The Believers

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By Bill Donahue
Sunday, September 18, 2005

I'm lost. I'm lost right now in Brasilia, Brazil. I'm out beneath the vast sea of the savanna sky at night, trying to walk the half-hour back from the city center to the hotel, and I know only that I'm on a footpath carved into the red dirt and grass, moving toward lights. I'm alone, and each of the few other walkers I come upon averts his eyes in the manner of strangers in dark, semi-dangerous places. The buildings are off in the vague distance, separated from one another, it seems, by a mile of earth, and all I can hear is the traffic -- the traffic flowing about the city without hitch over six-lane highways and cloverleaf ramps. The car lights flash on the pavement, and I wonder how there can be so many people out driving at 9 on a weeknight. Who are all these people? Where are they going?

I have no idea. Throughout the week I've been here in Brazil's planned, ultramodern capital, the soul of the city has felt remote, as though it were ensconced in a distant room under thick soundproof glass. One morning, when I went down to Brazil's presidential office, the Planalto Palace, I saw three slender and graceful birds -- long-necked great egrets -- picking about on the lawn. The birds were of a piece with the building, which is a long, low rectangle framed by ribs of resplendent white concrete. They were of a piece, really, with the whole of Brasilia, where the major government buildings, all of them designed by Brazil's most esteemed architect, Oscar Niemeyer, are exquisitely curving -- at once monumental and delicate. I wanted to photograph the birds; I sneaked up behind them, my camera held high. I got near them, but then the two palace guards stepped toward me in snappy green uniforms, yelling in Portuguese, a language I do not understand. The guards had rifles strapped to their shoulders. I sprinted away, frustrated.

When you travel, you want the places you visit to blossom for you. You want the scent of jasmine and saffron (or whatever) to engulf you at the marketplace, and you want smiling natives in interesting robes to beckon you into their homes. This happens sometimes. But in Brasilia so far, I've glimpsed that feeling of connection only fleetingly, and in odd moments. At the city's main bus station one afternoon, I asked a woman for directions, and the woman wrapped her hand around my wrist, as though I were a child lost in the supermarket. Then, teetering on high heels, she led me through the crowds and stopped at a certain sign and waited beside me for 15 minutes, stoically silent, until the next bus arrived. I thanked her, got on and waved goodbye out the window -- and then I found that I was still lost.

As I am now, out on the dirt paths of Brasilia at night. The scale out here is too big. I feel as though I'm hiking across the parking lot of a stadium or trudging along the side of the freeway, away from a broken-down car. And so I keep looking for the TV tower, a sort of North Star, and I make my way to my hotel.

The city of Brasilia, population 500,000, has never been known as a welcoming place. Reason, not human warmth, is the organizing principle here. The metropolis was born in the late 1950s, when Brazil's president, Juscelino Kubitschek, decided, with a conviction bordering on megalomania, that coastal Rio de Janeiro, with its choked, skinny streets and decaying vine-covered buildings, was unfit to be a capital. His impoverished nation needed to modernize. "Fifty years' progress in five," the right-leaning nationalist proclaimed, before enlisting thousands of peasants to transform Brazil's most uncharted, unpeopled hinterland into a grand city inside of five years.

The site of present-day Brasilia had long held a certain enchantment. As early as the 1930s, when the land was home to little more than spindly trees, maps in the nation's grade schools identified the place as "the future capital of Brazil." Kubitschek saw Brasilia as the beacon of a modernist world, and he hired a devoutly modern urban planner to make his vision a reality. Lucio Costa, a Brazilian, was a disciple of Le Corbusier, the influential mid-20th-century French architect/professor who eschewed all ornamentation as "bourgeois" and envisioned a high-tech egalitarian future in which all buildings were beautiful in their sleek simplicity. Corbusier famously decreed that houses should be "machines for living in." Costa, in turn, called for an "efficient" capital city in which the TV tower would be a monument, a downtown attraction occupying the same space, geographically and spiritually, that the Washington Monument does in D.C. The street grid in Brasilia would be shaped like an airplane, with two "wings" of avenues and a long thin spine -- the grassy Monumental Axis, lined with government buildings -- forming the core. The automobile, meanwhile, would spirit through the metropolis on its own uncluttered highways, and the open spaces would be protected in perpetuity, so that daily life could unfold in bucolic, pedestrian-friendly environs.

Brasilia did not turn out as planned. What I found was a city defined by its silences. Its core is a wealthy enclave in which building new structures is essentially outlawed. Few children play in the community parks -- they're too pristine -- and residents tend not to shop in their neighborhoods. In this spread-out car city, the shopping mall reigns supreme. A spirit of anomie enveloped the streets around me, and the suicide, divorce and pedestrain-fatality rates in Brasilia are longstanding sources of concern. Visiting there in the 1980s, Australian art critic Robert Hughes called the place "a museum of architectural ideas" and a "utopian horror."

But I'm dubious of such pat critiques, and I couldn't accept that something so huge and multi-tentacled as a city could be wholly without life. I wanted to believe that even Brasilia breathed in some singular way.

My hotel was in a quiet residential sector, in Block No. 707. It was a pension, technically -- a small, family-run place -- and there were just two parties there: me and a young French family of four that seemed to spend all its time sprawled on the couch, watching Portuguese-language soap operas. I had the room right next to the lounge, and the loud, indecipherable noise of the TV blared in through the metal bars on the narrow window over my bed. The noise was no problem, though, because whenever I was awake and at the hotel I was organizing, readying myself for assaults on the city: I would go out and move about on the streets for 12 or 14 hours nonstop, determined to discover some unknown Brasilia. So there I was, alone in my room, poring over maps, gorging on PowerBars, reading the fine print in the guidebooks.

What sang out to me was the story about Niemeyer. He was a hardened outcast when Costa chose him to collaborate on Brasilia, an atheist and a communist in a land of traditional Catholics, and yet there was something dreamy and wistful about him. In designing Brasilia's buildings, Niemeyer once said, he sought "the curved and the sensual line, the curve that I see in the Brazilian hills, in the body of a lover, in the clouds in the sky and in the ocean waves." Later, when Brasilia was mostly completed, he stood aloof from his creation, never residing

in the city, shrugging off all attacks on its livability with koan-like remarks: "Architecture is about curiosity . . . In Brasilia, when the structure was completed, the architecture was present."

I was taken by Niemeyer's wizened sang-froid, and also by his enduring force. Now 97 years old, he is still working in Rio de Janeiro -- and designing small fantastical wisps of concrete that are less buildings than poem-like distillations of his agnostic spirituality. One of Niemeyer's newest structures -- the Antiochian Orthodox Church, completed in 2000 -- sits near an undistinguished mini-mall on the wealthy southern fringe of Brasilia proper. It is a simple structure -- a stark, round, white cylinder of concrete -- and one afternoon I went for a visit. The single, circular upstairs room has no windows on its walls, yet it is airy and bright, suffused by a heavenly light that enters through 16 slits hidden between the overhanging dome and the walls. Here and there, there are bright Byzantine paintings -- of Christ and of Theotokos, the mother of God.


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