Born December 15, 1907 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Oscar Niemeyer grew up in a wealthy family without any aspirations toward being an architect, though he started drawing at an early age. "When I was very little," he later remembered, "my mother said I used to draw in the air with my fingers. I needed a pencil. Once I could hold one, I have drawn every day since." He graduated from Barnabitas College in 1923 and soon after wed a woman named Annita Baldo, to whom he would remain married until her death in 2004.
As a young man, Oscar Niemeyer worked for his father at a typography house for a short while before entering the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes, from which he graduated in 1934. Shortly before graduation, he joined the offices of Lúcio Costa, an architect from the Modernist school. Niemeyer worked with Costa on many major buildings between 1936 and 1943, including the design for Brazil's Ministry of Education and Health building, which was part of a collaboration with Bauhaus director Le Corbusier. Costa and Niemeyer also worked together on Brazil's iconic pavilion in the 1939 New York World's Fair; legendary Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was so impressed with Niemeyer's design that he declared him an honorary citizen of New York.
In 1941, Niemeyer launched his solo career by designing a series of buildings in a new suburb of Rio de Janeiro named Pampulha. Here Niemeyer started developing some of his design trademarks, including the heavy use of concrete and a propensity toward curves. "I consciously ignored the highly praised right angle and the rational architecture of T-squares and triangles," he said, "in order to wholeheartedly enter the world of curves and new shapes made possible by the introduction of concrete into the building process."
Niemeyer's status as a rising star in the architectural world was confirmed when he was chosen to represent Brazil as part of the team to design the new headquarters of the United Nations in New York City; the final building was based primarily on Niemeyer's design, with significant elements also taken from his old collaborator Corbusier. Following the completion of the United Nations building in 1953, Niemeyer won an appointment as dean of Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, but he was refused an American work visa by the United States government due to his membership in Brazil's Communist Party.
In 1956, Juscelino Kubitschek, the president of Brazil and a close friend of Niemeyer, came to the architect with a proposal, asking Niemeyer to become the new chief architect of public buildings in the country's new capital, Brasilia, a Modernist civic metropolis being built from scratch in the interior of the country.
Niemeyer eagerly accepted, designing buildings that went along with his utopian vision of government. "This was a liberating time," he said. "It seemed as if a new society was being born, with all the traditional barriers cast aside.... When planning the government buildings for Brasilia I decided they should be characterized by their own structures within the prescribed shapes.... I tried to push the potential of concrete to its limits, especially at the load-bearing points which I wanted to be as delicate as possible so that it would seem as if the palaces barely touched the ground." Some of the buildings Niemeyer designed in Brasilia include the President's Palace, the Brasília Palace Hotel, the Ministry of Justice building, the presidential chapel and the cathedral. After the inauguration of the new capital city in 1960, Niemeyer resigned his position as the government's chief architect and returned to private practice.
Oscar Niemeyer had become interested in Communist ideology as a youth and joined the Brazilian Communist Party in 1945. This became a serious problem in 1964, when the Brazilian military overthrew the government in a coup; Niemeyer, viewed by the army as an individual with dangerously left-wing sympathies, had his office ransacked. Spooked, the architect left the country of his birth a year later, in 1965, resettling in France and mainly designing buildings in Europe and northern Africa. He also turned to designing furniture, which also included his trademark use of sinuous curves. Niemeyer did not return to Brazil until the end of the military dictatorship in 1985.
Niemeyer received the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1988, the highest award in the profession, for his Cathedral of Brasilia. In his acceptance speech, Niemeyer explained his design philosophy: "My architecture followed the old examples — beauty prevailing over the limitations of the constructive logic. My work proceeded, indifferent to the unavoidable criticism set forth by those who take the trouble to examine the minimum details, so very true of what mediocrity is capable of. It was enough to think of Le Corbusier saying to me once while standing on the ramp of the Congress: 'There is invention here.'"
Semi-retired since the mid-1980s, at the age of 103 Oscar Niemeyer still goes into his office every day to work on designs and oversee projects. Having outlived most of his old friends, intellectual sparring partners and his wife of sixty years though he remarried in 2006, to his longtime assistant Vera Lucia Cabreira — Niemeyer continues to press for a better world through better design. "It is important," he said, "that the architect think not only of architecture but of how architecture can solve the problems of the world. The architect's role is to fight for a better world, where he can produce an architecture that serves everyone and not just a group of privileged people."