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Notes on the Geography of Brazil: Brasilia

Some planned cities suffer from the Dangerfield Syndrome: who has ever paid much attention to Bhubaneshwar or Lilongwe? Other planned cities get the red-carpet treatment, and of these, along with New Delhi and Chandigarh, Brasilia is high on the list. It's no mystery: the city at its founding had tremendous allure, mostly as the embodiment of a national dream. Outsiders are well-advised not to tamper with national dreams, especially when the nation is bumped and bruised, but the question remains: 60 years after its founding, what does this place look like?

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Brazil: Brasilia picture 1

The idea of a capital in the Outback--the sertão--was an old one, going back to a Cruls Commission in the 1890s and a Belcher report in the 1950s, but implementation depended on this man, Juscelino Kubitscheck--medical doctor, mayor (of Belo Horizonte), governor (of Minas Gerais), and president of Brazil from 1956 to 1961. His campaign slogan had been "Fifty years of progress in five," and he came close on many fronts, most spectacularly here, where the capital was opened on what we might now call a Chinese construction schedule: three years from green light to dedication. The daughter of the city's master planner has written that Kubitschek was asked "Will you move the capital?" He replied, "I will." There you go: no mealy-mouthing there. This memorial, near the Congress building, is an homage to the pioneers in the "great adventure" of "clearing the wilderness."

See Maria Elisa Costa, daughter Lucio, in Roberto Montezuma's Arquitetura brasil 500 anos, 2002, pp. 247.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 2

The chief architect of the project, as distinct from the city planner, was Oscar Niemeyer. Looking back, he wrote, "They can say whatever they like--Brasilia is a miracle. When I went there for the first time everything was just desert, for as far as the eye could see... but the idea sprouted from the very ground itself, as if by enchantment, and now the city is dense and far-reaching... everything was done with hands... white hands, brown hands, black hands, hands of the suffering masses--hands with no resentment--the central pillar of the nation." If you hear a note of socialist exaltation, you're hearing right.

See Montezuma, p. 260.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 3

Costa, the planner responsible for the grand axis and more, was, like Niemeyer, a hardcore supporter of modern architecture. The neocolonial architecture filling Brazil's other cities "was inauthentic and incapable to expressing the yearning for modernisation and internationalisation which accompanied the affirmation of Brazilian identity..."

See Montezuma, p. 186.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 4

We'll try a little walk along the monumental axis. We've moved about 1.5 miles up from the last pictures, and we're looking at what's officially called the Jardim Burle Marx, though Burle Marx, who died in 1994, would surely not be happy with the way his garden looks. He designed many others, in Brasilia and elsewhere, and his reputation will no doubt survive this assault. Keep your eye on that curving road on the left.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 5

Now it's on the right. That's a shopping mall on your left, and that's the elevated bus station sitting athwart the axis. Oddly perhaps, the bus station also marks the main crossing of the axis. An avenue curved like a strung bow crosses the arrow of that main axis, and most of the superblocks of the city are laid out on that curved avenue or several streets parallel to it. The whole place was forest in 1957. The bus station was one of the first buildings on the site and is also, along with a TV tower, the only structures designed by Costa.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 6

Here's that same shopping center, rather spoiling the view of the axis. (Just beyond it, the ribbed roof of the national theater doesn't help.) Still, you can make out the iconic twin towers of the congress and the green-tinted windows of the ministry buildings on this side of them. Disconcertingly, anyone approaching the Congress along the axis is moving not toward the supposedly beckoning Amazon but in a southeasterly direction, back toward the coast.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 7

There's an awful lot of grass on the axis. It's not what garden-designer Marx wanted, but it's great for rock concerts.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 8

The Brasilia dream was of a country that had eliminated poverty. Maria Elisa Costa writes that "it was simply unthinkable to even contemplate that 'low income' would be a Brazilian constant until today. It was believed with total conviction that the development of the country would eliminate poverty in the short term...."

See Montezuma, p. 250.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 9

Lots of people use that bus station, but as Costa writes, none of the 26 plans submitted in the competition for the city's master plan "took into account what we call today--low income." Neither did her father's. Such optimism! It makes Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty seem timid.

See Montezuma, p. 248.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 10

Lucio Costa was horrified by the thought of Rio, at that time the national capital. "The buses, constantly crowded, moved along in Indian file--bumper to bumper--along the whole stretch of the avenue, and along Flamengo and Botafogo beaches, up to the Mourisco." Brazil would be different, "so that traffic flowed easily, in a civilized manner." Well, it does, sort of.

See Montezuma, p. 256.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 11

Drawings show that Marx intended ponds and gardens.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 12

Costa wrote that his plan, though an "original creation, native, Brazilian... [was] of French intellectual descent... the loving memory of Paris was always present." Not just French, though. He continued: "the immense Englsh lawns, the lawns of my childhood, it is from these that the greens of Brasilia appear."

See Montezuma, p. 252.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 13

If you're in a big, big hurry, there's a lot to be said for housing a dozen and more ministries in a dozen and more identical buildings.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 14

Brazilians, too, have grown soft: can't function without AC. What would (and what probably did) Niemeyer say? I'm betting he wouldn't have been happy.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 15

The national congress building, Maria Costa writes, "has become a strong visual reference, a kind of Brasilia logotype that is immediately identifiable anywhere." The semi-spheres house the senate and assembly. Their simplicity may be a source of beauty, but it also helped to keep costs down and construction on schedule.

See Montezuma, p. 270.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 16

A heretical observation: how would you like to have an office in the middle? That's what happens when you design a building as sculpture.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 17

Outside offices would have a view if they weren't screened so completely.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 18

Another Niemeyer design, the president's office or Planalta Palace.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 19

And another, the Ministry of Justice. The waterfalls were added by Niemeyer in the 1980s. An architectural critic for The New York Times calls them "whimsical."

See Nicolai Ouroussoff's article of December 26, 2007.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 20

When the sun goes down, the water's turned off.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 21

Now here's whimsy. It's the Panteao da Patria Tancredo Neves, or the Tancredo Neves Pantheon of the Fatherland, designed by Niemeyer in a moment when he was thinking of doves. Neves had been about to become the nation's first president after 20 years of military dictatorship, but he died before taking office.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 22

Niemeyer designed the Cathedral of Brasilia with its own crown of thorns. Critic Ouroussoff doesn't care for it but he really goes after its neighbor. In a review of later changes in the city, he writes that "perhaps most damaging, however, was the completion last year of Mr. Niemeyer's National Museum... [whose] white dome, pierced at one end by a long ramp, rests on its concrete plaza with the grace of an army bunker."

See Nicolai Ouroussoff's article of December 26, 2007.

Brazil: Brasilia picture 23

A summing up by Maria Elisa Costa: "I believe that it is impossible to understand Brasilia without including the faith and the passion that were involved in its creation and implantation.... Everything pointed to the stimulation of individual expression, towards the collective. We were all part of a unit, full of hope, that was called Brazil." She quotes her father: "Brasilia is not a mere act of personal or political vanity, as in the Renaissance. It is the crowning of a massive collective effort towards national development... a people that was impelled with the construction of a new Brazil, looking to the future, and forging its own destiny."

See Montezuma, pp. 245-6.


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