Why you should care

Brasília shows the potential of urban planning to create both beauty and a logistical nightmare. There are many lessons to be learned from its construction.

When I first heard that Brazil’s modern capital, Brasília, was built in the shape of an airplane, I laughed. It seemed implausible. Who builds a city in the shape of something? It’s a city, not a Christmas cookie. But seeing my skepticism, a friend pulled up a satellite image on his phone, and sure enough, there was the damned plane. I couldn’t believe my eyes. “It symbolizes Brasília taking off into the future,” he said. Unfortunately, the plane appears to be headed straight into a lake.

Last October’s presidential runoff election was a fight over who runs Brasília. As it turns out, Dilma Rousseff and her Cabinet do.

But Brasília’s much more than a capital city. It’s a dreamland, built from scratch in the middle of nothing in the 1950s, designed to signify Brazil’s entry into the modern era. It was an exercise in futurology, sort of like a ’50s world fair writ large and frozen in time.

The center of Brazil is a vast, red-dirt, big-sky kind of place … not an obvious place for a new capital.

In the 1950s, Brazil’s economic power tilted toward the south, meaning São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, then the capital. Brazilians wanted to move the capital to a more central location in the massive country, to populate the center and get closer to the resources offered by the Amazon. At the same time, President Juscelino Kubitschek had an eye out for a megaproject to spur the economy.

A historic photo of the ministries being built in Brasilia

Aerial view of the ministries being built in Brasília, Brazil, on July 4, 1959.

Source Bettman/Corbis

But where exactly to build it? The center of Brazil is a vast, red-dirt, big-sky kind of place, known as the cerrado, where the occasional knobby tree and bramble punctuate the drylands and endless horizon. It’s Brazil’s desert — not an obvious place for a new capital.

But according to legend, 19th century Italian saint Don Bosco dreamed that between the 15th and 20th parallels, “here will appear the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey … an inconceivable wealth.” Brazilians ran with it. Where there’s a will and an excess of public monies, there’s a way.

As it would turn out, the construction of Brasília, thought to be the most modern project of Brazil’s history, was immediately dated, the grand dream of the perfect city sobered by 20th century realities. The lack of roads and rail lines caused construction costs to soar, estimated at a billion dollars over four years. The money ran out, and the government abandoned some buildings unfinished, like the nondenominational cathedral, which the Catholic Church finally completed.

City planners were sold on the idea of a car-driven future but failed to fully grasp a key aspect of the automobile age: traffic congestion.

Then the concepts behind the city got old fast.

City planners like the project’s lead, Lúcio Costa, were sold on the idea of a car-driven future but failed to fully grasp a key aspect of the automobile age: traffic congestion. Brasília, with its linking charm necklace of roundabouts — once designed to make car flow more pleasurable in a kind of Cadillac Kodachrome surreality the ’50s were great at — is now often clogged with traffic. That’s because it’s become the fastest-growing city in Brazil. It is now the country’s fourth-largest city, with nearly 3 million people. And no one thought that people might actually want to walk or bike; it’s close to impossible in Brasília, though a new public transportation system does help.

And then, not everyone could fit aboard the plane. The cockpit holds the Congress building, and the fuselage administrative buildings. But the residential sections of the plane — literally called the asas, or wings — filled up before the construction of the city was even complete. The superquadras, the large apartment building-stocked multiuse blocks that are the iconic feature of residential living within the wings, were set aside for politicians and their retinue.

An aerial photo of Brasilia showing the airplane shape that it was built into.

An aerial photo of Brasília shows the airplane shape that it was built in.

Source Wikipedia

Soon Brasília started to resemble a lot of Latin American cities, with a surrounding ring of infrastructure-deficient slums. The slums were filled up with candangos, the workers who in Brazil’s version of a gold rush had traveled from the poorest regions of the country to construct this shiny airplane of a city. It turned out to be a mirage most of them would never live in.

Monuments that adorn the city’s postcards continue to provide a stunning showcase of architect Oscar Niemeyer’s minimalist aesthetic.

Still, Brasília today features the highest per capita gross domestic product of all Latin American cities (about $36,000). In fact, according to a study by the Brookings Institution, times are good in the city of the future: “Brasília did not experience a recession. It is a pocket of growth in Brazil.” Many Brazilians know why: It’s the seat of not only government, but also corruption. Modern construction projects in the city include building the world’s second-most-expensive soccer stadium for a city that has no team.

In spite of faded dreams, monuments that adorn the city’s postcards continue to provide a stunning showcase of architect Oscar Niemeyer’s minimalist aesthetic. The curving bright white lines somehow perfectly complement the red dirt and the huge blue sky with its pregnant clouds, giving Brasília an air that can seem otherworldly.

To watch the moon rise over taillights streaming past the sides of the stark white buildings of Brasília’s fuselage, it can still look like a dream of the future.

This OZY encore was originally published Oct. 7, 2014.

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