The Architecture of Oscar Niemeyer

If you haven’t heard of Oscar Niemeyer, you probably won’t forget him after this post, and you might even start making plans to visit some of his buildings. The architecture of Oscar Niemeyer is unforgettable. Fortunately for you, you can see some of his work in places around the world (France, Italy, Spain, Algeria, Malaysia), but for the real experience, you have to go to Brazil.

Niemeyer architecture

Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba, Brazil

Niemeyer was born in 1907 (he is still living and working at the age of 104!) in Rio de Janeiro. He later became one of the greatest designers of modern architecture in the 20th century. He worked with Le Corbusier, helped design the United Nations Headquarters in New York, and was twice offered positions at Harvard and Yale but was unable to get a visa to enter the U.S. because of his communist leanings. Because he lived so long and designed many large projects in Brazil (including the new capital, Brasilia), there are many opportunities to see his architecture. His work is best known for its curving shapes and its innovative use of reinforced concrete that allows his buildings to stand with little visible support.

On my last trip to Brazil, one of my goals was to see more of Niemeyer’s work. My husband took me two locations in São Paulo. The first is a complex of buildings called the Latin American Memorial, and the second is the Copan apartment building, one of São Paulo’s iconic images.

The Latin American Memorial is all white and black; sadly it was an overcast day, and I had a hard time photographing the white concrete against that dull white sky.

Brazil modern architecture

Oscar Niemeyer

Brazilian landscape design

Niemeyer’s buildings often include landscape design, an interesting complement to the starkness of many of his buildings.

Latin America Memorial

Latin America Memorial

Niemeyer likes to create open space under buildings, which he believes allows for better public use of the space.

Niemeyer’s buildings are often accompanied by his sculptures:

Latin America Memorial sculpture

Simon Bolivar

Niemeyer’s homage to Simon Bolivar and the struggle for Latin American independence

The Latin America Memorial is a public space often used for large events. On the day we visited, Bolivians living in Brazil gathered to celebrate the Bolivian Independence Day.

Bolivian costumes

Their colorful costumes contrasted with the black and white of the buildings–the only exception to the color scheme is the collection of Latin American flags on one building’s doorway, the complex’s palm trees, and the red that symbolizes blood, which I explain below:

Latin America flags

Niemeyer’s hand sculpture at the Memorial da América Latina includes a map of Latin America dripping red blood, symbolizing the oppression and sacrifices of the Latin American people.

Latin America memorial

The second location I visited was Copan, a 38-story apartment building in downtown São Paulo. Tt was finished in 1966. It has the largest floor area of any residential building in the world. Its curving shape snakes around and behind the building next to it, creating an unusual shape that is one of the city’s best-known images.

modern apartment building

Sao Paulo skyline

Besides Copan and the Latin American Memorial in São Paulo, Niemeyer also designed buildings and museums in São Paulo’s huge Ibirapuera Park.


The Ibirapuera Auditorium, just one of the structures Niemeyer designed in Parque Ibirapuera

Possibly his most important commission was the architecture for the country’s new capital city, Brasilia, starting in 1956. This project meant Niemeyer and his colleague, Lúcio Costa, a city planner, designed a kind of utopian city, built from scratch in the middle of nowhere. What resulted is a highly-planned, futuristic city center full of Niemeyer’s shapes. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, just 27 years after it was completed.

Cathedral Brasilia

The Cathedral in Brasilia, Brazil

Brazil National Museum

The National Museum and the Cathedral in the background, Brasilia

Here are more images of Oscar Niemeyer’s unforgettable work:

Ibirapuera architecture

The interior of the auditorium at Ibirapuera Park in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Brazil museum

Museu dos Tres Pandeiros in Paraiba, Brazil. Dark windows and the white wrap-around ramp were also used in the building shown above at the Latin America Memorial.

Contemporary Art Museum

Contemporary Art Museum in Niterói, Brazil

An example of Niemeyer’s frequent use of water at the Museu Niemeyer, Curitiba, Brazil. Photo credit: Mauricio Mercer

Centro Niemeyer

Centro Niemeyer in Asturias, Spain

I hope to see much more of Niemeyer’s architecture in Brazil and, after seeing many exteriors, am curious what his buildings are like from the inside. I plan to at least see the interiors of his buildings in São Paulo during my next visit in 2013 and am making plans to go to Brasilia in the next couple of years.

Have you seen the architecture of Niemeyer before? Would you like to visit Brazil to see his work?

Learn more about art around the world with the other ArtSmart posts from this month:

The Emergence of Gothic Architecture from Eurotravelogue

Miami Art Deco Architecture from Culture Tripper

Appreciating Less with Mies van der Rohe from Travellious

Monticello–America’s First Great Mansion from Daydream Tourist

Modernist Architecture at MIT? from A Sense of Place

Photos are mine and from Wikipedia Commons.


  • ehalvey says:

    Ah ha! I first could not place his name to any buildings until the photo of the Cathedral in Brasilia. His style is so mod, it reminds me of the look you’d see on The Jetsons or other 60s shows. Even 50 years later, it’s so beautiful and modern.

    • Jenna says:

      I agree that even his older works (because some of these are quite recent since he’s still working at 104!) look very modern even now. I didn’t think of the Jetsons until you mentioned it. Cool.

  • Terrific photos, Jenna. I’m often stunned when I check dates and see just how far ahead of their time some individuals were/are. I had no idea Niemeyer was still alive. The iconic apartment building in Brasilia has long captured my imagination; it would be a dream come true to visit Brazil and Brasilia someday.

    • Jenna says:

      I was just talking to a colleague today and we were commenting on how culturally rich Brazil is. If it’s a dream for you, you will have to make it a reality 🙂

  • Wow! You are absolutely correct in that I will never forget Oscar Niemeyer after reading this post. What inspiring and futuristic designs.. and I love the cathedral and science museum…right from the pages of the Jetsons! ; )

    I am in complete awe of the Ibirapuera Auditorium and all of its components as well. But the most powerful of all, I think is the Latin American Memorial…extremely moving and one of the most powerful pieces of modern sculpture I have ever seen.

    I think a tour of Brazil needs to be added to my bucket list! Great job on the post my Renaissance BFF!

  • I have never heard of Niemeyer prior to your post, I do love his architecture and art! I noticed the photo from asturias spain (centro) – any idea which town?

  • H-Bomb says:

    Well, Niemeyer’s United Nations building is right here in my home city of New York, although I don’t consider it one of his better works.

    When I was in Rio a couple of years ago, I took the ferry to Niteroi just so that I could see the Contemporary Art Museum. And it didn’t disappoint:

    Also in Niteroi I stopped by to see Niemeyer’s Teatro Popular de Niteroi (the People’s Theater of Niteroi), which you can see here:

    And now I’ve exhausted the list of Niemeyer buildings that I’ve seen in person. 🙂

  • Fabulous architecture. Thank you for introducing me to the brilliant work of Niemeyer. You’re right…I’m hooked! I can’t believe he is ahead if his time. I’d love to see the Ibirapuera Auditorium. Both your photos of the interior and exterior excite me.Thanks Jenna

  • Christina says:

    Sad to hear that Oscar Niemeyer just passed away (at 104!). Thanks for teaching me about him with this lovely tribute.

  • Pal says:

    Nice summary of Niemeyer’s work Jenna. When we were in Sampa not so long ago we also saw quite many of his work, and you still had buildings mentioned in your post I haven’t even heard about.

    My favourite is definitely the Niteroi building, i somehow liked the location of it over the water and the building with all the reflection possibilities was just fantastic (despite rainy weather just like for you in SP). His Brasilia buildings are of course all great as well, but I had huge problems with liking the city…

    • Jenna says:

      I would love to see the Niteroi building, too. Some people criticized it, but I really like its shape and design frmo what I can tell by photos. I also look forward to going to Brasilia just to see his architecture.

  • Ashley says:

    Brasilia! Definitely a place that I hope to visit one day. I’ve read that it’s a poorly functioning city, in terms of poor mobility for those with cars and lack of consideration of soaring temperatures (in the summer months, I assume)…though the idea the you could plan a whole modernist city is so ambitious. Plus, I do love Niemeyer’s style.

    • Jenna says:

      I hope to visit there, too. I haven’t heard much about how the city functions, but you have me curious 🙂

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