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Pampulha: Oscar Niemeyer’s Early Masterpiece

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The undulating marquis at Casa do Baile, the first completed building of the Pampulha Modern Photo by Paul Clemence.

Story & photos by Paul Clemence

The visionary work of the late Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer is today a major draw for Brazil’s visitors, with hordes of archi-tourism afficionados from all over the world flocking there to check out his unique take on Modernism. Given how prolific his career was and his very long life (he passed away in 2012 just days before his 105th birthday!) his projects can be found all over the country, from Brasilia to Curitiba and Rio de Janeiro.

But it was in Belo Horizonte, in the landlocked state of Minas Gerais, that Niemeyer’s architectural lexicon began to take shape. It was there in the planned Pampulha region that Niemeyer first started letting the curve line loose and his sculptural forms blossom.

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Undulating forms at Pampulha. Photo by Paul Clemence.


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Situated in a man-made island in the Pampulha lake, the Casa do Baile today hosts the Center of
Architecture, Urbanism and Design Reference. Photo by Paul Clemence.

Commissioned by the then mayor of Belo Horizonte Juscelino Kubitschek (who later, as president, would also commission him to design the main buildings in the new capital Brasilia), the project aimed at giving identity to the developing neighborhood growing around the just built Lagoa da Pampulha ( Pampulha Lagoon). A virgin piece of land, free of historical references and with a view to the future, this was the perfect opportunity for Oscar to flex his Modern muscles and put into practice his ideas of renewing the traditional paradigms of architecture.

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View of the of St Francis of Assisi church from across the Pampulha Lake. Photo by Paul Clemence.


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Façade of the St. Francis Assisi church featuring mural by Candido Portinari. Photo by Paul Clemence.


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Altar of St Francis of Assisi church, with mural by Candido Portinari. Photo by Paul Clemence.


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Interior of St Francis of Assisi church, with Portinari’s Stations of the Cross painting series in the background. Photo by Paul Clemence.


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Side view of St Francis of Assisi church showing mural by Brazilian acclaimed artist Paulo Werneck. Photo by Paul Clemence.

Niemeyer did not disappoint. The three main structures he conceived ( a church, a ballroom hall, and a casino that would later become an art museum) all feature his free flowing sculptural shapes, open plan concepts and generous views towards the landscape.


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Entrance marquis at Pampulha Art Museum. Photo by Paul Clemence.


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Museu de Arte Pampulha ( Pampulha Art Museum), with landscape by Roberto Burle Marx in the foreground. Photo by Paul Clemence.


Enriching the design, Niemeyer invited renown Brazilian artists Candido Portinari and Paulo Werneck to contribute murals and landscape Roberto Burle Marx, then at the beginning of his career, to design the gardens. Scattered throughout the complex, are sculptures by artists Alfredo Ceschiatti, August Zamoiski and José Pedrosa.


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“Nude”sculpture by artist August Zamoisk at Pampulha Art Museum. Photo by Paul Clemence.

Altogether the ensemble has a sublime coherence, where each building despite having its own character, is in tune with the whole, forming a seamless architectural poem, each building naturally flowing into the next, each an exercise in form and light, creating that ‘surprise’ element that the iconoclastic architect defined as a fundamental quality of beauty.

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Foyer at Pampulha Art Museum. Photo by Paul Clemence.

If in the beginning there was resistance to the boldness of the design ( for years the Catholic archibishops refused to consecrate the church), today the complex, known as the Pampulha Modern Ensemble, is widely recognized as a significant architectural achievement and has national historic landmark status. Further establishing its cultural relevance, in 2016 the Ensemble was designated an Unesco World Heritage Site. Inaugurated in May 1943, the Pampulha ensemble recently celebarted its 80th anniversary.

Note: The Pampulha Art Museum is currently closed to the public for renovations.

Visit Pampulha Modern Ensemble.

Paul Clemence is an award-winning photographer and writer exploring the cross-section of design, art and architecture. A published author, his volume Mies van der Rohe’s FARNSWORTH HOUSE remains to this day the most complete photo documentation of that iconic modern residential design, and a selection of these photos is part of the Mies van der Rohe Archives housed by MoMa, New York. He is widely published in arts, architecture and lifestyle magazines like Metropolis, ArchDaily, Architizer, Modern, Casa Vogue Brasil and others. Archi-Photo, aka Architecture Photography, his Facebook photo blog quickly became a photography and architecture community, with over 970,000 followers worldwide. An architect by training, Clemence is originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

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