“I deliberately disregarded the right angle and rationalist architecture designed with ruler and square to boldly enter the world of curves and straight lines offered by reinforced concrete.” -Oscar Niemeyer.
This famous quote by Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian master architect, quite simply conveys the core philosophy of design he followed in creating masterpieces in the realm of architecture. The church at Pampulha is no less of an example of this philosophy.
Considered to be one of Oscar Niemeyer’s earliest works and probably even his first-ever project to be given physical form, it was this particular design that laid the foundation to the architectural style that he went on to reinterpret and rediscover in all projects that followed.
The chapel is considered to be one of Oscar Niemeyer’s pioneering works in the field of modernist architecture. As is visible in a majority of his projects, experimentation with concrete and structural forms is visible in this chapel as well.
The Church of St. Francis of Assisi, more commonly known as Igreja da Pampulha, is a chapel located in the Pampulha region of the city of Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais in south-eastern Brazil. It is a part of the larger Pampulha Modern Ensemble, which was conceived as an urban development project to house buildings for leisure, around the man-made lake of Pampulha, that houses a ballroom, a casino, and a yacht club along with the church. He was assisted by the artists Candido Portinari in painting the interior and exterior murals and by Roberto Burle Marx in doing the landscape for the project.
“Curves are the essence of my work because they are the essence of Brazil, pure and simple.” – Oscar Niemeyer.
Niemeyer believed that reinforced concrete gave a wider variety of opportunities for architects to experiment and give new meanings to the design of built environments. Following this principle, he designed the church to look like a continuous form made of simple curves to create a bold and striking appearance yet not dominating the surrounding landscape.
Inspiration was drawn from the words of the French poet Paul Claudel, “A church is God’s hangar on earth”, the translation of which is very well materialized in the design of the church. He used a form that was a combination of what hangars were designed like and the idea of replicating the mountainous landscape of Brazil which was quite literally also the backdrop of the site of the church.
The entrance to the church happens from the rear end of the site—the side that faces the Pampulha lake justifying Niemeyer’s ideals of creating an element of surprise in every building designed. The front end of the site which is the north-facing façade plays canvas to the artwork of artist Candido Portinari featuring a tiled mural depicting scenes from the life of St. Francis.
A total of five vaults shape the building to give it a T-shaped plan with the main and largest vault acting as the entrance and nave portion of the church and the remaining four at the back acting as support structures housing the altar and other ancillary facilities.
The interior of the entrance vault is cladded with wood on the underside of the roof and serves to draw light into the church through the concrete fins that adorn the lake facing façade. As contrasting elements to the fluidic form of the church stand the bell tower and the entrance porch—detached from the main structure—supported by slender steel supports.
“My ambition has always been to reduce a building’s support to a minimum. The more we diminish supporting structures, the more audacious and important the architecture is. That has been my life’s work.” – Oscar Niemeyer.
Both the structure and the roof of the building are formed by the undulating parabolic vaults made of concrete. Their exterior features paintings in white and blue mosaic and is devoid of any other embellishments—in true essence a simple yet, eye-catching façade that has sculptural value.
Though the construction of the church was completed in 1943, the church opened its doors for use by the public only after a wait of sixteen years until its consecration in 1959. The church had been the seat of controversies for a long time owing to its unorthodox form and material palette and was even considered to be demolished and replaced with a copy of a traditional, orthodox church form and design.
It was the same unconventional design that made it the face of Pampulha. It is one of the first listed modern architectural monuments in Brazil. In the year 2016, it was given the status of a UNESCO world heritage site, as a part of the larger Pampulha Modern Ensemble for being an exceptional example of contemporary developments in design and design aspirations.
It is the small but well-designed buildings that have the most productive influence on its users and environment. They serve as markers of identity while avoiding imposed and forced dominance on their immediate surroundings.