The Brazilian genius Jose Zanine Caldas had some seventieth birthday in 1989. Ten of his country's leading intellectuals (led by architect Oscar Niemeyer) put together a bilingual (Portuguese and English) festscrift "Zanine: Feeling and Doing" as the catalog for the first exhibition of this self-taught sculptor, furniture maker, architect outside his native country. The stunning assemblage of slabs of wood from his beloved forests, sculpture, and photo tours of his architecture was the rage of Paris during its two-month run at the Musee des arts decoratifs (MAD) on the Rue Rivoli during the Festival of Autumn.
That venue was itself not a little fortuitous. It seems a few years back that M. Michel Guy, director general of the Festival of Autumn, while vacationing in Brazil, was bowled over when he stumbled upon the simple but eloquent buildings of this professor of architecture from the University of Brasilia. (His nom de chisel is just plain Zanine). What most intrigued Guy was the sociological dimension of Zanine's ouevre. For Zanine's response to the housing crisis was to create prototype houses out of refuse and debris which the poor could build by themselves-- using the vernacular traditions of 450 years of Brazilian building in native woods which Zanine
has carefully and systematically rediscovered behind all the feverish activities of contemporary construction in concrete.
"I had the idea," Guy recently wrote me, "that Zanine's work could be transposed to Europe as rural architecture. The use of materials found on the spot gives architecture a certain homogeneity and,what's more, reduces costs. As Zanine has shown, this means that either the inhabitants themselves can build or help build their own houses, or it may result in the construction of localities in direct contact with the environment. It was not just Zanine's work, but also his aesthetic, social and financial concepts which inspired me to invite him to France to contribute to research on rural architecture." (Letter, 2/l6,90).
But Zanine is his own best witness. As he writes in "Sentir e Fazer": "I come from a constructive family which traversed the era when the banks of the Jequitinhonha /in Belmonte, Southern Bahia in the great Northeast quadrant of Brazil/were a 'Far West', with many bandits and no hero, when the cocoa trees were being planted in the forests, as described in Jorge Amado's books. Inasmuch as there were plenty of hands for the job of killing people, my father chose a profession in which there was less rivalry, and became a doctor. At a time and place where there was no dearth of people specializing in the taking of lives, he became known and admired for saving lives and curing an infinity of minor illnesses. I grew up between the river and the sea, lit by the old Belmonte lighthouse, in shady yards under fruit-trees, in the calm, immense Brazil which watched two world wars from a distance. At night, we would hear the news about battles between foreign armies on the "Repoter Esso" program, among Carmen Miranda sambas, Chico Viola's serenades and advertisement for Gumex, Glostora, shirt manufacturers, American automobiles and Pilulas Vitalizantes (blood-colored), a famous national vermicide produced by the Lomba laboratory."
Such was the bucolic paradise which nurtured his idiosyncratic muse. But such peace has given way today in Brazil to a fierce civil war between a few rich and the teeming poor of the favellas. And he has dedicated his great design genius to the amelioration of their plight.
He tells the oft-told tale of a school system hostile to the unusually gifted. "Of course I was soon thrown into school to learn to read and write, a drudgery. Even today I survive without needing mathematics--arithmetic is quite sufficient. "I really began to understand geometry in space with the fruits of the gourd and in the cart-wheel factory. A log of wood was tapered into perfect straight lines and curves, while the iron rim glowed in the forge. It was wonderful to watch it, red-hot, being fixed around the wooden wheel, which blazed, blackened but did not ignite. There was no air to burn between the hot rim and the wood."
Even today Zanine retains this Blakean sense of grateful wonder when contemplating the discrete particulars of "ordinary" life. It is his special genius to flatter by the praise of inventive imitation the unsung quotidian geniuses of everyday life in Brazil. "Ever since I was small," he recalls in the brief memoir that introduces "Feeling and Doing","I have been fascinated by those who did something. The tailor who made clothes, the cook who made the food, the pharmacist who made medicines, the carpenter who made tables and chairs, the foreman who made houses, the shoemaker who made boots, the man who transformed empty tins into lamps, the one who made straw hats and baskets." The key word is "transform", the miracle of vernacular creation, the astonishing skill and fecundity of homo faber. Here was a metier full of promise for Zanine.
"While watching others doing things, and my father curing illnesses, I began to be involved with trees. There were huge forests around Belmonte, enormous trees, always green, which the farmers, in their avidity to plant more Swiss chocolate, hewed and burned. Bulls and cows grazed among the debris of secular forest which the Portuguese encountered when they arrived in Brazil, in l500." Zanine learned his greatest lesson: "that wood has two lives: the first, as trees; the second, as tables and chairs, beds and cupboards, floors and brooms, bowls and ladles, houses and sheds, cribs and coffins." It was in wood's second life--"generated by the human hand and spirit"--that he would find fulfillment. "Wood lives its first life for itself, allowing us to pick its fruit, which the little birds dispute with us and with other animals. Forest consist of rain, rivers, water-falls, and are nourished by themselves and the sun's rays." It is indeed a magical kingdom.
But then the spiritually transcendent second life of wood--Zanine's world. "Wooden objects are created by our imagination and become real shapes; they live with us for generations, transforming themselves, impregnating themselves with life experience, serving as witnesses and maintaining their usefulness. . . For many thousands of years, wood has relived in the form of objects, has disappeared in the fire at man's behest, or rotted in the open air as the gods' behest." Those milennia of craft experiences, world-wide, not just in Brazil, are what Zanine considers his school, his seminar at large.
Zanine is always teaching, himself and others. As he led me around the Paris exhibition, a firm but gentle grasp of the back of my right arm, he "lectured" me about the glories of his chosen material. "The encyclopedia on the table says that the Latin word "materia" is connected to the root of "mater", mother, and means matter, wood, theme, subject. The word wood was documented in the Portuguese language in the year llll. The god of the forest, Oxossi's number is four; he protects hunters and all those who make a living by collecting forest products, such as latex gatherers, the Brazil-nut gatherers, the wood-pickers. The word "madeiro", in the masculine gender, appeared in the llth century."
Such continuities energize Zanine's muse. When he shows me his first furniture--Bauhaus inspired laminated wood and aluminum, he mocks himself by saying,"You see I had to learn to "regress" to wood." The Bauhaus connection is illuminating. The German ideologues strove to cleanse Eurodesign of its historicisms by tutoring student craftsmen on a "clean slate". No tabula rasa appeals to the mature Zanine. He craves the almost infinitely intergrown and laceily connected rain forest. There is the metaphor of life's fecundity that appeals to his imagination.
He is a Druid of the Amazon. "Mankind's first protection," he explains to his class of one,"was the bonfire, pieces of wood glowing in the night to frighten the other stronger and more voracious animals. Mankind's shelters continued to be built with earth and wood. Belmonte's lath and adobe houses, roofed with baked clay tiles made in kilns heated by charcoal. It was precisely by watching it being done that I learned to do it myself. Above all, houses. The city was being built and rebuilt, for many years, without architects, with its straight, tree-shaded roads, on the banks of the Jequitinhonha River, when I was born. The foremen knew their trade. They erected the church, my grandfather's house and my father's house. Dignified, robust, longlasting buildings."
No blather about Bauhaus beginnings from scratch. And Zanine found the same gospel of continuity wherever he went in the world. "And there they were, the doers, the various foremen, building shelters for their antique cultures, when I visited them in Africa." The same in China.
Thus the paradox of Zanine that astonishes, and ultimately humbles, the ultra-sophisticated like Michel Guy--and me. Man cannot live by beton alone. Le Corbusier created a learned cul de sac, a labyrinth from which we are now trying to extricate ourselves. There is an almost evangelical dimension to this conviction that foremen not architects are the transmitters of the tuths we need to shelter ourselves nobly. Nobly. Imagine that. The last shall be first. The lowliest shall lead us. Suffer the little children to come into their inheritance.
Try to imagine what a revelation he was to his "superiors" in Brazil, when "silent on a peak in Darien" so to speak, they first glimpsed this great Atlantic of a genius. Listen to Oscar Niemeyer, the creator of Brasilia. He remembers Zanine as an "old comrade whom I knew in Brasilia somewhere around the 50's, still engaged with plants, decoration and scale models. Zanine was the maquette maker for Brasilia's buildings.
Afterwards, many years later, I visited a house which he had built at Barra da Tijuca. He was no longer the Zanine I had known, but an architect who was discovering the secrets of architecture, capable of creating spaces and contrasts with his craftman's tendency to build wooden houses. I was surprised by his talent, the unconstrained way in which, suddenly, he knew how to make use of a lovely big glass plate in his simple and unpretentious houses. And I was pleased to see how well he chose the old elements--doors, windows, low fences, etc.--which he bought from the city's antique shops in order to lend his work the peculiar character he had in mind. Zanine is a fortunate case of a self-taught man. His school was life itself and architecture, his natural and inevitable path."
Alas, Zanine's odyssey has taken an ominous turn. He exiled himself and his agency D.A.M. (the Center for the Protection of Brazilian Woods) from Brazil, setting up shop in a small village fifty miles outside Paris. Not a single Brazilian newspaper or magazine reviewed his Paris exhibition. He has fought the depredators of wood in his native country so fiercely that they have responded with a total media blackout. He told me he was counting on Europe's becoming young again as his best chance to save his beloved forests. "It takes 300-400 hectares of rain forest to raise one cow three years for hamburger," he tells me on the verge of tears. He has never visited America for which he has a deeply ambivalent feeling--it's the land of the Walt Whitman who inspired him as a young man, but it is also the home of Burger King, whose insatiable maw for raw materials are obliterating his woods.
When our conversation at MAD reached a certain plane, he excused himself and returned with a weird looking piece of wood. He loved it, he said, because mosquitoes breed in the puddles its roots form. "The mosquitoes are my militia, making it harder for the barbarians to destroy my trees. I want you to have it for a souvenir." You should have seen the looks the airline stewardesses gave me as I lugged it from plane to plane.
Like Zanine, it's crazy but beautiful.