In 1883 the Italian Priest John Bosco had a dream that a new, entirely modern civilization would rise up from a city by a man-made lake, between the latitudinal parallels of 15° and 20°. It would become the Promised Land.
Brasília was completed in 1960, between the parallels of 15° and 20° on the shores of a man-made lake. Naturally many of the churches in town celebrate the clairvoyance of Dom Bosco. Whether Brasília is the epicenter for a new civilization remains to be seen, but her planners certainly seemed to have kept that eventuality in mind.
It is interesting to compare the capitals of the two largest countries in the Americas. Washington D.C. is a planned city built on a swamp, using neo-classical architecture to marry herself into an ancient Democratic inheritance. Brasília was also planned, built in the empty Brazilian savannah, using the lofty, untried ideals of modernism to create a model capital to which the rest of the country could aspire. The difference, apart from looking to the past versus the future, was that Brasília wasn’t meant to just project an image, it was built to be a functional urban utopia – a vision of Brazil’s destiny made manifest. Brasília isn’t an experiment, its a fully operational plan. The question is, does it work?
We arrived in town weary from our long drive, having slept in a couple of the least well planned modern cities on earth. We passed through the favelas that ring Brasília, and I tutted, the first of many unplanned-for adaptations to this contrived community. Funneled onto a wide highway, we were sucked into the city’s orbit and drawn towards its center.
We were in the middle of a curious serious of parallel highways, seen from above as wings of a giant bird or airplane, leading to the body of the city. When we approached our destination, we decelerated onto a tight little cloverleaf off-ramp that spun us around and underneath to another, smaller highway running next to the first. Then, another little cloverleaf with no shoulder and little warning that pulled us around and under the second highway like we were riding the laces of a giant shoe.
We were spat out into a collection of apartment blocks that at first glance appeared identical, and in many ways were. Oscar Niemeyer had designed the prototypes for the first dozen blocs, and other architects had taken it from there. Throughout them all though were concrete screens reminiscent of hard white honeycomb running the length of every floor. From behind the screens one could see the view and feel the breeze, but from the street below the occupants were invisible. The screens allowed for both air and privacy, well tailored to the warm, dry subtropical climate.
We stayed with a pair of AirB&B hosts in one of these blocs, with a private room and view of more identical buildings stacked repetitively outside.
Walking the planned city with its early era miniature freeways and car friendly streets was frustrating. Despite five million years of walking upright, Brasília’s designers had decided to bet heavily on the future of the car. Crosswalks were rare and dangerous. Dead-ends at busy six lane roads were common, challenging pedestrians to a life sized game of Frogger if they dared try to shop for groceries on foot.
It was dangerous and maddening and got my mind racing, cursing the arrogance of modernist city planners who had spent years learning how to upend traditional city grids and apparently no time walking to buy a coffee. To quote Jurassic Park (my kind of highbrow literature) ‘life finds a way’ and today these developments all bear the telltale signs of humans ignoring the plan (“They’ll certainly understand the need to walk around this flowerbed”) by cutting muddy diagonals across any flowerbed slowing them down. I always secretly cheer for human nature when I find muddy footprints tracked through Utopia.
Strangely enough, Brazil’s other signature dwelling is the favela. Brasília’s planners seem not to have planned for degradation or atrophy. Nor did they account for human spontaneity, creativity or ingenuity. But a place like Rocinha does because it is all of these things. As I said in our entry on our trip to Dorinha’s house: Rocinha is evolution to Brasília’s creationism. Ironic since the modernists were very much rooted in secularism* and the citizens of Rocinha appeared to be very devout.
Our main purpose of visiting Brasília was to pay homage to Oscar Niemeyer, one of the world’s great visionary architects and a Brazilian hero who passed away last year. Placed around the city for maximum effect are his architectural monuments to God and the State. Niemeyer’s contributions to the capital, grand monuments that wink at classical architecture before turning its principals upside down, are a huge success. The soaring edifices project a new, forward-thinking authority that Brazil’s government at the time of Brasília’s construction could only hope to live up to.
We spent several days visiting as many of Niemeyer’s buildings as we could. Usually we went by car. We’d given up walking as the designers intended and circled around the long mall leading to the houses of Congress and the Senate, one of his finest moments. Though a long line of dominos that are the government administration buildings struck us as a bit too eastern block, the Planalto Palace, Itamaraty Palace, the Palace of Justice and the National Congress Building were visionary, projecting a sort of futuristic authority appropriate to a city foreseen by a clairvoyant.
On our last night we stayed at the Brasília Palace Hotel to celebrate our tenth anniversary. The hotel was a classic Niemeyer design, a long white box levitated by insubstantial looking columns. It burned down some years ago and fell to ruin, only recently has it been restored. Barely a half mile from the Presidential residence, it hosted half of the 20th century’s greatest or most notorious leaders and thinkers. Now it feels a bit empty. Grand halls meant for elite gatherings echo underfoot. A few pieces of mid-century modern furnishings have found their way back like woodland creatures to a replanted forest.
It was the perfect place for our anniversary: Ten years of marriage, travel and exploring weird places. Five years ago we celebrated our fifth anniversary in Alice Springs Australia, dining on camel steaks in the outback.
Over our stay my opinion of Brasília started to change. I began by picking apart the details, the overemphasis on the automobile, the rigid designation between residential and commercial space. But as the days passed I found an equal number of ideas that worked. Unlike many modern cities, Brasília is airy and green. Ample space between the buildings means refreshing breezes filtered through the towering boughs of eucalyptus and seringuera trees. Niemeyer’s style of lifting buildings off their foundations to create light, open spaces beneath stops the repetitive blocks from feeling claustrophobic or dark, like so many postwar housing developments. Niemeyer’s monuments lent a regal, confident air to the city, between them bustled markets and restaurants. I expected to find a failed utopia whose planned structure was barren and hostile to habitation. Instead, like shoots of grass pushing through cracks in the sidewalk, life in Brasília has in fact found a way.
And I have to admit, it was so easy to get around by car.
*Despite being a leading modernist, Niemeyer expresses himself most passionately in the designs of the Brasília Cathedral, the Church of Dom Bosco and myriad other churches and chapels around Brasília.