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Foreign Correspondent

Being the Ongoing Tales, Triumphs, Struggles (mostly struggles) and Occasional Adventures of Freelance Foreign Correspondent Shawn Gerald Blore, based in Rio de Janeiro

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Shawn on Harpers on Brasilia

Shawn on Harpers on Brasilia

There’s an article in the Jan 08 Harpers on the Brasilia at 50 (subscription required http://harpers.org/archive/2008/01/0081879). Benjamin Moser is the author. He’s jumping the gun a bit on the celebration, in that the city wasn’t unveiled until 1960, but ground had been broken so I guess it’s fair. By a curious coincidence a friend of mine, a Swedish journalist, has recently been commissioned to write a book on Brasilia. I sent him a link, mostly as a warning of things to avoid. I hope he gets the point.

Reading the article, the question that looms largest is not, what happened to the Capital of Hope, but rather, where did they find this guy, and why did they choose him to write the article? There are clues: he’s writing a biography of Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector. Lispector once wrote an essay on Brasilia. Ipso facto, Moser knows something of Brasilia. I was once asked to travel to Sierra Leone and write on child soldiers on much sillier grounds, so what the hell.

And indeed, he starts off with exactly the correct premise: Brasilia is 50. Two generations have grown up there, living breathing parts of a great tribute to political ego, national aspiration and uber-rational architectural modernism. What are they like (or better, how fucked up are they)?

It’s something I’ve wanted to get my little claws into for a while, and so when tidbits come along, I save them up, in clipping folders or misplaced computer files.

Example: In a land of samba, choro, pagode, hip hop, brega and funk, Brasilia kids, alone in all Brazil, crave heavy metal. Not “teenage classic rock” as Moser says. Hard core crash and burn metal. Is it the lack of street life, and consequent social dominance of the shopping mall? The alienating need for automotive transport? That’s my working theory, as yet untested. For teenagers, Brasilia is eerily like growing up in an American suburb. How curious they chose the same form of musical rebellion.

Example: A few years back, some university kids from upper class families pulled an Indian from a bus shelter, doused him with gasoline, and set him on fire. Their reason? They thought he was a vagrant (as if that would explain it). While Brazil in general is a violent place, that kind of irrational mayhem is special only to the capital of Cartesian rationality.

Why?

Dunno. It would have been interesting to talk to some of these kids – warped by the world’s most rational upbringing – to maybe find out. Alas, Moser is the least intrepid of reporters. He has some introductions “to people who matter” – presumably not miscreants and metal heads – and when those run dry he just kind of stews. Going out and meeting people without an introduction seems out of the question for Moser, never mind that it’s one of the glories of being a reporter in Brazil that Brazilians will divulge their life histories and intimate secrets to perfect strangers at the drop of a flip flop.

Nor does he seem to know much about architecture. The building’s designed by Brasilia’s architect Oscar Niemeyer he dismisses as “like something Kim Il Sung might have commissioned after a dalliance with Scientology”, observing that each “has some gaudy gimmick tacked to its façade.” Now I have my issues with Niemeyer, as does anyone who’s observed or experienced his buildings. But to dismiss him as one of those gimcrack modernists who endlessly replicate the same box then decorate it with some fancy bauble is to be guilty of simply not looking very closely.

Moser complains too of Brasilia’s scale, and posits its connection to Niemeyer’s supposed hero worship of the dictator and the Strong Man. He may have a point about the city’s scale, but he’s blaming the wrong man. Niemeyer just designed the buildings. The master planner, the uber mind who determined Single Use Zoning and slashed the intersecting Monumental Axes across the virgin landscape, was a meek and mild urban planner named Lucio Costa. But though single-handedly responsible for creating the vast and alienating scale that Moser so decries, Costa, poor man, rates nary a mention. Perhaps Moser could dig up no quotes by Costa speaking favourably of Castro or Stalin.

Summarizing then, Moser’s not much of a reporter, while his attempts at architectural criticism mostly show his own lack of understanding of architecture. What’s left? Fortunately, quite a lot.

Moser seems most at home in the world of books and of the mind, and he does an admirable job tracing the development of the idea of Brasilia, and showing the meaning of this new capital for Brazilians and Brazilian society - the desire to start afresh, forget the injustices of the past, cost what it may in freshly minted grievance. Moser does an equally exemplary job showing how this Fresh New Start was but one of many such, endlessly repeating, doomed by the very manner of its implementation to reinforce all the bad old habits of the ancien regime.

There are some quibbles to be made here as well. Located just down the street from where I live in Rio, the central aisle of the Positivist Church of Brazil has pretty much the same orientation as every other building on its block – due north – which means it’s pointing more at St. John’s, Newfoundland that Notre Dame de Paris, but whatever.

As Moser accurately points out, Paris was the lodestone for all Brazilian intellectuals, architects and urban planners prominent among them. Costa actually tired to tried to camouflage Brasilia’s Corbusian inspiration, claiming that the two intersecting lines came to him as if in a vision (The quote will follow, if I get around to looking it up). Verbiage aside, the plan was pure and vintage Corbu, with only the slight modification of a curving north-south axis (the airplane wing) to set Costa’s design apart from Corbu’s perfect cross.

Curious that sometime after Brasilia was completed, the fixation on France shifted, not to anything native, Deus me livre, but to the next great source of civilisation: the United States (and more specifically, Miami). The apogee of this new desire, curiously also planned by Lucio Costa, is the Rio de Janeiro neighbourhood of Barra de Tijuca, with broad sidewalk-less streets, countless 4x4s, and gated air-conditioned malls named America, New York, and Downtown.

Barra too was supposed to be a new start. Building Barra was supposed to be a chance to eliminate all that had gone wrong in Rio, starting with favelas. True to form and tradition, no one gave the slightest thought to where the poor and working class would live. Alas for Brazil and for Barra, out of mind is not out of sight.

In other places, the latest urban planning theories try to integrate the poor and working class into a neighbourhood’s fabric, with modestly priced housing salted carefully in amongst the pricier bits of real estate. These are called ‘mixed neighbourhoods.’ 20% is considered to be the magic number. Kept to this proportion, the poor learn from their social betters (and attend their public schools), while the middle class feel both a smug sense of noblesse oblige and the frisson of funky that comes having real live workers (look, mom, a real live butcher) in their midst.

None of this was ever even considered in the next New Start called Barra. The poor were still needed in the neighbourhood – who else would work as maids and doormen, staff the fast food outlets and shops in the mall? But their homes would have to be elsewhere, though where that elsewhere was never specified, except in the negative. A series of wide lagoons were dug or deepened to surround the fresh new bastion of the future like a moat. Wherever the workers would live, it wouldn’t be here.

And so on the waste land just beyond the lagoons, the poor settled once again on the margins of the future. One of these poor communities has recently become modestly famous in the outside world, the subject of a Oscar-nominated feature film.It’s name? Cidade de Deus, the City of God.



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