Brasília Is Orphan


"I am neither a capitalist nor a socialist, I am not a
religious or an atheist," he used to say to those willing to pin him down.

"All I want is to rest a little, my daughter," said Lúcio Costa, 96, in his
husky, almost-inaudible voice, after drinking in bed from the coffee and milk cup offered
by his daughter Maria Elisa who was sitting by his side, at his modest Rio apartment. Then
he covered his face with his hands and let his head fall to the side. No pain, no
prolonged disease. The man who created Brasília closed his eyes and peacefully went away.
It was about 9 AM, June 13. As a friend observed: "He died like a little bird."

British urbanist William Holford, president of the jury that in 1957 chose Costa’s
project as the winning entry in the competition for building Brasília, commented:
"His project is a work of genius and one of the greatest contributions to
contemporary urbanism."

What are your plans for the future, asked Ronaldo Brasiliense, the reporter for Correio
Braziliense, Brasília’s most respected daily. "Simply to die," answered
Lúcio Costa. "I dream with a tomb at the São João Batista cemetery, which I’ve
already bought." It was October 6, 1997, and according to Correio, this was
the last interview from the architect and urbanist who created Brasília, Brazil’s modern
capital. Costa was 95 then and received the journalist in his apartment in Leblon, in the
south zone of Rio. Lucid till the end, he revealed that he would have done all exactly the
same if he were offered another chance to redo his plans for the creation of the Brazilian

Costa got his wish to be buried at the São João Batista, in the Botafogo
neighborhood. Friends and relatives, though, complained about the little concern Rio’s
authorities showed for his death. State governor Marcello Alencar and Rio’s mayor Luiz
Paulo Conde didn’t show up at the burial.

Long-time friend filmmaker Luiz Carlos Barreto interpreted the feelings of many others
when he said: "This is a vexing and scandalous situation that a man of such
importance is not paid homage neither by City Hall nor by the state government."
Barreto thought that the authorities should have organized a public wake at the Culture
Ministry building, one of the architect’s many projects for the city.

Cristovam Buarque, the District Federal governor, however, came from Brasília for the
funeral. Buarque has presented legislator two proposals: to give the name Lúcio Costa to
the so-called eixo monumental (monumental axis) in the center of Brasília and to
erect a monument to the city’s creator.

The architect’s father was Joaquim Ribeiro da Costa, a naval engineer from Bahia, and
his mother, Alina Ferreira from the state of Amazonas. The architect was born in Toulon,
France, on February 27, 1902, and lived in England and Switzerland. He was already 16 when
he moved to Brazil in 1918. It was his father without consulting him who enrolled the son
at Escola Nacional de Belas-Artes (National School of Fine Arts) setting the path that
would make him famous worldwide. He graduated in architecture.

Costa had a collection of prestigious international titles and memberships. He was a
Doctor Honoris Causa by Harvard University since 1960, and member of the American
Institute of Architects, the Royal Institute of British Architects, and France’s Académie
d’Architecture. French President Georges Pompidou awarded him in 1970 the country’s most
prestigious medal, the Légion d’Honneur. Despite all the international titles, however,
he was never made a honorary citizen by Brasília, the city that he created. "This
does not bother me," he stated in his last interview.

and Poor

"I am neither a capitalist nor a socialist, I am not a religious or an
atheist," he used to say to those willing to pin him down. He never became wealthy
and in the last years of his life he survived thanks to the $1.200 monthly pension he
received for his lifetime work as a public servant. In his rundown apartment the blinders
were rusting, the carpet worn down, and the sofa torn apart.

Costa always reminded people that he got the Brasília assignment in 1957 in a public
competition not as favor. The work was concluded in record time and Brasília became
Brazil’s new capital on April 21, 1960. He recalled in an interview that he was on a ship
going back to Brazil from the United States when he decided to apply for a chance to build
a new city. "All in Brasília was creation, it came from my head. It wasn’t based in
anything but my background as architect and urbanist," he said proudly.

The idea was to move Brazil’s capital from an overcrowded Rio to a barren plateau in
the geographic center of the country. It was President Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira
(1956-1960) wish that the creation of the new capital would spur the development of
Brazil’s hinterland. A monument to modern architecture, Brasília has joined Venice and
China’s Great Wall in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The city was conceived as a celebration and a reminder of the balance of the three
powers. The Supreme Court, Congress and the Presidential Palace are side by side at the
end of the east-west main axis while the ministerial and other government buildings sit on
both sides of the ample avenue. A second axis laid in a north-south direction houses
residential districts. Superquadras (superblocks) for specific commerce and
businesses were also created. Streets have no names, only number and letters. The city has
been called hostile to pedestrians by Brasilienses (Brasília residents)

The explosive growth of Brasília always worried the Lúcio Costa. In his plan the city
would have 500,000 residents by the year 2,000. Brazil’s capital, however, is close to
reach 2 million people. Even though he had asked that the city controlled its growth,
Costa was proud of his creation. After one of his last visits to the city he commented:
"The truth is the dream was smaller than reality. And the reality was bigger and more
beautiful than the dream.”

The urbanist’s work was always overshadowed by that of Oscar Niemeyer who was
responsible for designing most of the important buildings in the new capital. "I
created Brasília, the project is mine," says Lúcio Costa when asked if the
paternity of the city should be shared with architect Oscar Niemeyer. He recognizes,
however, that many buildings, like the Alvorada Palace and the Cathedral, created by
Niemeyer became the striking post cards of the new capital.

It’s been constantly repeated that the so-called Plano Piloto (Pilot Plan) for
Brasília was inspired by the shape of a plane. "Nonsense," said Costa.
"That is ridiculous. That’s an acceptable analogy, but it would be total imbecility
to make a city in the shape of an airplane. So it looks like a cross for those who like a
cross, dragonfly, spaceship or bow and arrow. Each one sees whatever he wishes to

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