I did not have many encounters with Oscar Niemeyer, but those I had were long and intense. What would an architect and a theologian talk about, if not of God, religion, injustice against the poor, and the meaning of life?
In our conversations, I sensed someone with a profound saudade of God. He envied me because, even though he considered me an intelligent person, I still believed in God, something he could not do. But I would calm him down by saying: what is important is not to believe or not to believe in God, but to live ethically, with love, solidarity and compassion for those who suffer most. Because at the dusk of life, that is what counts. And in this respect he was very solid. His gaze would be lost in the distance, with a soft glow.
He was once very impressed when I told him this phrase from a medieval theologian: «If God exists as things exists, then God does not exist». And he asked: «what does that mean?» I replied: «God is not an object that can be found anywhere; if it were so, God would be part of the world and not God». But then he would ask: «and what is that God?» And almost in a whisper, I told him: «God is like a species of powerful and loving Energy that creates the conditions so that things may exist; God is more or less like the eye: that sees all but cannot see Itself; or like the thought: the strength through which the thought thinks, can not be thought». He remained thoughtful, but continued: «Christian theology says that?» And I replied: «Christian theology says that, but it is ashamed of saying it, because then it should be silent instead of talking; and it is always talking, especially the popes». But I comforted him with a line attributed to the great Argentinean, Jorge Luis Borges: «Theology is a curious science: in her all is true because all is invented». Niemeyer was amused by that. And he found very graceful the beautiful trouvaille of a sweeper of Rio de Janeiro, the famous Gari Sorriso: «God is the wind and the moon; the dynamic of growing, applause for the one who climbs up and help for the one who is descending». I suspect Oscar would have no difficulty accepting that God, who is so humane and so near us.
He smiled softly and I took the opportunity to say: «Is it not the same with your architecture? In architecture all is simple and beautiful, not because it is rational, but because all is invented and the fruit of the imagination». He agreed with that, adding that he found more inspiration for architecture by reading poetry, novels, and fiction, than by giving himself to intellectual elucidation. I said to him: «in religion it is more or less like that: the greatness of religion is fantasy, the utopic capacity of projecting kingdoms of justice and heavens of happiness. And great modern religious thinkers such as Bloch, Goldman, Durkheim, Rubem Alves and others do not say anything different: our error was to place religion within reason, when its natural niche is found in the imagination and the principle of hope. There religion reveals its truths and can inspire in us the meaning of life».
To me, the greatness of Oscar Niemeyer is not only his genius, which is recognized and praised around the world, but his conception of life and in the depth of his communism. To him, «life is a gust of wind», light and fleeting, but one to be lived with total integrity. Above all, life to him was not pure enjoyment, but creativity and work. He worked up to the end, like Picasso, producing more than 600 works. And, since he was a complete being, he cultivated the arts, literature and sciences. He had began to study cosmology and quantum physics late in life. He was filled with admiration and amazement at the immensity of the universe.
But above all, he cultivated friendship, solidarity and the esteem of everyone. «Architecture is not what is important» he repeated many times, «what is important is life». But not just any life; a life lived in search of the necessary transformation to overcome injustice against the poor, one that improves this perverse world, a life that translates into solidarity and friendship. In the Jornal do Brasil, 21/04/2007, he confessed: «The fundamental is to recognize that life is unjust, and that only by lending each other a hand, as brothers and sisters, can we live life better».
His communism is very close to the communism of the early Christians, as written about in The Acts of the Apostles, chapters 2 and 4. There is said that, “Christians put everything in common and there were no poor among them”. Consequently, it was not an ideologic communism, but ethical and humanitarian one: to share, to live with sobriety, as he always lived, to divest oneself of money, and help those who need it. Everything should be in common. To a journalist who asked him if he would take a pill to have eternal youth, he coherently replied: «I would accept it if it were for all the world; I do not want immortality only for myself».
A moment that stayed with me, occurred at the beginning of the 1980s. Oscar was in Petropolis, and invited me to have lunch with him. I had returned that day from Cuba, where, at the request of Fidel Castro, with Frei Betto, we had dialogued for several years with different echelons of government, (always watched over by the SNI) to see if we could extract them from their dogmatic and rigid conceptions of Soviet Marxism. Those were tranquil times in Cuba. With the support of the Soviet Union, it could carry out its splendid projects of health, education and culture. I shared with him the fact that, no matter where I had gone in Cuba, I never found favela-like shanty towns, but a dignified and industrious poverty. I told him a thousand things about Cuba that, according to Frei Betto, was at that time, «a Bahia that had flourished». His eyes would shine. He almost did not eat. He was filled with enthusiasm, at seeing that, somewhere in the world, his dream of communism could, at least in part, become embodied and be good for the majorities.
It was great my surprise when, two days later, an article by him appeared in the Folha de São Paulo, with a beautiful drawing of three mountains with a cross above. Above it, it said: «Coming down the highland of Petropolis to Rio, I, who am an atheist, prayed to the God of Brother Boff that the situation of the Cuban people may one day be a reality in Brazil». That was the warm, soft and radically human generosity of Oscar Niemeyer.
I have an everlasting remembrance from him. From Darcy Ribeiro, who was a friend-brother of Oscar, I acquired a small apartment in the Alto de Boa-Vista neighborhood, in the Enchanted Valley. From there, the entire Barra de Tijuca can be seen, up to the end of the Recreio de los Bandeirantes. Oscar remade that apartment for his friend, in such a way that, Darcy (who was small in stature) could always see the sea. He made a platform about 50 centimeters high, and, since it could not be otherwise, with a beautiful curve for a corner, as a sea wave on the body of a beloved woman. There I retire when I want to write or meditate a little, because a theologian also must take care to save his soul.
On two occasions, he offered to design a model of a small church for the place where I live, Araras in Petropolis. I declined because I considered it unjust to revalue my property with the work of such a genius as Niemeyer. After all, God is neither in heaven nor on Earth, but there where the doors are open.
Life is not destined to disappear with death, but to be transfigured alchemically through death. Oscar Niemeyer has only passed to the other side of life, to the invisible side. But the invisible forms part of the visible. Because of that, he is not absent, but present, if invisible. But always with the same sweetness, softness, friendship, solidarity and love that always characterized him. And wherever he is, he will be fantasizing, projecting and creating worlds that are beautiful, curved and filled with lightness.