views updated May 09 2018


Brasília, the capital of Brazil since 1960 (2007 estimated population 2.3 million). Like many seats of national government, Brasília was a deliberate creation rather than a city that arose spontaneously and organically. The idea of relocating the capital of Brazil from Rio de Janeiro to the backward, sparsely inhabited interior to encourage settlement and development was talked about as early as 1761. In 1891, 5,500 square miles of the Planalto Central were set aside for the site of the future Federal District, but the project did not begin in earnest until 1955, when five possible sites were evaluated in detail by Belcher Associates of Ithaca, New York. The final choice, made in 1956, was located 35 miles southeast of the small town of Planaltina.

The city would probably never have been built had it not been for the efforts of the remarkably dynamic Juscelino Kubitschek, who had risen from humble origins in the state of Minas Gerais to become the president of Brazil in 1956. Kubitschek promised in his campaign to bring Brasília to reality. Presidents were allowed to serve only one term, and Kubitschek, realizing he had to present his successor with a fait accompli, knew he only had five years to get the city built. To design the city he commissioned the architect Oscar Niemeyer, who had designed the barrio of Pampulha in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais, when Kubitschek was governor. Niemeyer was a disciple of Le Corbusier, the father of the modern glass tower, which was beginning to dominate the skylines of many Latin American cities, symbolizing their yearning for progress. Niemeyer devoted himself to Brasília's public buildings. He drew a central square as monumental and majestic as Mexico's prehistoric Teotihuacán, with two rows of green-glass ministries leading down to the Congress, whose two chambers, offset by white towers, resemble two bowls, one face up, the other down; to the president's delicately arched white-marble Planalto Palace; and to the serenely lyrical Itamariti Palace, headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a low-slung structure sitting in water and accessible only by ramps, with an outer sheath of tall, slender arches that were, like the Planalto Palace's, a stylization of colonial architecture. The Costa e Silva Bridge, another of the city's architectural wonders, whose 500-foot free span was the greatest of any suspension bridge in Latin America, took six years to finish.

An open competition for the city plan was won by Niemeyer's Rio de Janeiro colleague, Lúcio Costa. Niemeyer and Costa shared a vision of an egalitarian utopia where all classes would live together and the slums that marred Brazil's other cities would be avoided. Costa's Pilot Plan was shaped like an airplane whose fuselage was devoted to Niemeyer's design for the public buildings, and whose wings were the residential areas, each with sixty "superquadras," which were minicommunities patterned after a medieval town and serviced by their own schools, churches, and shopping areas. Each six-story block of apartments was separated by green space and was raised on pilings so children could play under it.

Many criticized the city for its sterile modernity. At the time of its inauguration on 21 April 1960, Brasília seemed to some visitors too rational, too programmed. If one wanted to have a night on the town, for instance, one did this in the Sector of Diversions. To minimize the number of intersections, street corners, and stoplights and thus ensure the unimpeded circulation of traffic, Costa had created a "speedway city" with a convoluted system of ramps, cloverleafs, and pedestrian overpasses. The problem with this was that it increased the distance to everything and discouraged pedestrian travel. Brasília became the hub of a vast highway system, with interstates shooting off to distant cities like Belém, Cuiabá, Belo Horizonte, and Salvador. The dream of national integration was achieved, but at a cost of several billion dollars, which sent inflation spiraling, created social unrest, and led to the 1964 military coup.

Brasília made aesthetic waves, but the hoped-for social revolution did not take place. After 1960 the apartments in the blocks were placed on the open real-estate market, and the construction workers who had built the city and been affectionately dubbed candangos by Kubitschek (most were dark-skinned poor from the Northeast) were bought out and forced to live in unplanned satellite cities 20 miles away. Today the federal district's population is about 3 million. Less than a million live in the Pilot Plan itself; the rest live in the satellite cities. The rich live in mansions along two artificial V-shaped lakes below the Pilot Plan created by Paranoá dam, an area that Niemeyer and Costa planned as a park for everybody but, Niemeyer complained, was "usurped by the bourgeoisie." The surrounding cerrado, or savanna, studded with small, warped trees, is spectacularly open. With the concrete slabs of many buildings cracked and coated with black mildew, the city's modernity is no longer so shocking. André Malraux, on a 1959 visit, called Brasília the Capital of Hope, but five years later it became the headquarters of twenty-five years of brutal military dictatorship. With the return to civilian rule in 1985, Brasília has become a symbol of appalling political corruption.

See alsoArchitecture: Modern Architecture .


Norma Evenson, Two Brazilian Capitals (1973).

Juscelino Kubitschek, Por que construi Brasília (1975).

Alex Shoumatoff, The Capital of Hope (1980).

Additional Bibliography

Bursztyn, Marcel, and Carlos Henrique Araújo. Da utopia à exclusão: Vivendo nas ruas em Brasília. Rio de Janeiro: Garamond; Brasília: Codeplan, 1997.

Couto, Ronaldo Costa. Brasília Kubitschek de Oliveira. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2001.

Dahdah, Farès. Lucio Costa: Brasilia's superquadra. London: Prestel, 2005.

El-Khoury, Rodolphe, and Edward Robbins. Shaping the City: Studies in History, Theory and Urban Design. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Goncalves, Maria da Conceição Vasconcelos. "Favelas teimosas": Lutas por moradia. Brasília: Thesaurus, 1998.

Gorelik, Adrián. Das vanguardas a Brasília: Cultura urbana e arquitetura na América Latina. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2005.

Gouvêa, Luiz Alberto de Campos. Brasília: A capital da segregação e do controle social: Uma avaliação da ação governamental na área da habitação. São Paulo: Annablume, 1995.

Lopes, Luís Carlos. Brasília: O enigma da esfinge, a construção e os bastidores do poder. Porto Alegre: Editora da Universidade, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul; São Leopoldo: Editora Unisinos, 1996.

Paviani, Aldo, and Ignez Costa Barbosa Ferreira. Brasília: Dimensões da violência urbana. Brasília: Editora UNB, 2005.

Sinoti, Marta Litwinczik. Quem me quer, não me quer: Brasília, metrópole-patrimônio. São Paulo: Annablume, 2005.

                                     Alex Shoumatoff


views updated May 29 2018

Brasília Capital of Brazil, w central Brazil. Although the city was originally planned in 1891, building did not start until 1956. The city was laid out in the shape of an aircraft, and Oscar Niemeyer designed the modernist public buildings. It was inaugurated as the capital in 1960, in order to develop Brazil's interior. Pop. (2000) 2,043,169.