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.
As I wandered amid the pews, savoring the calm of the room, the church's pastor, Theodoros Daoud, came along and said, "Greetings, my brother." It was the sort of line that typically sends me running for the door, but Daoud, who is middle-aged and from Lebanon, has a dignified and unhurried presence. His voice is high and reedy, and his fumbling efforts at English carried an unimpeachable earnestness. I chatted with him, our voices half-hushed, and eventually Daoud told me that the building was "the perfect place for man to meet God. There is no need for a microphone," he said. He clapped his hand. The sound echoed splendidly, and I felt a certain shiver of rightness.
I accepted Dauod's invitation to return Sunday morning, and when I did, he seemed like a different person -- a divine conduit more than a man. Up on the altar, he wore a robe as golden and shimmery as the egg tempera paintings. He was somber as he held the Eucharist up to the light, and as he turned his back to the people and whispered inaudibly over the wine and the bread.
I had arrived late, and I stood behind all the pews. I saw little more than the backs of the worshipers. They chanted in Portuguese, and when Daoud came down the aisle, they did not smile or stir. They remained immersed in measured chant. I was watching a majestic ceremony, I knew, and one that seemed essential to Brasilia. The capital is a magnet for newcomers -- a cosmopolitan place where an international crowd gathers to do diplomacy amid shimmering architecture. Here in the pews were the well-heeled and erudite immigrants, the transplants who had arrived from Lebanon and Syria and found a comfortable home. I was aware of the light shining in the room and of the life in the chant. But still this was a very formal
ritual I was beholding, with its meaning encoded in words and gestures I did not understand. The people sitting around me, across the rich clouds of incense, seemed to inhabit a separate universe. I was an outsider, a tourist, and so I declined to stay for the coffee hour downstairs. I just stepped outside, into the flat midday sun, and walked on, over the sidewalk, still searching.
Eventually, I met a young architect, Andre Catelli, who spoke impeccable English. Andre, 34, is 6-foot-5, with piercing blue eyes. Over a lavish luncheon one day, he made nimble digs at his native city. Brasilia, he said, "is like Fantasy Island. Inside the airplane shape, you are insulated from the troubles of the world." Andre pointed skyward now and spoke with mock urgency: "Zee plane! Zee plane!" He lambasted Brasilia's shopping malls, and at one point he broke into singing the lyrics of the Dead Kennedys song "Let's Lynch the Landlord."
But Andre's pop cultural flourishes were less snide than exuberant. He was playing the gracious host, making the American guy feel at home, and in fact he was a regular Catholic churchgoer -- a "good believer," as he put it -- and a true fan of Brasilia. What he liked most was the city's open spaces and how they afforded residents both freedom and access to natural beauty. "There are no fences here," he said. "In the heart of Brasilia, you can walk in any direction: You just choose a direction and go."
Andre said that a colleague of his always feels, upon visiting compact Sao Paulo, that the buildings are going to fall down on him. "He craves the pure air of Brasilia," Andre told me, before adding, "I'm the same way. Whenever I leave, after two weeks, I want to be home."
We paid for our meal, and then Andre put on his Giorgio Armani sunglasses and gave me a ride to the shore of Brasilia's sprawling man-made Lake Paranoa, so I could indulge my daily habit of swimming a mile or two. Using makeshift sign language, I persuaded a snack bar owner to let me store my clothes in his shack and then changed and waded out into the warm lake. It was windy, and the water was shallow, so that tiny whitecaps formed on the surface. The swimming was choppy, and I could taste the fine clay silt from the bottom in my teeth.
I swam parallel to the shore. Costa had envisioned the edge of Lake Paranoa as a preserve lined with "woods and fields in a natural and rustic manner, so that the urban population can enjoy its simple pleasures." But the shoreline has been colonized by the wealthy. Brasilia has what may be South America's largest inland yacht fleet, and I swam by myriad docked boats and private homes riddled with gates and walkways: gleaming barriers to the impoverished masses. For a long time, I saw not a single other person. Then, finally, a stylish motorboat swooped along toward me, the driver cutting the engine only when he was within striking distance. "Tranquilo?" he shouted down at me as I bobbed in the water. Is everything cool?
"Tranquilo," I said, and then he nodded and left, and I felt very alive out there, alone in the waves, beneath the broad blue sky, with motors churning vaguely in the distance.
A couple days later, I met Andre and his wife, Laila, for a driving tour of Brasilia. Laila was gorgeous -- demure, with olive skin and black hair and almond eyes -- and, in her presence, Andre was the quintessential gentleman. He held car doors open for her, and pointed out the charms of Brasilia with the precision and reverence of a museum docent. He reveled in the decorative clay tiles that Brazilian artist Athos Bulcao had created in a particular breezeway on Block No. 308, and was very careful as he explained why, exactly, Costa had appointed Brasilia with low backless park benches made of concrete: "It has to do with the angle of the knee . . ."
Laila, meanwhile, spoke of how Brasilia residents are often faced with a dilemma when they want to cross an "X," or large intersection: Either they sprint across six lanes of traffic, without benefit of a crossing light, or they brave the criminals lurking in the unpoliced pedestrian tunnels undercutting the street. "When I was 15," said Laila, also an architect, "I wasn't paying attention in the tunnel, and this guy -- he was already over me. He didn't want my money. He wanted -- I don't know what he wanted." Laila screamed; the man fled. "Now," she said, "we try to stay on our side of the X. But the whole city is familiar to me. Because it is so Cartesian. You know how to get to a place even if you have never been there."
I couldn't yet understand Laila's love of Brasilia. "You're enchanted with . . . the street grid?" I asked. But both she and Andre were reluctant to make sweeping pronouncements. To truly grasp Brasilia's splendor, they said, I needed to consult the expert, Claudio Queiroz, their old professor at the University of Brasilia. Queiroz once worked with Costa, designing a set of office buildings that were never constructed, and for decades he has enjoyed an almost filial rapport with the ancient Niemeyer.
Queiroz is 61, but he practices capoeira; his neck muscles pop as he speaks. Through an interpreter he'd chosen himself for his "poetical" qualities, Queiroz spoke in grandiose phrases worthy of Milton: "Never in the history of mankind . . . The human condition is such that . . ."
Queiroz's message was simple: Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer are the cat's pajamas. Or, rather: "The construction of Brasilia was a basic moment of mankind. It was as though Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were working together, invoking Wittgenstein's maxim that aesthetics and ethics are one. Brasilia is the synthesis of all human knowledge."
I'd heard this argument before. It was premised on a '50s-era notion that culture is science, that citizens always do best when they leave, say, urban design to a few men of probity. Queiroz's wisdoms were yellowing and brittle; I tried to steer him onto more vital topics. But he did not answer my questions, exactly. When I asked about a newspaper report that Brasilia's concrete is now cracking in the dry heat, he went off on a tangent about the durability of the Pyramids in Egypt. "No other city has the beating heart of Brasilia," he concluded. "In 1985, when Lucio Costa made one of his last visits here, he took one look at the bus station downtown, at all the mixing of social classes there, and he said, 'At last! I have seen the fall of the Bastille!'"
I asked Queiroz how often he went to the bus station.
"Well," he laughed, "it is true -- it is not characteristic of someone of my social class to go there, but you can get these delicious sandwiches down at the terminal. I go at least twice a month."
Now I looked over at Andre, wearily. "You must be tired," I said. "Do you want to go now?"
"Oh no," said Andre. "Claudio is our teacher. And once someone is your teacher, they are always your teacher."
Queiroz talked, ultimately, for three hours, and as I sat there on a hard wooden chair listening, I looked out the studio's giant window and considered the lit-up office towers of Brasilia. The buildings were spare and nearly identical -- unadorned slabs with small, miserly windows -- and beside me, Claudio Queiroz kept droning on, droning on. The lifeblood of Brasilia, I believed, lay elsewhere.
The greatest joys in traveling are always serendipitous. One day in Brasilia, I was at a pool hall, and I heard a young man speaking English. As it turned out, 21-year-old Thomas de Almeida lives a few blocks from me in Portland, Ore. Black-haired and dashing, he wore a slender soul patch, a sliver of water buffalo horn in his ear, several tattoos and a long silver wallet chain that dangled rakishly from his black baggy trousers. He addressed me as "my home skillet Bill."
I had stumbled upon a reunion. Thomas was here to see his Brazilian father -- a journalist and singer/songwriter named Zeca de Almeida. The two men had not seen each other in more than a year, and they'd parted, the summer before, on bad terms. During a prolonged visit to Brazil, Thomas had begun smoking pot with dodgy characters; his dad kicked him out of the house. Now, though, a certain miracle had transpired -- Thomas had come back, from across the globe on an airplane, forgiving his father, wearing the goofy grin of a guileless kid.
"My son!" Zeca kept singing out between slugs of beer. "My son!" In the giddy blur of the evening, my own arrival on the scene (from Portland!) struck the de Almeidas as part of the magic. Zeca ordered up a third glass, so I could share their large bottle of beer.
We played eight-ball. Zeca, who is 58 and balding, with a dapper white goatee, racked and broke, and then lingered by the table. Very early on, he let me know that he was freshly single and (you know how it goes) on the make. As a pool player, he struggled. He'd set his smoldering cigarette on the side of the table, stoop down and squint at the ball, stand up again, consider his angles -- and then, invariably, flub the shot and erupt into laughter. His happiness was unbounded -- and underlain, I learned, by long suffering.
Zeca had studied for the priesthood once; he quit to chase girls. He'd lived in the States before, working as a cabdriver, but his marriage to Thomas's American mother soured so early that he never even laid eyes on Thomas until the boy was 11. He'd moved to Brasilia from southwestern Brazil only a few months before I met him. For the time being, he was editing (via e-mail) a small country newspaper and living with a roommate in a dingy apartment just inside the airplane design. He had almost no money. He was starting over, and at times in the bar he grew distant, his face calm and fixed as he retreated into ponderous solitude. "When you don't see your kids, it's hard, man," he told me. "It's hard. But now my son has come to visit his father!" Zeca patted Thomas on the back, and Thomas ducked his head shyly. "My son," Zeca said. "My son."
Zeca has the gimlet eye of a newspaperman, and he took it as his mission to lead me beyond Brasilia's shiny exterior and show me the bruised, aging city of his everyday life. One afternoon, he invited me to his apartment complex, built illegally in a sector of the city that Costa reserved for athletic clubs. "They built it at night," he said, "as fast as they could. They built one story underground so that the place would not be conspicuous." The complex's owners are still battling the local government in court and, Zeca said, "They'll be fighting for 15 years, which is when the walls -- they're already crumbling -- will fall down anyway."
Eventually, we took the bus out to the suburbs. The perimeters of Brasilia are bursting with newcomers, most of them emigres from the countryside. There are 2.3 million people in greater Brasilia, and one of the largest satellite settlements is called Samambaia. The town did not exist 15 years ago. Now it has a population of 200,000. It is a disparate maze of low metal-and-cinder-block buildings on a flat, dusty red land that is scattered with dirt roads and mangy stray dogs. At 11 a.m., we found only one place to sit down -- a ramshackle bar where a giant bottle of Nova Schin beer cost about 75 cents and a wheelbarrow sat under the pool table. Zeca, acting as my interpreter, began interviewing the old, rheumy-eyed truck driver beside us. "I only have five glasses of gin a day," the man said. "My limit is five."
The man kept talking. I looked over at Zeca, seeking translation, but Zeca merely shrugged. "This guy," he said, "is not very intelligent. He has a very low IQ."
We walked on. We came to a sidewalk store where samba tunes were blaring and two teenage girls stood side by side on a concrete slab, their eyes vacant as they writhed to the music wearing high heels and extremely tight red spandex shorts. "From what I know," Zeca said with a studious air, "from what I know, those are whores."
Just before we left Samambaia, we came upon a stout 59-year-old man, Lourival da Silva, who was standing at the end of his driveway, in a crisp button-down shirt, surrounded by four or five younger guys, all of whom were laughing uproariously at his raunchy jokes. In 1960, da Silva mixed concrete in Brasilia. Later, he helped build the dam that brought Lake Paranoa into existence. "My brother and I came here," he said, "and we built the city from scratch. We worked hard. We broke our backs. And now Brasilia is beautiful. It is a city that we can be proud of, and you watch: One day Samambaia, too, will one day be great."
When our bus got back to Brasilia, I made my way to the grandest spot on the Monumental Axis: the open-air Plaza of the Three Powers. Here there is a marble pyramid, the Juscelino Kubitschek Memorial, that descends to a black pool of water and, beside the water, a dark stairwell that leads down to a sort of foreboding underground bunker. The world's tallest flagpole stands nearby -- a gargantuan column of 20 300-foot-high metal staves topped by a Brazilian flag so big that it could literally drape a three-bedroom apartment.
A flock of gulls swept over me in the gathering dusk, and even they seemed baroque, overwrought in their swooping. I thought of how outlandish Lucio Costa had been, trying to overcome the old gritty realities of urban life and create a new world. His urban plan didn't work by my lights, but still I was moved by how deeply Brasilians believed in their city. The day before, at the National Archives, I had met a young choreographer, Luciano Sartori, who spoke with reverence of Brasilia's construction. "Those first workers," he told me, "they were building a new city, a new generation. They believed in a revolution, in the dreams of rebellious artists. So many guys died for that vision." Sartori was preparing a show that would see 10 roller skaters pay tribute to Niemeyer by emulating his buildings' swooping forms as they wheeled about on the stage of Brazil's National Theater.
Brasilia survives, I think, because of a strange sort of hope. Its citizens still believe they can attain some shadow of transcendence in a place that is, in truth, composed of bricks and mortar, otherworldly ideas and concrete. In touring the city, I'd encountered, I realized now, a succession of believers: a priest who believed in his church; an architect who believed in his city; a man who believed in his son. Such hope is everywhere in the world -- encountering it as a traveler is, really, a matter of just leaving yourself open. Which is what I tried to do on my last day in town.
I went over to Zeca's that afternoon. There was no food in the fridge, so he, Thomas, and I went up to the complex's small outdoor cafe and found seats at a red plastic Coca-Cola table smudged gray with the butts of old cigarettes. We ordered lunch, along with some Nova Schins, and then Zeca played his guitar -- very softly at first, almost to himself, as he twisted his bald head and looked down at the strings. The songs were all old standbys -- dreamy, tender tunes known to almost every Brazilian: "The Girl From Ipanema," "Acontece" ("It Happens"), "Tristeza" ("Sadness"). Zeca played very well, and he sang in a voice that was at once offhand and plaintive, and Thomas, who's a punk rock drummer, swayed his shoulders and sang. He had learned the words, I'm sure, from his father, and now he handled them with something like deference. He sang the words quietly, almost carefully.
After a while, a guy from a neighboring table, pasty-faced and unshaven, lumbered over and joined up. "This guy," Zeca said, "he's a sculptor."
The sculptor fished some used shish kebab sticks out of a box beside the motorcycle parked in the corner and began beating a tune on the table. He handed me my own set of sticks after a while, and softly I began tapping the table myself. The music felt pained and sweet and colored by loneliness when you got inside it, I thought. It was scratchy and fragile -- an old guy's song in the wind -- and a voice in the back of my head said, "You have traveled 6,000 miles on an airplane for this?"
I kept banging on the table. The music picked up. Zeca played "Don't Let Samba Die," and the sculptor sang with him, his voice sodden with passion. Then Zeca broke into a song that he'd learned in the States -- a love song pledging devotion so whole it demanded hyperbole. "Higher," Zeca howled, "higher than the highest mountain." He paused, pounding the hollow belly of his guitar. "Deeper," he said, "deeper than the deepest blue sea."
"Stronger," said Thomas.
"Stronger," said Zeca, "stronger than the morning sunlight. Sweeter, sweeter than . . ."
Bill Donahue is a contributing editor for Outside magazine.