Designed by Oscar Niemeyer, completed 1960 Brazil
The free and vigorous forms of Oscar Niemeyer’s works, such as Pampulha (1943)
and Canoas House (1954), were already internationally recognized when he visited
Europe in 1954. Niemeyer was impressed by classical buildings he saw there—their
monumentality and their sense of permanence. This led him to introduce new concepts in
his architecture. Niemeyer started to emphasize pure and concise forms as well as single
volumes die-tated by structure in order to achieve monumentality. The opportunity for
Niemeyer to concretize this new vision came when he was commissioned to design the
buildings of Brasilia, the new planned capital of Brazil, built between 1957 and 1960.
Adopting the main principles of modern urbanism, Lucio Costa’s plan for Brasilia
achieved an appropriate expression of a capital with two axes crossing each other in right
angles. The composition, resembling a plane, is very simple, unified, clear, and elegant.
In the curved wings of the north-south axis (road axis), Costa placed the residential areas.
The east-west axis (monumental axis) is a sort of dorsal spine that organizes the entire
plan. At the east end of the monumental axis, Costa located the governmental center,
Three Powers Square, as a focus of the composition.
The Three Powers Square is a great esplanade for public ceremonies and provides an
aesthetic and symbolic space for all the city houses. Following Costa’s triangular scheme,
Niemeyer placed in each vertex a building representing the three main powers: Planalto
Palace (executive), National Congress (legislative), and Supreme Court (judiciary).
Niemeyer concentrated his major efforts on the creation of this ensemble.
Niemeyer conceived these palaces as an entity, conferring formal unity and a general
classical monumentality on them. He created three poles of visual attraction with many
perspectives. The buildings are self-contained objects in the vast landscape, separated by
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large surfaces of stone paving that provides a free space to admire them and creates a
scenic civic place. The ensemble of the Three Powers is a unique architectural complex
in which classicism is joined with lightness.
From far away, the powerful National Congress (1958–60) appears,
announcing the termination of the axis. Niemeyer placed two domes on a
vast platform that emphasizes the horizontality of the complex. Based on a
play of volumes, the complex was intended to express formally the duality
of the two assemblies. According to Bruand, the inverted dome, the
Chamber of Deputies, symbolizes the more democratic facet of this
assembly, whereas the smaller dome, the Senate, appears to be more
reclusive (see Bruand, 1971). Between the domes, two high thin slabs are
placed, housing the secretariat. The balance of the final composition is
also achieved by contrasts between vertical and horizontal lines, between
curves and straight lines, and between the pure forms of platform, twin
towers, and domes. It was designed in order to preserve the openness of the mall while maintaining
its symbolical importance.
In the other vertices of the triangle are the Planalto Palace and the Supreme Court
(1960). Both buildings are rectangular glass boxes encased in a peristyle with
magnificent colonnades. Niemeyer, in order to enhance the whole, reduced the number of
formal elements and emphasized the single motif of the curving colonnade as the
strongest facet of the composition. The delicate and curving colonnades, barely touching
the ground, endow the buildings with lightness and grace. The widely projecting roof
slabs supported by thin columns create many opportunities to frame the vast landscape.
As they are inscribed in a larger composition, they have similar features, differentiated by
disposition and size that confer unity upon the esplanade as imagined by Costa. Whereas
the Planalto Palace is taller and more delicate, the Supreme Court is closer to the ground,
communicating stolidity and stability. Whereas Planalto’s long side is facing the square,
the Court has its narrow side facing it. This arrangement creates different perspectives but
maintains axiality and unity, which provide the classical character required by
The innovative motif of colonnades is a variation of that of Alvorada Palace (1958),
the official residency of the president, located near the ensemble although not part of it.
One of his most acclaimed works, Alvorada Palace had its image widely diffused and
became a symbol of the country. The curving and slender columns, delicately touching
the ground, graciously support the shaded veranda. As David Underwood noted, the airy
structure “synthesizes Brazilian charm with European decorum, classical nobility with
baroque plasticity.” Niemeyer’s ethereal and fluid suspended palaces are meaningful
freestanding objects in the vastness of the square.
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The mall also includes two rows of ministry buildings. These discrete and anonymous
blocks are aligned consecutively in order to create a sort of scenic and ceremonial space,
directing the attention to the Three Powers Square. Closer to this square are the
Ministries of Justice (1960) and Foreign Affairs (1965–67), designed differently from the
others. In these buildings, Niemeyer adopted a Brutalist aesthetic; at same time, however,
they are refined and sophisticated. Instead of delicate colonnades, Niemeyer opted for
heavy concrete porticoes as expressive ele-ments. At the end of the mall is located the
Metropolitan Cathedral (1958–70), one of Niemeyer’s masterpieces. The volume is
formed by a structure of 16 boomerang-like ribs, expressing the essence of the cathedral.
The entrance through an underground passage leads the spectator to experience a
dramatic contrast from the shadows to an intensely illuminated and mystical space. The
most recent contribution by Niemeyer is the Pantheon of Democracy (1985), a poetic,
fluid, and dynamic structure that closes the open side of the Three Powers Square.
As soon as Brasilia was completed, it was both praised and criticized. In the
architectural field, it was celebrated by many critics. However, others pointed out the
failure of the climatic adaptation of the buildings and its rupture with traditional Brazilian
living. Siegfried Giedion criticized the lack of coherence of the monumental axis, as it
fails to reproduce a theatrical perspective. Although the capital was conceived as a
coherent whole, it is not felt by the pedestrian, who feels powerless in such a vastness.
Sybil Mohóly-Nagy pointed out the autoritarianism and the monumentalism of the new
city. James Holston shows how Brasilia failed regarding its social purposes (Holston,
1989). In a moment in which the principles of modern urbanism were under fire, Brasilia
seems to have been born already old.
Nevertheless, the attacks on modern urbanism and the fact that Brasilia was a social
failure eclipsed some positive aspects of its architecture. First was Brasília’s role in the
discussion of modern architecture and monumentality. Niemeyer’s delicate and lighter
classicism proved that modern architecture could also be monumental and symbolic
without regressing to the massive authoritarianess of 1930s government buildings.
Second was Brasília’s unique image. Niemeyer sucessfully created an image for the city
based on a repetition of some patterns, fostering formal unity although admitting
variations in textures and materials that contributed to the city’s inclusion in the World
Heritage List of UNESCO. Third was Brasília’s role as a symbol for the country. Brasilia
was planned to foster a new Brazilian man, a proof of the capacity of a country to build
its future. Much more than housing institutions, the main achievement of Niemeyer was
the creation of a cultural image for a modern state, providing poetic and symbolic forms.

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