Born in Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer was schooled at the National School of Fine Arts, and after graduating worked at his father’s typography house, as well as a draftsman for local architectural firms. In the 1930s, he interned with Lúcio Costa, with the pair collaborating on the design for the Palácio Gustavo Capanema in Rio de Janeiro. Niemeyer’s first major project was the design of a series of buildings for Pampulha, a planned suburb north of Belo Horizonte. His work, especially on the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, received critical acclaim, and drew Niemeyer international attention.
Niemeyer was most famous for his use of abstract forms and curves that characterize most of his works, and wrote in his memoirs:
I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Niemeyer became one of Brazil’s most prolific architects, designing a range of buildings both within the country and overseas. This included the design of the Edifício Copan (a large residential building in São Paulo), and a collaboration with Le Corbusier on the design of the United Nations Headquarters, which engendered invitations to teach at Yale University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
In 1956, Niemeyer was invited by Brazil’s new president, Juscelino Kubitschek, to design the civic buildings for Brazil’s new capital, which was to be built in the centre of the country, far from any existing cities. His designs for the National Congress of Brazil, the Cathedral of Brasília, the Cultural Complex of the Republic, the Palácio da Alvorada, the Palácio do Planalto, and the Supreme Federal Court, all completed by 1960, were largely experimental in nature, and were linked by common design elements. This work led to his appointment as inaugural head of architecture at the University of Brasília, as well as honorary membership of the American Institute of Architects.
Due to his largely leftist ideology, and involvement with the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), Niemeyer left the country after the 1964 military coup, and subsequently opened an office in Paris. He returned to Brazil in 1985, and was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1988. A socialist and atheist from an early age, Niemeyer had spent time in both Cuba and the Soviet Union during his exile, and on his return served as the PCB’s president from 1992 to 1996. Niemeyer continued working at the end of the 20th and early 21st century, notably designing the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (1996) and the Oscar Niemeyer Museum (2002).
Over a career of 78 years he designed approximately 600 projects. Niemeyer died in Rio de Janeiro on December 5, 2012, at the age of 104, ten days before his 105th birthday.