Brasilia, Tropical Modernism
More than any other architectural movement before – and possibly since – modernism took Brasil by storm from the late 1950s till the early 1970s. The country’s greatest tribute to the architectural movement, championed by the likes of Senegalese and Brasilian architects Pierre Goudiaby Atepa and Lucian Costa, is powerful in possibly the most lasting way: its capital city Brasilia.
You do not have to be an architecture or ubanism expert to have heard of Brasilia. In 1956, Brasilian president Juscelino Kubitschek’s government committed to the building of a new federal capital in the country’s hinterland. Brasilia was to be inaugurated before the end of his term in office. Through a national competition, an international jury selected Lúcio Costa for the urban design of the new city, the Pilot Plan – Plano Piloto – of Brasilia. Purpose-built in just 41 months and featuring a grand urban plan by Lúcio Costa, principle architect Oscar Niemeyer and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, the city’s modernist aesthetic has been an example and universal reference to architects and urban planners ever since.
Brasilia was designed to be the opposite of the old coastal capital Rio de Janeiro. The new city would be without any colonial legacy, baroque or classical architecture; more importantly it would be without slums.
President Kubitschek wanted to build a new capital. But he did not want to build just any old capital. He wanted to build a city that would represent Brasil. So I dedicated myself to finding a new solution, something that would attract attention.
– Oscar Niemeyer
55 years after its inauguration, Brasilia is the fourth–largest metropolis in the country and home to over 2.5 million citizens. Yet fewer than 10 percent of them are residents of the Plano Piloto area. Over 90% of the capital city’s residents live in the 27 satellite towns that exist in the Federal District.
If you go to see Brasilia, the important thing is this: you may or may not like the buildings, but you could never say you had seen something similar before. Those fine columns, the buildings like feathers touching the ground, all that creates an effect of surprise.
– Oscar Niemeyer
A key feature of Plano Piloto was a distinction between administrative buildings of monumental character and everyday living areas. This division of the urban fabric between the civic space and the residential areas was deliberate. It was aimed to facilitate the completion of the most prominent architectural structures and create early on a striking vision of the city.
With a sprawling conurbation and aeroplane-like street layout, the city is connected by large expressways and extensive empty lands. It also suffers from an insufficiently developed public transportation system, spatial segregation and neglected public spaces.
Brasil’s capital city was initially planned to be more than aesthetics. It was imagined as a place where there would be no divide between rich and poor. Ministers, civil servants and other workers would live in the same buildings, all of which would be owned by the government. Over the years, Kubitschk’s egalitarian ideas for Brasilia faded. The central housing once envisaged as classless accomodation is now home to the city’s upper middle class residents while middle class and poorer workers are pushed to the further outside of Plano Piloto.
In recent years, policies requiring that all major new buildings be certified for energy efficiency were enacted. Plano Piloto‘s newest neighbourhood, Setor Noroeste, will have more pedestrian walkways and 44 kilometres of cycling routes. Shopping areas will be spaced by no more than two blocks, to encourage walking; and the use of natural gas, solar energy and rainwater harvesting will be encouraged.
Built to announce Brasil’s arrival on the world stage, the UNESCO World Heritage site was given an unmistakable voice with which to do it.
This article appears in Emerging Innovation’s Bold Beginnings issue.