Built with an Eye Towards the Heavens

April 22, 2010

South America is full of places with fascinating histories. From the mighty Inca civilization cradled in Cusco, to the mysterious islands of Lake Titicaca, to the ravaged silver mines of Potosí, the continent is distingushed by a rich past. But the modern capital of Brazil has an entirely unique story to tell. There is no other city like Brasilia, at least on this planet.

National Museum

The first striking observation in Brasilia is made just by looking up. The enormous sky seems to continues on forever. After transiting in the city for a short while, you realize that this place has been designed strictly for the automobile. Nothing is built on a human scale. But the most powerful feature of Brasilia sinks in when you look at the buildings around you. The architecture is remarkable.

Congressional Building

In the present day, close to four million people live in this metropolis. But 50 years ago, there was nothing here. Brasilia was planned and created in an extraordinary span of five years between 1956 and 1960. The newly-elected president of Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek , knew that if his wish for a new capital was ever going to be fulfilled, he would have to inaugurate it before his five year term was over. He entrusted the design of the city to planner Lucio Costa and to Oscar Niemeyer, a forward-thinking and controversial Brazilian architect. What emerged was a planned city unlike any other: a metropolis with the layout of an airplane, where residential, commercial, hotel, banking, and governmental buildings were separated into disparate areas. Niemeyer, a communist, aimed for a idealistic utopia where the blue-collar and the upper class would work, shop, and even live together. On this level, Brasilia is a total failure. The low-income working class have been pushed out of Brasilia proper, and now live in completely different cities. They commute in by bus to a place where the residents own new cars, shop and dine at high-end shopping malls, and live apart from the poverty outside of their borders. Brazil is a country highly segregated by social class. Brasilia takes this unfortunate occurrence to an extreme.

In some ways, Brasilia is similar to my home of Washington D.C. Both are capital cities. Both have a long grassy esplanade in the heart of the city. And both are filled with governmental buildings and nationalistic monuments. But here is where the comparison ends. Imagine if the D.C. Mall was lined on both sides by six lane highways, soul-crushing skyscrapers, and gigantic shopping malls. In addition, a majority of residents live in super-blocks filled with eight-story housing units. There is no subway system, and everything is far from everything else. This adds up to a cold and alienating experience for the pedestrian. You walk by more parking lots than human beings. Even around the impressive monuments, there is little landscaping besides cold, hard, concrete. In the city center, street-level businesses are nearly nowhere to be seen. It's as if the archetype of the American suburb has been taken to its frightening conclusion. Brasilia is a compelling place to visit, but I would never dream of living there.

JK Monument

City planning aside, Niemeyer's modernist imprint on Brasilia is impressive. His buildings provoke reaction in the viewer. Any architecture buff will want to not only tour the city during the day but also after dark.

Supreme Court

Niemeyer's futurist vision for the city has given others license to experiment with cutting-edge design. In particular, the Ponte JK is a marvel of engineering and must be one of the most beautiful bridges in the world.

You know that a place is one-of-a-kind when even the McDonald's is architecturally significant.

All of the futuristic design, in addition to the feeling of alienation one feels while being in Brasilia, has had an impact on spirituality in the metropolis. Brasilia is home to a high concentration of religious beliefs and cults. Some of these interpret Christianity in a new light, while some even worship alien gods. This idiosyncrasy is in turn reflected in the designs of their sanctuaries, such as the mesmerizing stained glass interior of the Church of Dom Bosco, or the seven-faced pyramid of the Templo da Boa Vontade.

Interior of Templo da Boa Vontade

While the goal of creating a modern utopia fell short, there's no denying that Brasilia is a special place. It is the only city created in the 20th century denominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's home to the greatest density of modernist architecture on the planet. And if visitors from another world come visit us one day, I believe humans have succeeded in creating a city where they might feel more at home. Perhaps the true goals of Brasilia's founders would then be fulfilled.


1 comment :

  1. What a piece of art! The photos are breathtaking and I can sense your positive attitude in the writing. I would love to see it published, so I can flip through it. One suggestion is to index the blog by country on the left side so one can easily click on the country of interest without being overwhelmed by sensory overload.