reflecting pools; the Cathedral of Brasilia, shaped like a giant orchid; the National Congress, with its two bowl-like structures, one up-turned, the other dome-like.

These and others are all considered modernist masterpieces that capture the meaning of Brasilia: a new city, unburdened by history.

"We wanted to do it differently" in Brasilia, Niemeyer says. "Architecture is invention."

He didn't just want buildings that worked, but to create a different kind of architecture.

Light-Filled, Open Spaces

One of the most recognizable of Niemeyer's buildings is the cathedral in Brasilia. It sits on the city's esplanade, where the architect's greatest buildings are symmetrically arranged.

The structure's 16 columns reach to the sky; its nave is filled with light.

One of the cathedral's biggest fans is Eduardo Rossetti, an architect who works for the government preservation board.

"The wide open space opens to your eyes, the lights become very exciting, we have the colorful vitral [stained-glass windows]. It is a little Baroque somehow because you have several stimulations," Rossetti says.

The lovely Itamaraty Palace houses Brazil's foreign ministry. Just inside the entrance, the ceiling feels low. Then, Rossetti points to a wide, circular staircase.

"Feel the changing of scale, and suddenly, what Niemeyer does, he opens up all the space," he says.

Love/Hate Relationship

With its domes, curves, broad ramps and big windows, the buildings Niemeyer designed make Brasilia look fresh, even futuristic.

But some critics say it's a city too dependent on the car and that its buildings seem cut-off from the people. They go so far as to say it lacks a soul.

Isabel Tarrisse de Fountara has lived in Brasilia for nearly 20 years. She loves the city.

"People come here and some people just hate it, absolutely hate it, and some people love it, but not that many people are kind of immune to it, neutral," de Fountara says.

In his studio in Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer doesn't dwell too much on the debate. He instead wants to talk about how his buildings turned out, and he brings up Le Corbusier, the Swiss architectural genius who inspired Niemeyer.

"When Corbusier walked up the ramp to Congress," Niemeyer recalls, "he stopped and said, 'There's invention here.'"

There was no greater praise, Niemeyer says. He explains his goal had been to build works of beauty that astonished those who saw them.

Still In Love With The Curve

The vital component for his work, Niemeyer says, is concrete. With it, he broke what he calls the tyranny of the right angle -- hence the curves in many of his structures.

Niemeyer is still in love with the curve. In fact, you can see plenty of them in his latest big project -- a cultural center in Spain that's about to be inaugurated.

Niemeyer says he doesn't think about any other building he's built before: He simply starts from scratch.

"When I start to design, I have only a vague idea about what I'd like to do," he says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit