By Julia Henríquez
Photos: Demian Colman
Juscelino Kubitschek was a most sui generis President of Brazil. He governed from 1956 to 1961, a period during which he made extraordinary progress in industrialization and social and economic development after a politically complicated era. Nonetheless, his greatest legacy was the new capital, Brasilia, built in the middle of nowhere in the astonishingly short space of five years.
In 1954, the first steps were taken toward creating the urban development company NOVACAP, which was entrusted with the mission of constructing the utopian capital. But Kubitschek’s greatest achievement may well have been to put together an exceptional creative team: planner Lúcio Costa as the leader, architect Oscar Niemeyer, and landscaper Roberto Burle Marx. The formula was promising and the team delivered on the promise.
Looking out over a relatively featureless plateau, Costa envisioned the government’s administrative agencies as the central axis of the city, dividing the space into northern and southern sections, separating residential and commercial areas. Niemeyer focused on the individual buildings and stamped each one with the sweeping curved lines so characteristic of the city. Burle Marx planned out lakes, gardens, and fields to bring life to the arid desert stretching before him. The poorly remunerated team that built an astonishing monument of a city.
Brasilia was inaugurated on April 21, 1960 and the transfer of government agencies to the city began a new era. The city’s three creators were recognized around the world and their work, awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1987, still shines along its original lines. The successful urban planning, the orderliness, and the beauty of the architecture are staples of everyday life in this unparalleled capital city.
To explain how the city is arranged, some people describe Brasilia as an airplane. The center aisle would be the Eje Monumental, an avenue that has competed with Buenos Aires’ 9 de Julio for the Guinness record for the widest avenue in the world. Ministerial and congressional offices are located along this avenue, which is lined with Niemeyer’s curved and playful works, now accompanied by more recent additions like the National Stadium.
One of the most impressive works —and it deserves to be called a work rather than a building— is the Metropolitan Cathedral of Nossa Senhora Aparecida. The enormous church invites the faithful, atheists, and global tourists of all beliefs to leave any preconceptions outside and simply enjoy its majestic beauty. This is a meeting place where the sensations of light and color leave visitors gaping in admiration.
Nearby stands the National Culture Complex, the country’s main cultural center. The Complex consists of the National Museum, some 156,000 square feet of space topped with a cupola that could easily pass for a spaceship, and the National Library, with a collection of some 30,000 volumes and space for cultural events and BNB film club showings.
The city’s expressly-stated function as the capital of government played a fundamental role in its design. The Plaza of Three Powers reflects the feeling of majesty appropriate to the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government in an area also dedicated to art, sculpture, and relaxation.
The Supreme Federal Court accommodates the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. The Palacio do Planalto is the seat of executive power and the Palacio Nereu Ramos houses Brazil’s National Legislature in two semi-cupolas and two control towers. A level plaza provides an excellent setting for the waves favored by Niemeyer, whose beloved curves break with the predictable squareness of cement structures. This plaza was planned by Costa as a sort of mini Versailles, but one available to the people.
In the distance rises the Tancredo Neves Pantheon of the Fatherland and Liberty, a dove-shaped monument that pays tribute to national heroes, particularly Neves, who was the first democratically-elected president after the dictatorship.
Even a quick tour includes the JK Memorial and the TV tower, perfect spots from which to appreciate magnificent panoramic views of this masterwork of a city. The Memorial honors Juscelino Kubitschek, father of the Brazilian capital. Exhibits include personal items belonging to the President and his wife, Sarah. Outside stands a 15-foot-tall statue by artist Honório Peçanha.
The Juscelino Kubitschek Bridge, designed by Alexandre Chan, is one of the city’s most recent —and most impressive— additions. Practically, the structure allows automobiles and pedestrians to cross Lake Paranoá. As an attraction, its design with three flowing waves has garnered international awards.
But the city is more than concrete and avenues. Lake Paranoá (some 15 square miles in area with a depth of nearly 160 feet) was created as a sort of reservoir for the city. Every square foot is put to good use. The lake is a hub of recreation and tourism, enticing hundreds of people to engage in water sports or dine against a backdrop of stunning sunsets.
The perfect ending to your day might be a stroll through the art, culture, and history contained in the white walls that appear to undulate along the orderly avenues, as windows bend the light into colors you never knew existed.