By Marcio Coutinho
Photos: David Mesa, Javier A. Pinzón, Demian Colman
Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, celebrated its 60th anniversary on April 20th. The city, designed by urbanist Lúcio Costa and graced by Oscar Niemeyer’s surprising architecture, is an overwhelming, avant-garde urban experience that has garnered international acclaim. Built in a desert in the country’s interior, Brasilia manages to combine monumental architectural works with the city’s ideal of residents co-existing in a real residential park. This architectural and urban concept was designated part of the Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 1987, a distinction that no other modern city has ever achieved.
The Pilot Plan, as Brasilia’s historic center is known, is home to just over 220,000 people; it is surrounded by thirty-three cities, or “administrative regions,” built in recent decades to accommodate the Federal District’s growing population, which now totals more than three million inhabitants. Thanks to a preservation law, the original project’s innovative model of urbs and civitas (cities and people) will remain intact for future generations. The 45-square mile area comprises one of the largest protected architectural and urban heritage sites in the world.
The epic project of moving the capital to the country’s interior was initially proposed in the 18th century, during the colonial empire. The city’s beginnings were marked by many challenges and surprises, including Juscelino Kubitschek’s decision to build it. He declared his intentions in a campaign speech in 1954, while he was still only a presidential candidate. As soon as he took office, JK, as he was known, ordered construction to begin, despite the skepticism of most Brazilians, especially those residing in the federal capital of Rio de Janeiro.
The territory designated for the future Federal District was demarcated by an expedition of scientists in the early 19th Century. In September 1956, JK announced a national competition to choose a design for the new capital. The request for bids required specific locations for several buildings, as well as the construction of an artificial lake to increase the humidity in the air, but the rest was up to the competitors.
Christened the “Pilot Plan for the New Capital of Brazil,” the project presented by Lúcio Costa, a member of the Brazilian modernist movement, was chosen from among the twenty-six proposals submitted. Strangely enough, his proposal consisted of a list of twenty-three items, hand-drawn sketches, and a letter from the designer explaining that he was not really entering the competition: “It is simply the outline for a possible solution, which I did not seek out, but that arose, so to speak, ready-made.”
City of Wings
En the document he submitted to the Committee, Lúcio Costa stated that the project was born of the primal gesture of someone drawing an “X” to mark a spot, or a place he wishes to possess: “Two axes that intersect at right angles, or the sign of the cross.” Based on these two lines, Costa conceived of a city that took the form of a butterfly for some, an airplane for others, distributing the sectors and services along the two axes. The main, or Monumental axis, was reserved for the principal government buildings. It ended in the Plaza de los Tres Poderes, where the National Congress, the Government Palace, and the Supreme Federal Court were located. The other axis, slightly arced to adapt to the topography and natural flow of the waters, outlined the residential sector, with a sequence of tree-lined blocks on both wings, equipped with services and shops to ensure a pleasant environment that fostered comfort, conviviality, recreation, and culture.
In addition to the historical context, which required a safer location for the capital, Brasilia also addressed the challenge of developing and modernizing the country’s interior. JK was a master at carrying out this mission. Thiago Perpétuo, an historian at the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute (IPHAN), stated that he “worked very well with symbologies, presenting a series of speeches that included references to a dream attributed to Italian saint Don Bosco, who claimed to have seen in one of his visions, in 1887, a promised land emerging between the 20th and 15th parallels, where milk and honey flowed. It’s hard to say whether the prophecy referred to Brasilia, especially since it didn’t mention the meridians, but JK used it to sensitize the audience he hoped to attract, mainly sectors of the Church.”
Candangos in Action
Approval of the project was followed by four frantic years of construction to build a city in the middle of nowhere. Tens of thousands of laborers, coming mostly from the less developed north and northeastern regions, scraped the central plateau of Brazil day and night to deliver, by the end of JK’s mandate, a mostly finished new capital with a majority of the public buildings ready and several residential blocks in operation. The intense landscaping in the years that followed transformed Brasilia into one of the largest urban green areas in the world. Hundreds of plazas, gardens, forests, parks, and even a jungle share the territory.
Plaza de los Cristales stands out, with its harmonious combination of gardens, water, and concrete, as does the National Mineral Water Park, a huge reserve formed by large pools of running water a few kilometers from the central area, which enchants Brasilians, or candangos (those born in Brasilia). Another pleasant place is the Pontão, on the shores of Lake Paranoá, the beautiful water mirror covering 18.5 square miles, affectionately called the Sea of Brasilia, with beaches, gardens, trails, water sports and boat trips, and numerous bars, ice cream parlors, and restaurants.
Living in the Super Blocks
Those living in the 120 “super blocks” along the two wings of the Pilot Plan certainly have a great quality of life, thanks to Lúcio Costa’s concept of privileging nature and functional life in residential areas. Each block, measuring roughly 3,000 square feet, has eleven separate buildings, with three or six stories, on stilts, making this a unique public area that allows people to move about freely without visual obstructions. There are no bars or walls, but there is plenty of greenery. Residents enjoy a large common area, with a wide variety of trees, including fruit trees, open to all. Another precaution was to separate vehicular traffic from the pedestrian area, ensuring the safety of everyone, especially children.
Each set of four blocks forms what is call a “neighborhood unit,” with all the services and infrastructure necessary for a good life. Each complete neighborhood unit has schools, libraries, cinemas, clubs, sports fields, churches, police stations, health centers, and other public services, distributed so that residents can access them on foot, including nearby shopping streets, creating a self-sufficient recreational space.
Brasilia is Brazil’s fourth-largest tourist destination, attracting people from all over who are keen to visit the public buildings and palaces that curve gently in every direction, thanks to the innovative use of reinforced concrete. Brasilia offers the largest example of this style, which is a signature of Brazilian architecture from this period. The Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Museum of the Republic, and Alvorada, Planalto, and Itamaraty Palaces are but a few of the symbols of the infinite possibilities offered by this construction technique.
Art lovers enjoy the great collection of works from various eras, exhibited in museums and official buildings and enriched by numerous installations in public spaces by artists such as Burle Marx, Athos Bulcão, Alfredo Volpi, Marianne Peretti, Alfredo Cheschiatti, and so many others, who added their visions to a city that has always privileged creative freedom.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Brasilia is also the home of unforgettable musicians such as Renato Russo and Cássia Eller, and the birthplace of innumerable artistic and cinematographic works. The creative economy flourished here, leading UNESCO to recognize the Brazilian capital again in 2017, this time as a Creative City. Another amazing feature of this great achievement of human creative genius, which deserves to be seen by all.
The New Normal
Brasilia was one of the first Brazilian cities to adopt radical measures to prevent the coronavirus. In September, the city recorded a significant decline in infections. This led to a gradual reopening of businesses and tourist attractions, accompanied by strict policies on the use of face masks and social distancing. Temperature checks and hand sanitizer are available in bars, restaurants, and other public places. The city is enthusiastically prepared to welcome visitors eager to discover Brazil’s most original and modern city.
Copa Airlines will begin flying to Brasilia again on November 2, with two flights weekly, on Monday and Thursday. For more information, visit: