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Brazzil - Places - May 2004

Brasília, Brazil, in Search of a Soul

Brasília, Brazil's capital city, feels distant and impersonal. It
is over-planned, lacking the rambling, organic touch of Rio, for
example. On the other side, Brasília is also a clean and
prosperous city, which seems to have escaped the worst ravages
of crime that afflict its most illustrious counterparts to the east.

Shafik Meghji


Picture The city of Brasília occupies a peculiar space in the Brazilian psyche. Home to over two million people, it is the nation's capital, the seat of government and the palace of justice and a focal point for business and investment.

But mention Brasília to the average Brazilian and reactions range from apathy to barely-disguised derision. As the city closes in on its 45th birthday it is still regarded as the ugly sister when compared with the sensuous glamour of Rio de Janeiro, the bustling multi-culturalism of São Paolo and the rich African culture, music and cuisine of Salvador.

A Frankenstein creation amongst natural beauties. So where has the bold vision of former President Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira and renowned modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer gone awry?

Kubitschek came to office in 1956 consumed with the dream of building a new capital (to replace Rio) in the heart of the country. This he hoped would help to revitalize the under-developed central west region and bolster Brazil's then uncertain economy.

In less than four years, fueled by a massive civilian effort, Brasília was born, occupying its own federal district carved out of the savannah Goiás state. A tearful Kubitschek inaugurated the city to cheers and applause.

The population had been fashioned through a mixture of offers of cheap land and houses and massive pay rises. Niemeyer, along with landscape architect Burle Marx and urban planner Lúcio Costa, was given a free hand to design.

The result was a lay-out based around the shape of an airplane. At the top, in the 'cockpit', the government and judicial buildings are based. Along the fuselage, in central Brasília, are lined the hotels, parks and various attractions.

The long-distance bus terminal and the former train station are located in the tail. The main residential areas are in the north and south wings, which stretch out from the fuselage.

It was here, as Jane, who runs a travel agency in the city, explains, that Niemeyer, the arch functionalist, really put his imagination to work. The wings were designed along a complex numbered grid system.

"Each block of houses was built with another corresponding block of facilities parallel," says Jane. "So there are always shops, schools, hospitals and churches close by to where people live."

Huge one-way, multi-lane highways, with innumerable turn-offs and bends, were constructed with the aim of keeping the number of traffic lights to a minimum and maintaining vehicle flow.

But whilst these ideas appear rational and logical on the drawing board, when put into practice the results proved, in part at least, jumbled and dysfunctional.

Art critic Robert Hughes famously described Brasília as "an utopian horror. It should be a symbol of power but... It is a ceremonial slum infested with Volkswagens."

The city, though friendly to motorists, is an assault course for the pedestrian. Distances are vast and simple acts like crossing the road become frustrating and potentially hazardous.

The rationally-conceived numerical lay-out—roads generally have a number rather than a name—is mystifying for the newcomer and causes difficulty even for the local.

Other criticisms of Brasília are not so much the fault of the ambitious designers but the problems endemic to all new, planned towns. Shorn of the Portuguese architecture, the Baroque churches and colonial town-houses, that is such an appealing feature of most Brazilian cities and towns, Brasília feels distant and impersonal.

It is over-planned, lacking the rambling, organic touch of Rio, for example. For all Niemeyer's skill, it is a near-impossible task to inject a city with that vital but elusive characteristic: a soul. The sprawling malls, soaring office blocks, chain stores and fast food joints are a symptom of globalization, but appear more pronounced amidst Brasília's modernity.

Nevertheless, the prevailing view of Brasília is only half true. To place the city in the same bracket as Celebration, Florida, a master-planned, white-picket fence, gated community near Disney World, or the modern concrete jungle of Milton Keynes in the UK, is unfair.

Brasília is a clean and prosperous city, which appears to have escaped the worst ravages of crime and violence that afflict its most illustrious counterparts to the east. Moreover the city's inhabitants are friendly, engaging and, by and large, enthusiastic about where they live.

Glimpses of Niemeyer's talent do shine through. Le Courbusier's disciple has said that he wanted to replicate in the city the Brazilian 'curve'—of the coastline, the hills and the people—and this is evident in his Catedral Metropolitana.

An impressive construction of multi-colored stained glass, undulating columns reaching towards the sky that finish in a spiked crown. The memorial to Kubitschek is also eye-catching and from his plinth a statue of the former president can gaze down on the city he founded. Whether he sees the triumph of logical urban planning or a "utopian horror", however, is not known.

Shafik Meghji is a freelance journalist based in London, but currently traveling and writing his way around South America. He has worked for the London Evening Standard and the Press Association and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian. He can be contacted at shafikmeghji@hotmail.com

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