Rimshi Agrawal

Designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, urban planner Lucio Costa, and landscape architect Burle Marx, the city was built in three years between 1957 and 1960. A city rose in the middle of Brazil’s empty central plateau at a furious pace by the efforts of an army of workers rendering the vision of these three men into reality. Legend has it that Oscar Niemeyer’s soaring architecture, the plane-like shaped city was meant to signal Latin American’s giant take off.

Unveiled a little over half a century ago, Brasilia astonished the world. The inauguration of this city revealed a daring attempt at the creation of a modern day utopia. The conscious creation of its pristine grids and monumental structures exhibited optimism and wonder, control and beauty. The city hailed a new dawn for its countrymen led by then-president, Juscelino Kubitschek.

Construction of Brasilia © Photos Courtesy of Federal District Public Archive

Brasilia, despite its grandeur, also serves as a splendid demonstration of the dangers of utopian over planning. Unfortunately, the world’s most ambitiously planned city prioritizes automobiles over people. The Pilot Plan was built for the unrestricted movement of the automobile containing only superhighways. There are very few opportunities for people to walk anywhere since the distances are enormous.

To top this inconvenience, it’s especially dangerous for pedestrians to cross the highways due to its sheer insensitivity towards human scale. “It’s difficult as a pedestrian. It doesn’t always feel like it’s on a scale designed for humans,” says Lucy Jordan, a journalist in Brasilia. It is estimated that at least one person a week is struck and killed attempting to cross a highway in Brasilia (Wright and Turkienicz, 1988).

New residents in the city are easily disoriented because of the lack of visual navigating cues. Accident rates in the Pilot Plan are five times higher than rates in North America. This folly on a metropolitan scale reduces walkability and fails to generate places of encounter. The traditional street corner society is not to be found. Brasilia serves as a perfect antithesis to the principles of the urban theorist, Jane Jacobs. There is no scope for her famous “sidewalk ballet”.

Construction of Brasilia © Photos Courtesy of Federal District Public Archive

In the lieu of having a pristine city, Costa and Neimeyer ignored placemaking: one of the most important facets of a livable city. Furthermore, the superblocks that intended to be small communities in themselves, foster almost none of the community Costa and Niemeyer imagined. The city is divided into strict sectors of residence and work with little to none centralized meeting places for leisure time. Travel between these sectors is very difficult, especially for a pedestrian with reduced potentials for casual errand-runs.

Additionally, distinct gentrification can be seen in much of the Pilot Plan, putting the housing even further out of reach for the common worker than before. This socio-economic stratification of the city is a contrary consequence of Costa’s intention and against the communist ideas of Oscar Niemeyer. “The poor have been shunted out to satellite cities, which range from proper well built cities to something more like a shanty town. So the utopian ideal hasn’t exactly worked out with Brasilia.” says Ricky Burdett, professor of urban studies at the London School of Economics (LSE).

© Courtesy of Joana Franca

Although Brasilia’s creators, Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa, conceived their project in minuscule detail. They set out the type of taxi to be used and even the color of the uniform that bus drivers would wear. But, no provisions for expansion of the city were pre-decided. This led to the formation of favelas up to 30 km outside the city, which on certain accounts proved to be more successful as a livable neighborhood.

“All you have to do is go out of central Brasilia and into the favela, you get completely normal plazas and streets with kids playing, and places open every hour of the day and night, selling food and illegal alcohol and everything else,” further adds Burdett. What was supposed to be a carefully orchestrated city with huge attention to detail and organization has degraded into a violent, crime-ridden sprawl devoid of pleasurable social neighborhoods. Thus, the modernist view that an ideal city would produce an ideal society is objectionable.

Cadangolandia © Courtesy of Federal District Public Archive

Brasília, Niemeyer’s greatest achievement, also reflects as his most troubled creation. Each of Niemeyer’s structures – beautiful, monumental on its own, but completely devoid of the context, and reality of people. This further reinforces the underlying idea that modernists were good at designing functional and striking structures, but far weaker at understanding how those structures fit together to form a city.

“The problem is that it’s not a city. It’s that simple. The issue is not whether it’s a good city or a bad city. It’s just not a city. It doesn’t have the ingredients of a city: messy streets, people living above shops, and offices nearby, it just doesn’t have the complexity of a normal city. It’s a sort of office campus for a government,” concludes Burdett.

Cities are complex organisms that do not adhere to the rule of binary. The dualism in its character thrives on its people and in return, the people it holds add to its multiplicity. The celebration of this chaos is the prime element of the experience in a mix of urban marvels, the absence of which led to the downfall of the city or metaphorically speaking, a rocky landing of the flight.

Aerial view of the Monumental Axis © Courtesy of Mario Fontenelle – ARPDF

Nonetheless, these shortcomings must not overshadow the unflinching political and construction triumph of building a capital city from the ground up in less than four years. It was built in 43 months. One month earlier than expected. Out of the savanna grew a city that is a mark of boldness and invention as a result of the search for a lost national reference.

Its creators and the government deserve credit for focusing on infrastructure investment, something that so many developing cities still need to do. The idealization of the city has caused it to fall into its own trap and prevented its growth. A city with a flag that reads: “to the winds of the future” constructed with armed concrete is now reduced to a totem of modernism preserved in time as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Vila Amaury © Courtesy of Candangos and Pioneers Association of Brasília

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