August 21: the island of Brasilia

2012/08/21 § 1 Comment

On this day in 1960 Brasilia was inaugurated as the new capital of Brazil.

Although the idea to move the capital of Brazil to the country’s interior dates to the seventeenth century, the actual project to create a capital out of nothing in the middle of nowhere began only in 1956.  The overall design by planner Lucio Costa features monumental public works by architect Oscar Niemeyer. The planning was based in the principles espoused by CIAM, the acolytes of Le Corbusier: a huge formally driven urban scheme separates functions into freestanding structures that tower over expanses of pavement and grass, connected by huge traffic arteries that slash through the site.  Residential areas are cordoned off in nodes that snap shut like a Tupperware lid.

Brasilia’s architecture also reflects Modernist ideology that had sprouted first in Europe some decades earlier and, like clogs, have been inexplicably embraced world-wide.  Niemeyer’s buildings are large, severe abstracted forms (again, like clogs!), with neither traditional symbols of government buildings nor any reference to Brazil’s architectural heritage.  The National Congress (above) is marked by two big soup bowls indicating the Senate (overturned bowl) and the Chamber of the Deputies (upright) flanking twin office towers.  It’s just enough like a traditional bicameral government building (wings flanking a dome) to make the point that it’s definitely not a traditional bicameral government building.  How clever.

Given the universal (or at least “International”) character of the plan and architecture, Brasilia could be anywhere.  It may as well be the capital of Modworld since it so perfectly expresses the kind of Utopian optimism that Modernists once had for solving the world’s problems through city planning. (They’re still optimistic that way; read anything from the mid-century, substitute the word “sustainability” for “planning” and you’ve got the point.)  It’s also a great monument to the hypocrisy of such schemes.  It is true that within the confines of Brasilia itself traffic flows and residents live sunny hygienic lives, but it’s also true this utopia extends only as far as the police can chase off hoodlums and as much as the municipal janitorial staff can scrub graffiti off the city which has far outgrown its concrete britches.  Even the architect is willing to concede that the planned city cannot keep up with its growth: in 2008 Niemeyer (b. 1907!) told the Guardian “The way Brasilia has evolved, it has problems. It should have stopped growing some time ago.”  Brasilia has been nicknamed “Fantasy Island” for its quality as a dreamt-up place that floats in the midst of a reality marked by congested traffic, high crime and ugly sprawl.  The city designed for 500,000 is now home to well over two million with significant unemployment, especially among young people, and lack of social services for everyone.

Image: black dog, white city.  National Congress, Brasilia (from this source)


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§ One Response to August 21: the island of Brasilia

  • Susan Barsy says:

    The modernist element aside, planned capitals might often have the feel and problems you describe. The artificiality, the inappropriateness, the arbitrariness, the grandiosity: such were attributed to 19th-century DC too. We too chose to employ a grand architecture that arguably had nothing with us; yet the choices were perhaps not so unwise after all (especially as your recent post on the Smithsonian suggests what we might have ended up with had we turned our backs on a hegemonic tradition/style). You probably know that book about “invented capitals.”

    Something about your post reminds me of the documentary movie “My Architect” by Nathaniel Kahn, which culminates, if I remember correctly, in his visiting the Bangladeshi Parliament building that his father Louis designed. (Timely, too, as you have been on the subject of fathers and sons.) Another point of comparison, perhaps.

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