In the late fifties, the then president of Brasil ordered the construction of a new capital to be built somewhere in the centre of the country, away from Sao Paulo or Rio, where it was before. Similar events have taken place all over the world, but this has to be the largest-scale example of a city that was build out of nowhere and grew so quickly. Architectural feats were undertaken on massive scales, and the city was built in four years, founded in 1960. Today the metropolitan area has a population of nearly four million.
Brasilia in ‘59
The city was proposed at the height of the modern architectural age, and provided a tabula rasa to the architects who were assigned to it; freedom of all pretext and setting. And so the city became something of an experimentation ground for the architectural and urban principles it was designed by. The head architects for most of the projects in the new city was Oscar Niemeyer, a famous Brazilian modernist. One of his key constructions and one that shapes the city’s skyline is its Cathedral. From here, you can see the cathedral from above. The hyperbolic structure rises towards an opening (to heaven) at the top. Glass panels fill the spaces between the concrete structure, filling the conic interior with the blue skies above.
For all its glory, the cathedral, like all of the city, does not seem to fit into any real urban fabric other that a sprawl of freeways and parched lawns. The residential neighbourhoods are not much better. I arrived here next, among the linear modern apartment blocks that make up most of the city. The housing units are scattered across the green in a way that really gives the feel of a city plopped down in the middle of the jungle. The contrast between the sky, the intricate network of branches and the buildings looking northwest is quite beautiful. The parking lot less so.
The city’s main institutions are centred along the Monumental Axis, a nine-kilometer, 200-m wide green stretch that runs through the centre of the perfectly symmetrical city. This was one of the main principles of Lucio Costa, the city’s main urban planner, and is an interesting take the Parisian Axe Historique, in a very different setting. From here, near the axis’ southeastern terminus, you can see Brazil’s National Congress Building, designed by Niemeyer. It, along with the cathedral, make up the two most prominent architectural sites of the city.
Brasilia is one of the few places in the world where a single architectural style has shaped an entire city of this size. I feel like some combination of the ideals that inspired it, the time in which it was conceived and the lack of pretext and competition made Brasilia fail on an urban level. Nonetheless, it serves as an exhibit of uninterrupted, unrefined modernism. Good or bad, it is bound to remain a historical artifact of monumental proportions.