A tribute to Oscar Niemeyer at the United Nations, New York

Architect Oscar Niemeyer
Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (sixth from left) served on the Board of Design for the United Nations' HQ in New York in the 1940s, along with nine other international architects, including Le Corbusier (second from left). Courtesy of the United Nations Archives
(Image credit: TBC)

The wonderful Oscar Niemeyer (opens in new tab) is at the centre of another tribute, this time for his work on the United Nations (opens in new tab) headquarters in New York City. Organised by the Mission of Brazil to the UN (opens in new tab) and our personal bastion of Brazilian culture, Espasso (opens in new tab), Niemeyer’s drawings took centre stage during a ceremony last week at the Secretariat Building that he helped design. The drawings are part of the original archives of Fundação Oscar Niemeyer and currently nominated to be included in the international registry of UNESCO (opens in new tab)’s MOW (Memory of the World (opens in new tab)) cultural preservation program.

At the opening of the exhibition, delegates and dignitaries, including the the President of the United Nations General Assembly, Vuk Jeremic (opens in new tab), and the UN’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (opens in new tab), paid sincere tribute to Niemeyer by putting into context the task that the 10 architects, known as the UN Board of Design (opens in new tab), faced back in 1947.

Over an intense four-month period, the Board of Design considered over fifty plans for the United Nations - an organisation that Niemeyer once said ‘sets the nations of the world in a common direction and gives to the world a sense of security.’ Niemeyer was the youngest of the group.

Jeremic said, 'In memory of the life of the last design board member who passed away, we pay tribute to them all. [They] attempt[ed] to translate the hopes and ideals of the fledgling international organisation into an architectural landmark. Lacking a common spoken language, they communicated not with words but through sketches and plans that they exchanged with one another.'

In his address, Ban Ki-Moon continued, 'Our architects were ahead of the times. I hope we will follow their example and stay at the vanguard when it comes to solving global problems.'

In his keynote address, the esteemed architecture critic Paul Goldberger (opens in new tab) paid tribute to 'the last surviving member of a group that gave the United Nations its form; a form that was consciously intended to symbolise the new world [that] the 20th century was making, and to create the architectural equivalent of the new political world that the UN organization sought to bring into being.'

The commemorative tribute comes weeks before the renovation of the General Assembly Hall (opens in new tab), a place where world leaders have congregated for over six decades. The buildings have come to represent equality, mutual respect, security and peace – values that are even rare finds in the most elevated forms of architecture. To sum up the significance of the buildings, Jeremic used the words of Wallace K. Harrison (opens in new tab), the director of planning when they were unveiled: 'I feel like we have built not a symbol of peace, but the workshop for peace.'

black and white picture of two man

The board began their work in 1947 at an office in Rockfeller Center. Some fifty rough designs for the New York building were created, analysed and constantly reworked amongst the group. Courtesy of the United Nations Archives

(Image credit: TBC)

Black and white picture of three man

During these discussions, Niemeyer made a significant decision to separate the Assembly Hall from the rest of the complex. Courtesy of the United Nations Archives

(Image credit: TBC)

Clay model

Niemeyer's clay model (pictured) was eventually merged with elements from Le Corbusier's model to create the UN headquarters as it is today. Courtesy of the United Nations Archives

(Image credit: TBC)

Headquarter building exterior view

Exterior view of the UN headquarters. Courtesy of the United Nations Archives

(Image credit: TBC)

Assembly hall view

The UN recently paid tribute to Niemeyer for his work on its HQ, enlisting architecture critic Paul Goldberger to deliver a keynote address in the General Assembly Hall. Courtesy of the United Nations Archives

(Image credit: TBC)

Assembly hall view

Projections of a Niemeyer drawing during the tribute. Courtesy of the United Nations Archives

(Image credit: TBC)

Niemeyer's sketches in an exhibition

The tribute included an exhibition of a set of reproductions of Niemeyer's sketches, each accompanied with personal notes by the architect

(Image credit: TBC)

Niemeyer's sketch in an exhibition

A design for a cathedral, for which Niemeyer notes: 'The nave ceiling opens up to infinite spaces while the dark entrance aisle provides the intended contrast'

(Image credit: TBC)

Niemeyer's sketch in an exhibition

The drawings are part of the original archives of Fundação Oscar Niemeyer and are currently nominated to be included in the international registry of UNESCO's cultural preservation program

(Image credit: TBC)

Niemeyer's sketch in an exhibition

The architect waxes lyrical about his affinity for curves, commenting alongside this sketch: 'Straight angles do not attract me. Neither does the straight, hard inflexible line drawn by man. I am attracted to the free, sensuous curves I observe in the mountains of my country, in its winding rivers, the clouds in the sky, the body of the beloved woman'

(Image credit: TBC)

Niemeyer's sketch in an exhibition

Niemeyer's sketches of the Mondadori and Fatta headquarters he designed in Italy. Together with his Italian colleagues he also conceived the Centro Direzeionale Este and a bridge in Venice

(Image credit: TBC)

Pei-Ru Keh is the US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru has held various titles at Wallpaper* since she joined in 2007. She currently reports on design, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru has taken a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars and actively seeks out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.