Brasilia, the sixties mortally wounded

Oscar Niemeyer explains in his memoirs that, shortly after Juscelino Kubitschek became President of Brazil in 1956 – who had already counted on him for the construction of an architectural ensemble in Pampulha during the 1940s – he called him again.

This time he had plans to build a great city: «We are going to build the capital of Brazil. A modern capital, the most beautiful capital in the world! », Recalls Niemeyer, who announced him with immense enthusiasm. He further notes that the chosen site was like an “immense and soulless piece of wild land on the remote central interior plain”: “But, to my surprise, all my doubts were dispelled in the face of Kubitschek’s optimism. […] His vision and drive were so contagious that I was soon fully convinced that, in a couple of years, the new capital of our country would rise from there and reach the farthest reaches of the earth. […] A modern and avant-garde city that represents the importance of our country ».

Brazil was then experiencing an important moment of economic prosperity: after World War II it had established itself as a power and engine of South America. Added to this was a state of mind, encouraged by the influence that the Instituto Superior de Estudios Brasileiros (ISEB) had on the ideological, promoting the idea that culture was in the future, in what was not done, in what was be built.

An optimal juncture
The electoral promise to move the country’s capital to the central zone found the optimal juncture to materialize. However, it should be noted that such a project already had a certain historical history: the idea was first formulated by the politician and naturist José Bonifacio de Andrada y Silva, one of the most important figures of the Brazilian imperial period (1822-1889 ). Until then, the country had had two coastal capitals: first, Salvador, and, from 1760, Rio de Janeiro. The Portuguese colony had developed only on the coasts, leaving the interior unexplored. José Bonifacio was trying in this way to break with this historical inertia.

With Niemeyer as architect, emblem of a bold modernity, a public contest was called to choose the person in charge of the urban plan. The chosen one was Lúcio Costa, Niemeyer’s former teacher, who prevailed over the rest with a concise proposal, just a sketch and a few pages in which he did not offer any kind of dense theoretical elaboration, and which he presented as the result of «an idea that was born spontaneously ».

True or not, the fact is that this spontaneous nature that was attributed to the germ of the project fueled the aura of heroism around the creation of Brasilia as a tabula rasa, presenting it as a city that was not the product of calculations and rationality, but of a lightning inspiration. In this way, its symbolic character, its uniqueness, its gaze towards a future that was yet to be made, but whose foundations were already laid, were underlined.

However, Brasilia is based on the foundations of the International Architecture Congresses (CIAM) and the guidelines on urban planning indicated by the Athens Charter (1933). His plan evoked the shape of an airplane with its wings spread out in a smooth arc. The central point was the Plaza of the Three Powers, where the Presidential Palace, the Supreme Court, the Congress and the cathedral rose, buildings whose forms emphasized the impression of spatial openness and rose vigorously towards the sky.

Costa and Niemeyer broke with the rectilinear tradition of rationalism by articulating that monumental axis through the curve. Also crucial in their planning were the superblocks, impressive blocks with residential buildings separated by wide spaces.

From the dialogue that the expressive geometric bodies designed by Niemeyer established with the volumes and open spaces of Costa’s plan resulted what he would describe as “a monumental and hospitable city”, and which, in his time, was read enthusiastically positively by figures like Peter Smithson, but that would be questioned in later years by other critics such as Kenneth Frampton and Manfredo Tafuri, who minimized the innovativeness of his approach by interpreting it as an application of the historical models developed in 1930: an urban model that had already given signs of failure in Europe and that it arrived in Latin America untimely.

Faith in the “candangos”
It was also compared with outdated and authoritarian models of urban planning. The architects Sérgio Ferro and Rodrigo Lefèvre, who designed residential buildings in Brasilia, denounced the situation of the workers they could witness: the Candangos, as those who served as labor were called, coming from the poorest areas of the country They were exploited and subjected to difficult conditions to raise a city whose master plan had not contemplated low-income housing. They also criticized the neatness of the facades, behind which the mark of the human hand that had built them was hidden, and in which they saw a manifestation of the State’s tendency to control social reality.

Perfect future
Brasilia is mainly seen as the manifestation of a utopia whose aim was to bring to the present that future desired by Modernity. A perfect future in which control was aspired, for the individual to conform to the city, and not vice versa.

Retrospectively observed, that utopia imagined by Kubitschek, Costa and Niemeyer (with Le Corbusier in the background) ended up degenerating into a dystopia. A city that is monumental or made to “exhibit”, designed for the automobile. A city to conquer the wild interior of Brazil as corroboration of the power of man over Nature. The power of power over the individual himself. A capital that opted for monumentality and preferred to be hostile to hospitable. The concept of «brasilete» was coined to give name to a trauma: the adaptation period that the newcomer would have to go through before feeling fairly comfortable in Brasilia.

Today, reconfigured, Brasilia is witness to the failure of the idea that architecture should be the director and ordering of the lives of individuals, instead of being permeable and flexible to adapt to their needs.

Sixty years after its foundation, this Brazilian metropolis looks like a retro-future stamp. A vestige of the best and worst of the 20th century.


Palácio da Alvorada (1958). The presidential residence, with an area of ​​7,000 m2 distributed over three floors. Its white marble exterior columns allude to the old colonial domestic architecture.

Seat of the Supreme (Trib. Fed. Of Brazil). The structural calculations of the engineer Joaquim Cardozo allowed the building’s bases to be thin, barely touching the ground, generating an impression of lightness.

Itamaraty Palace (1970). Headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, distinguished by the arches of its facade. Roberto Burle Marx was responsible for the interior and exterior landscaping project.

Palacio do Planalto (1960). Seat of the executive power, with 36,000 m2. Its facade is characterized by two elements: the ramp that leads to the interior lobby, and the parlatorium, from which the president addresses the town.

Brasilia Cathedral (1970). Like an impressive sculpture, the building has a circular floor plan of 70 meters in diameter, from which sixteen concrete columns rise in a hyperboloid format.

National Congress of Brazil (1960). One of the most emblematic buildings in Brasilia, it is characterized by its two domes on a horizontal block: one concave and the other convex. Between them, two towers amount to a hundred meters. .

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