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The Pampulha Architectural Complex marked the career ascendency of a young architect named Oscar Niemeyer in the 1940s, and was the first step by Brazil towards an era of modernist architecture

A Modernist Landmark

The Pampulha Architectural Ensemble’s entry into the prestigious list this year fortifies its legacy as UNESCO a modernist architecture landmark.

Some projects kick-start architect careers, some mark a change in the aesthetic direction of an architect, while others lead to the creation of a paradigm.

Then there are those projects that herald the beginning of a legend, and the re-shaping of the visual legacy of an entire country. The Pampulha Architectural Ensemble is one such project.

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It marked the career ascendency of a young architect named Oscar Niemeyer in the 1940s, and was the first step by Brazil towards an era of modernist architecture. In many ways, Niemeyer exerted the most defining influence on the country’s built legacy, bringing on radical ideas like free-flowing spaces, the replacement of rigid straight lines with curves and domes, and the use of concrete.

“I consciously ignored the highly praised right angle and the rational architecture of T-squares and triangles, in order to wholeheartedly enter the world of curves and new shapes made possible by the introduction of concrete into the building process,” he once declared.

At the Pampulha, all these traits came together in timeless glory. This site in Belo Horizonte is a cluster of buildings standing around a man-made lake. This compound was envisaged as a centre of culture and leisure for the denizens of the upper-class, with a ballroom, a casino and a golf yacht club at its premises.

Pampulha’s landscape was designed by Roberto Burle Marx, another legendary architect who would become a frequent collaborator of Niemeyer’s. Together they could envision iconic urban revival, and at Pampulha, they helped create a suburban paradise from the scratch.

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Among its many buildings, the São Francisco de Assis Church remains a landmark on its own, attracting scores of tourists every year to its lake-side doors.  Its broad arches and wave-like whole form adorned with blue-and-white Biblical murals remain awe-inspiring to this day.

The project was the brainchild of Juscelino Kubitschek, the then mayor of Belo Horizonte, and the site was home to his weekend retreat as well. Later, as he rose to Brazil’s presidency, he would rope in Niemeyer again, this time to infuse modernism into the new capital city of Brasilia.

Today, both Pampulha and many spots of Brasilia are on the World Heritage List (WHS) compiled by UNESCO, honoured for the global influence they continue to exert onto the field of architecture.

The Pampulha Architectural Ensemble entered the hallowed list in 2016, the year the WHS also honoured the work of the Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier, an architect Niemeyer was deeply influenced by.

By Latika Payak

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