The Niemeyer Letteradmin
There follows the letter that Oscar Niemeyer, the celebrated architect of Brazilian modernism, wrote to a friend, apologizing for his complete abandonment of architectural activity.
Thank you for your concern at my turning down the opportunity to design the new National Museum of Modern Art. The truth is, the person you wrote to is no longer. I have lost all faith in form and geometry, in the way the perfect curve can elicit feeling from the hardest of hearts. Was it I who felt so sure that we could change the world, and that us architects could, like gods, form the New Brazilian Man, shed the past and start afresh? Ah those were heady days. The troubles we faced at the hands of the authorities only sharpened our sense of purpose, intoxicated by the sense that geometry and society, art and politics were one. We architectural modernists knew nothing of the crisis felt by our poet, artist and writer colleagues, who saw back then that the centre cannot hold, that any sense of control is illusory, that dark and primitive forces are at work under the veneer that we call civilisation. No, while their forms broke into fragments, us so-called modernist architects cocooned ourselves in an Enlightenment confidence in order and rationality, seduced by the outdated lie that technological advances lead to social progress—(though even that notion was mostly rinsed out by the Atlantic Ocean on its journey from Europe…)— just as we were by the false clarity of political ideology. No, our work was not to do with our time, or even our ideals, but mere style, monuments that were attractive but mute, fodder for the coffee table books of the bourgeoisie.
How happy those days were, to feel we were modern yet be immune from the crisis. And how things have changed for me recently, as if the real spirit of the age has only just hit me, and with all the greater impact for having being kept at bay for close to a century. Any certainties I held have collapsed like eroding sandstone cliffs undermined by the waves of the ocean during a storm. My earlier works, which poured forth untrammeled from my dreams through my assured hand to be formed, indisputable, in concrete—these are now foreign to me, separated from me and my scattered thoughts by an unbridgeable chasm.
So there we have it: I have lost entirely the ability to design, or think, or perceive with any coherency. It started on the ranch last month, when my youngest granddaughter asked me to design a stable for her pony. As I took out my notebook, I found my mind overwhelmed by a tumult of swirling and overlapping images, with no rhyme or reason to any of them. My hand trembled, not knowing how to behave, the pencil spasmodically stabbing and scraping the paper where smooth lines would once have glided over the page. My head pounding, I finally forced out a crude scribble, then, giddy, my mouth dry, stood up and left the room to wander around the farm grounds in the search of some peace of mind.
Gradually these fits grew more frequent: I would put pen to paper, but just as the mists roll in from the bay, my vision would dissolve in a cloud of minute observations, where no reason or hierarchy could be found. I would stare at the page as through a magnifying glass, seeing the texture of the paper, the flecks, then observe the pen in my hand as an alien object, my fingers wrapped awkwardly around it like some strange bony creature clinging, desperate, to a twig. I went to my library, tried to seek solace in the old works, in the order and clarity of Le Corbusier, from Mies van der Rohe, and the others. But while I saw the wonderful interplay of their forms, the serene lines and assured proportions, I felt detached from them, and never more alone, as in a dream where no one hears your voice and a conversation continues in which you cannot participate.
Otherwise, my existence has been that of the average bourgeois Carioca, eating, drinking, walks on the beach, idle chatter about the matters of the day. A young writer is composing my memoirs, and I am able to have conversations with him about the stranger that is my younger self. There are pleasant moments amid the confusion that I manage to hide from those around me—they no doubt attribute my vacuity to my advanced years. And from time to time my heart is filled to bursting point by day to day things, things that would have irritated me in the past, or passed me by: the mess of real life that we ignored in our idealistic zeal. I was taken on a tour of Brasilia recently, and the scrawled graffiti near the National Museum spoke to me more than the dumb spherical geometry of the building, the squabbling of the pigeons on the Square of the Three Powers had more meaning than our elegant edifices. It was around Christmas time, and the symbolism of those age-old beliefs seeped everywhere into our modernist visions. Nativity scenes in primitive huts before the Alvarado Palace and in the cathedral, beliefs we once mocked touched me then as deeply as the sounds of a child singing had once in a church in Salvador. And on the main esplanade, people had erected an inflatable Christmas tree, along with mock-tudor houses, fairytale castles, rustic barns topped with fake snow—cheap versions of every architectural style except that of what surrounded them. Tears came to my eyes, and my companion no doubt saw it as sadness at the purity of our vision being sullied, but the truth was that I was overwhelmed at seeing what we had attempted to repress—the lives and beliefs of real people, developed over millenia—returning in such humble, yet powerful form to a place from which they had been banished. We later toured the Palace of the Congress and my heart was filled by the sight of the carpet that curves up to the podium where power is seated: A cleaner—inspired, I was told, by the birth of his son— had used his vacuum cleaner to create images in the carpet pile —of the national flag, and of the buildings of his city—and this gesture struck me as the single most important element of the whole complex, and one that no architect could have envisioned. Here finally was the presence of the working man, using his cleaning implement to create beauty right there at the center of power. Not the New Brazilian Man, but a fellow human being, a working man. Not a monument, but a moment, inspiration arising spontaneously from pure human emotion. And it occurred to me that it is these moments that were of the most resounding significance, ones before which our edifices meant nothing.
Back in Rio, on the drive back from the airport, I recalled the quote from Goethe that you used to cite: “Talent develops in places of tranquility, character in the full torrent of human life.” And what is talent without life? I saw out of the open window—the air conditioning of the car was broken—a mini-van pass, music blaring out of it, crowded with young men and women shouting and laughing, some hanging out of the door and looking out over the roof towards the ocean. The favela rose up on the hill before us, and I saw there – in the fragmented, desperate, lawless structures made from whatever material that could be found—I saw there, in the fragile transience of human existence—not in our curved concrete or geometrical town plans —the true expression of the modern condition in Brazil. As we passed, there came upon me the strangest vision—perhaps brought on by the exhaustion of the journey, or the intense, moist heat. I imagined I saw the jungle invade the hillside inhabitation. Parakeets screeched, monkeys cackled as roots broke through the rough cement ground, vines dripping from the bundles of electrical wires with which they were confused, animal eyes peering through the thickets as blood-laden mosquitoes hovered in mephitic alleyways where stagnant pools festered. The car eventually came to a stop, I opened my eyes, cold and sweating, my mouth dry, and saw we were back home, at the place of tranquility. I stumbled out to a seat next to the pool and sat for a long time and gazed at gnats jumping over the dark surface of the pool, creating ripples that seemed to pass, glowing, through my deepest being.
My friend, I have bored you enough with this attempt to describe the condition that has overcome me, which I have only shared with you. I hope you can now understand now why I must put down my pencil and spend the rest of my days locked in this curious, feverish state where images randomly enter and leave my mind which can no longer give shape to any coherent design.
Please accept, meanwhile, my most sincere affections and gratitude for your concerns.
As imagined by Martha Read, based loosely on Hugo von Hoffmansthals’ 1902 Lord Chandos Letter, a seminal work of modernism in which a writer describes his reasons for abandoning his literary activities.
The text of the Lord Chandos Letter by Hugo von Hoffmansthal can be found here.