Thursday, June 16, 2011

In Brazil, the Shape of Things

Curitiba, Brazil

Oscar Neimeyer’s Museum of the Eye is the only piece of architecture that has ever made me cry, merely from the sight of it. Maybe it was the sudden rush of beauty coming up against the sadness of a recent personal disappointment. Or maybe the reaction was travel fatigue. Perhaps it was the thought the magnificent eye brought to me, of a dynamic, beloved woman who went blind -- damn macular degeneration -- at just about the age Neimeyer was when he designed the building, ninety-five.

I was already in that altered state that comes with an hour of walking, the last of it bypassing the busy center on a leafy path along the river. Then a few minutes climbing, navigating the pavement outside sober government buildings and there it was, iconic and powerful, absolutely unique in the world, drawing you in and seeing inside you at the same time, not unlike the look of a lover.

“It’s a bunch of concrete and steel,” I said to myself when I felt the tears coming. Too late.

I posted pictures, but they aren't worth a thousand words. Architecture is an art form that has to be experienced in the free air, that works -- or doesn’t -- among surrounding forms, whether a canyon (think Mary Jane Colter) or growing things or other buildings. Maybe that’s why we’re more aware of architecture when we travel, because we’re seeing not only a new building, but a new world surrounding it.

Brazil is a good place for the awareness to grow, because it’s so big, with corners possessing such varied history that the eye stays sharp, surprised and refreshed every few hundred miles.

Here is Salvador, Bahia, where Columbus first landed, where Portuguese and Dutch provided elegance and design rooted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries European continent, and indigenous tropical life provided the color that still reigns.

And this is the building style of southern Brazil, settled by the first German pioneers about the same time our own eastern seaboard colonies were becoming the United States


Here is another corner of Curitiba, which is also a southern city.  Not far from the Eye, the hill was built up at the end of the 19th century when Art Nouveau captured the fancy. Aubrey Beardsley might have felt right at home.


In Sao Paulo, where I began this current journey, I took my coffee every morning on the first floor of the Edificio Copan, another Niemeyer building.

Its image is famous, often representing to the world the globe’s southernmost hypercity, where it can seem all twenty million residents are on the street at once, hurrying each to tasks and appointments. Yet against all evidence to the contrary, the sinuous shape says here in the city there can be beauty and calm. To me that is what a striking building can do, create its own space that talks right back to the beholder.

(The official name of the building described at the beginning of this post is Museu Oscar Niemeyer, which houses permanent and rotating collections of mostly-Brazilian art. Brazilians I have talked to, however, call it for its most impressive feature, O Museu do Ohlo, the Museum of the Eye.)