That night, I am invited to dinner by Varejão and Buarque. I’m curious to see the house as it was intended: full of people, made imperfect by a kind of kinetic carelessness. When I arrive, open bottles of wine sweat in an ice bucket beneath a Lygia Clark painting. I sag into a leather chair by Lina Bo Bardi. Varejão serves a traditional meal that we eat on a large dining table made by Sergio Rodrigues — picadinho (beef stew) and baked fish, rice and beans, a banana purée, fried quail’s eggs, and chopped cabbage from the countryside garden of Varejão’s friends, the filmmaker Walter Salles and his wife, the artist Maria Klabin. Varejão and Buarque’s friends are artists, singers, musicians, writers — we discuss everything from João Guimarães Rosa’s Joycean novel “The Devil to Pay in the Backlands” (1956) to the pessimism that surrounds Brazilian politics today. Modernism may have become an empty expression of bourgeoisie taste, but here it feels reinvigorated, charged. I’m told many times that I must visit Brasília, which is less than two hours away by plane.
Instead, the next day, I go to the house Niemeyer built for himself in Rio in 1953. It is past Leblon, the wealthy beachside neighborhood, in Barra de Tijuca, another wealthy beachside neighborhood. On my winding drive there, I glimpse the favelas. This is Rio, too, where immense poverty abuts immense wealth. Niemeyer was disdainful of money, even if he worked with those who had it. He rarely wrote about the private residences he designed, and he allowed only a handful to be illustrated or listed — as is the case with many prominent architects, he largely considered these designs exceptions, favors or one-offs. But his own house, with its views of both the mountains and the ocean, is canonical for its elegant curves and its cloudlike roof that sweeps across the horizon. To Niemeyer, light was a form of pleasure.
The house now sits unused but open to visitors; two volunteers from the Oscar Niemeyer Foundation inform me that the furniture is contemporary. That Niemeyer couch was his. But the fabric is soiled. The books downstairs belong to his personal library. But the pages have warped from the humidity. The pool, less a kidney and more of a chickpea, is filled with leaves. I feel like someone discovering a bronze Roman statue at the bottom of the Aegean Sea, its beauty disguised by oxidization, its form marred by barnacles and tangled seaweed. As I flip through a pamphlet laid out for visitors, I see pictures of the house sometime in the 1950s, filled with guests at a party. They are nattily dressed, laughing, with cocktails and cigarettes in their hands. They look as if they are still waiting for the future to arrive.