Brasilia: A Vision in Concrete

by Dave

The Atlantic Online

From 1956 to 1960, Brazil—in an effort to cleanse itself of its colonial past, to flee its burgeoning social afflictions, and to fulfill its long-prophesied emergence as a great power—conjured a new capital, Brasília, on an empty plateau in an endless savanna 3,500 feet above sea level. The city’s planner, the architect Lúcio Costa, found the setting “excessively vast … out of scale, like an ocean, with immense clouds moving over it.” No invented city could accommodate itself to this wilderness. Instead, Costa declared, Brasília would create its own landscape: he devised a city on a scale as daunting as the setting itself. In conformity not with its environment but with those modernist utopian theories of the rational, sterile “Radiant City,” Brasília was not to grow organically but to be born, Costa said, “as if she had been fully grown”—he even refused to visit the site, because he didn’t want reality to impinge on the purity of the original design. Brasília was the first place built to be approached by jet, and the city’s roads—inspired by Robert Moses’s deadening expressways belting New York’s outer boroughs—were like runways. Here was a city without a traffic light, containing thoroughfares without crosswalks. The result was (or should have been) obvious, as Simone de Beauvoir reported after visiting Brasília the year it was inaugurated:

What possible interest could there be in wandering about? … The street, that meeting ground of … passers-by, of stores and houses, of vehicles and pedestrians … does not exist in Brasília and never will.

Brasília, paradoxically, contains some of the most graceful modernist government buildings ever produced. All were designed by Oscar Niemeyer (now 100 years old and still working), who helped select Costa’s master plan and who was the creative influence behind the building and shape of the city. Both facts must be considered in any effort to reckon the legacy of Niemeyer—the last great architect of the modernist ascendancy—and his relationship to modernism, a relationship that both spurred and warped his creative achievement.