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21 First Drafts: Oscar Niemeyer's Grande Hotel Ouro Preto

First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Occasionally unexpected but always insightful, these undertakings represent their initial, finished buildings as solo practitioners. While anecdotes accompany the work of all great builders, there's often more to learn about their first acts.

Oscar Niemeyer
Grande Hotel in Ouro Preto, Brazil
Date completed: 1944

Getting the Gig:
In hindsight, an architectural duel between traditional and modern with Oscar Niemeyer playing the part of forward thinking designer seems like an unfair fight. But back in 1938, the odds weren't necessarily in his favor. The Brazilian city of Ouro Preto (Black Gold), a former mining town and showpiece of colonial architecture in the state of Minas Gerais, lacked a proper, grand hotel to welcome visitors, so the government began a search for a new design. The agency in charge, SPHAN, which stands for Service of the Historic and Artistic National Heritage, had a name that suggests there may have been a conservative bent in the selection process. Formed just a year prior, the group worked to protect and catalog the Brazilian baroque, and no place represented that history more than Ouro Proto, an early city and center of the independence movement (its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site suggests many others agreed). The choice for the hotel design came down to a traditional scheme by Carlos Leao and a Modernist design by Oscar Niemeyer. An associate of Lucio Costa, the 31-year-old was a talented sketch artist who earned a compliment from Le Corbusier himself. He had just finished designing the brise-soleil for the Associação Beneficente Obra do Berço, a hospital in Rio de Janeiro, that firmly placed him within the Modernist camp. Jose Mariano, a figurehead of the neo-colonial movement, called Niemeyer's design a "water tank encased in slabs of concrete," and would later deem the Modernist work of Costa and his colleagues "Jewish, modern architecture" that would destroy tradition. But his invectives didn't help, as Niemeyer's design won over the committee after issues were raised with Leao's scheme.

Description and Reception:
While Niemeyer's design triumphed, it's important to give credit to the architect's mentor, Lucio Costa, whose suggestion to replace the steel brise-soleil with ceramic tiles and a wooden roof placated members of the committee who were looking for a design with some connection to the past. The tweak, along with a horizontal alignment that hugged the landscape, stood out among the raised terrain, and gave every room a view of the historic square, turned Niemeyer's original blueprint into a fusion of the modern and traditional, perhaps the perfect calling card for a radical architect looking to gain work in a conservative country (remember, one of Niemeyer' signature early works, the Igreja da Pampulha, was called "the devil's bomb shelter" by a local archbishop).

Impact On His Career:
While the hotel itself didn't get much play, its reception elevated Niemeyer to the top of the country's clique of Modernist architects, which gave him center stage at the 1942 MoMA exhibition Brazil builds. Along with his collaboration with Costa on his country's 1939 World's Fair pavilion, another New York spotlight that found the young architect telling press he found inspiration in the curves of the female form, Niemeyer had become a hot commodity. It encouraged Brazilian, such as Juscelino Kubitschek, the mayor of Belo Horizonte, to hire him, which would lead to his most revolutionary early work, the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Famous Future Works:
Palácio da Alvorada (Brasilia: 1958), Brazilian National Congress (Brasilia: 1964), Edifício Copan (Sao Paulo: 1966), French Communist Party Headquarters (Paris: 1967), Metropolitan Cathedral (Brasilia: 1970),
Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (Niteroi: 1996), Centro Niemeyer (Aviles: 2012)

Current Status:
While one travel guide calls it "heavy on concrete and light on ambiance," the Grande Hotel has made its Niemeyer connection a selling point. It also boasts a JK Presidential Suite, named after Juscelino Kubitscheck, the Brazilian leader for whom Niemeyer would eventually build a memorial. The architect even returned later and added an addition, updating the design with a pool, annex and 29 new apartment.

Niemeyer's Mermaid and the Restoration of Hotel Nacional [Curbed]
Here's Your Inevitable Oscar Niemeyer-Inspired Dollhouse [Curbed]
Celebrating the Work of Architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) [Curbed]