Three Sastrugies for Oscar Niemeyer, 1907 – 2012 (from Brazilian Tequila)
1. In 1956 Oscar Niemeyer was chosen to create a new capital for Brazil. Its designated location was the populous Goiania, but due to bad weather President Kubitschek’s plane was diverted to Anapolis, five hundred miles from the nearest paved road. Juscelino Kubitschek was in a hurry (‘Fifty Years Progress in Five Years’) and stuck with it. That is, nowhere in particular in the desert.
Niemeyer picked a team of ‘experts to raise his spirits’. The goalkeeper of the Flamingo football team whose career had just ended in injury, a physician who could not cure himself, a barrister in trouble with the law and a journalist who fell foul of the press barons. Each evening over dinner his friends, down on their luck, cheered one other up. Oscar Niemeyer rode the bumps and built Brasilia, a modern Valhalla, with underground gardens.
His favourite engineer was S. Cardoza. But he would not join the team because of despair. A bridge he constructed collapsed when the river bed dried up. Fifty-six people died. He told Oscar Niemeyer, ‘I have nothing left to do but drown myself’.
‘How, Senhor Cardoza?’
‘I’ll throw myself off what’s left of the bridge.’
‘But, Senhor, there’s no water.’
‘There is’, said Cardoza. ‘Dig deep and you will find it.’
2. I spent a December weekend in Le Grande Motte (The Big Hillock) in the Carmarge, the marshlands of the French Midi. It is a town built in the 1960s on mudflats. The inspiration was Oscar Niemeyer’s high-rise lake city in Belo Horizonte. The tower-blocks are designed to resemble the pyramidal Pyrenees. Out of season it’s virtually a ghost town as most of the apartments are owned by second-homers.
I found a room on the eighth floor of a Mercure hotel with a scintillating view of the Gulf of Lions, On the balcony I smoked my pipe, and watched the sun set behind the Pics d’Amour, a low-achieving mountain. And waited for the Saturday evening crowds to appear in the street. In vain. In the dead of night the occasional car sped past. I was convinced that one of them would stop for me to witness a settling of accounts Marseilles-style. But there was not to be a contract-killing, though the circumstances were ideal.
On Sunday the winter sun shone and the lively seaside resort nearby, Grau de Roi (The king’s crossing) was packed with day-trippers from Marseille enjoying a downmarket version of M. Hulot's holiday. I had a greasy pancake in a low bar. When I asked for the toilet, the overworked patron merely expostulated ‘Merde’. I found a quiet spot behind the dustbins.
I moved on to the swampy islet of Aiges Morte to visit the ancient church of The Three Marys renowned for its Black Virgin. The dedication is to Mary, the sister of the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the mother of apostles John and James. Legend has it, they crossed the Mediterranean by boat from the Holy Land to escape persecution (The proximity of Africa and the Middle East to the French Mediterranean always thrills me). The three Marys brought along a black servant, who as she didn’t marry, became the designated Virgin.
However, the Black Virgin had been removed in order to ship to Brazil for an exhibition of Sacred Art in Salvador, the ‘Negro Capital’ of the Northeast . There in 1989 I saw Oscar Niemeyer crossing the dunes on Barravento beach. Niemeyer, though he was eighty-two, looked like a boy-scout. He had gone back to his chalet to collect the cashews and lemons that he’d forgotten for the caipirinhas, ‘the world’s most lethal cocktail’.
I know this because I asked him. We talked briefly about Guinness (which he rhymed with Venus), and Irish architecture. ‘Mainly ruins’, he understood. I mentioned my maternal grandfather was an architect in straw, a thatcher, who got no work when tiles came in. He ended up a farm-labourer. Oscar spoke of the proletarianisation of architects in Brazil. ‘Too many of them. But there are worse fates than designing mud-huts’.
3. I wrote this poem on Oscar Niemayer twenty years before he died, one day short of his 105 birthday.
At ninety Oscar’s afternoons
are spent redesigning the dunes
by way of Mies van der Rohe’s
‘almost nothing’. So now, who knows,
he’s building castles in the air
on Barravento strand. That’s where
‘the sea is on the horizon
and the sand is white with the sun’.
And he’s back again on the beach
where everything is within reach.
He traces with the staff of life
the fishing boats that are so light
their masts uphold the vara, fate.
The sails are a figure of eight.
Shells made from the boles of cashews.
Oscar has taken off his shoes
to wait. The architecture of strands
isn’t a constant. As the tide repands
over dry land, drawn by currents,
he swims again and youth returns.