Oscar Niemeyer’s Architecture: Before Brasilia, Belo Horizionte

Three buildings in Belo Horizonte Brazil boosted young Oscar Niemeyer's career and brought Brazilian modernist architecture international attention.

In 1941 Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira, then the Mayor of Belo Horizonte Brazil, asked his young friend Oscar Niemeyer to design three buildings for a new suburb that Kubitschek wanted to build in Pampulha, a neighborhood named for the attractive lake at its center.

Niemeyer and the Work of Lucio Costa and Le Corbusier

Niemeyer, then 33 years old, had graduated in architecture from the National School of Fine Arts, Rio de Janeiro, in 1934 and had immediately gone to work for architect Lucio Costa, a well established architect considered one of Brazil’s leading exponents of modernist architecture.

While a member of the Costa team, Niemeyer had worked on the design for the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Health building in Rio in 1936. Then in 1939 he worked on the design for the Brazilian Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. While working on the Ministry building he was exposed to the work of Le Corbusier, (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, a Swiss architect who chose that professional name).

Niemeyer and Belo Horizonte

Belo Horizonte, located in north central Brazil, is the capital of the State of Minas Gerais, a region - then as now - heavily involved in extracting and processing natural resources. This district was to be a new, modern place to show off the progress and sophistication of Brazilian culture. Niemeyer’s commission was accomplished in about two years with the beautiful lake as its centerpiece.

Completed in 1943, the project was a trio of buildings set around the lake. The first was the church of St. Francis, another a dance hall and restaurant on the lake and the third a large casino. Together they set the tone for the development of that district.

Church of St Francis of Assisi

In a park-like setting with green grass on three sides and the lake shore on the fourth, the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi is perhaps the most impressive of the three buildings. A series of four undulating curves form its roofline, below them an outstanding tile mural.

The use of tiles, azulejos, recognizes the historic Portuguese use of glazed pictorial tiles to decorate buildings, but does it here in a completely modern setting. The opposite side of the church is a single face, a half oval opening onto a stone paved patio and the lake. Inside, a small vestibule now contains an exhibit of Niemeyer’s first sketched ideas for Kubitschek. Outside, the tall bell tower, smaller at its base than at the top, creates an optical illusion when viewed from below, making the sides appear perfectly parallel.

Niemeyer’s Casino and Social Club

Niemeyer’s Casino creates an entirely different impression. On the top of a hill a few yards above the lake, its beautifully landscaped gardens create a park-like setting for the angular glass and steel structure. Here a large rectangular building with tan stone sides, its glass front overlooking the lake, is set over a set of eight columns.

The effect is one of space and lightness. On another side a rounded façade faces another view of the lake, but the setback of the lower storey’s glass wall again lightens the effect of the upper, making it seem suspended. Inside, a massive lower hall with marble floors surrounds a stunning formal staircase leading to a round hall on the second floor. The casino is now a modern art museum.

The restaurant and social center on the opposite shore is set directly on the lake. It is more linear than the other two, but like the casino it uses glass as a contrast to lighten the mass of an otherwise large building. Its large wing-like roof adds to the impression of lightness.

Niemeyer's work after Pampulha continued to show his artistic skill as an architect. It was his success in Pampulha that brought Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira back into Niemeyer's life. By 1956 Kubitscek was President of Brazil and it was Kubitschek that invited Niemeyer to design the new capital, Brasilia.