Surely you must be joking, Mr Niemeyer – Brazil

Coming in to land at Brasilia was meant to be the highlight of my latest swing through the country. I had arrived at Sao Paulo airport early and flirted outrageously with the frumpy check-in girl to ensure that I got a window seat that wasn’t over the wing. I was looking forward to seeing the city slowly take form through the early morning clouds and to be able to brag, for months to come, that indeed I had been to the governmental centre of Brasil and that indeed it did look like an aeroplane from the sky.

However, the vagaries of seat allocation had left me marooned in the middle seat. As we came into land the only view I had as I craned my neck, and camera, towards the window, were the heaving breasts of the girl next to me who was, thankfully, deeply engrossed in the latest gossip magazine and oblivious to me leering.

Brasilia has a population of over 1 million and is the de-facto capital of Brazil. It is located in the Central-West Region of Brazil. The city was planned and constructed in the late 50’s and early 60’s during government of President Juscelino Kubitscheck. The idea behind it was to fill the great void in the deserted Central-West Region and to attract settlers in an effort to integrate this region with the coastal areas. The city was carefully planned by some of Brazil’s most famous architects after an aerial survey of the region. Many people might say that it’s a pity that Mr. Niemeyer and friends hadn’t conducted their survey on a commercial flight (as I had just attempted to do) or things might have turned out a little more aesthetically appealing.

Conceived as a utopian capital city that would metamorphose Brazilian society into a new social order, Brasilia is the apotheosis of the modernist belief in architecture as an agent of change. It is a city with no past or rational future, a melting pot of architectural thinking and styles and a deeply strange place to visit. In my mind, it is as far from Brazil as Blackpool is from Rio.

Church exterior
The history of Brasilia is by now a familiar one. Commissioned, designed and largely built within the five-year presidential term of Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-61), the city fulfilled Brazil’s long-standing objective to have an inland capital that would simultaneously signal its break from European dependence (embodied in the coastal cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo) and act as a spur to development of the country’s vast interior. Laid out on a previously uninhabited site (selected with the aid of U.S. surveyors) according to a plan by Lucio Costa, Brazil’s elder statesman of modern architecture, and boasting buildings by Oscar Niemeyer, a disciple of Le Corbusier and a former student of Costa, Brasilia represented a modernising leap for South America.

Along the two main axes sketched by Costa – a straight, ceremonial north-south axis, site of the major government buildings, and a longer, curving east-west axis for the city’s residential quarters – Niemeyer placed ministries and apartment blocks in a configuration that nearly fulfilled modern architecture’s urban aspirations: a functional, rationally planned “radiant city” realised in the New World. At least, that was the general idea.

The ride from the beautiful open planned airport downtown took me gently through rolling fields and tropical vistas which both calmed and tricked me into a false sense of security. The roads were well preserved and the early morning cloud had burnt off. It was going to be a lovely day and stalls were just beginning to set up along the side of the road selling sacks of oranges and pineapples. Everything appeared, as it should: calm, sun bleached and full of life. And then, out of the shimmering heat haze emerged something which just didn’t belong on this dusty burnt plain – a city.

Church interior
But, it was not a city. It couldn’t possibly be. There was something almost organic about it – like it was slowly growing up from the unforgiving land and evolving before my eyes. Each kilometre we moved closer to the city the view changed subtly. Sun glinted off chromed facades, the roads widened and the stalls, the people, the life dropped away. All the clichés I had heard about Brasilia, its sterility, its surrealness and its overpowering architecture were true and I couldn’t help but gasp. My taxi driver told me that Brasilia could only exist in Brazil – and I believed him.

I was dropped outside the Ministry of Mines and Energy. Across a multi-lane highway was the famous cathedral, which unlike the rest of the city seemed to be growing down rather than up. Apart from the fact there was not a cloud in the sky and I was melting in my dark suit it could have been Liverpool’s cathedral. Outside, there was some kind of protest taking place and the security guard told me that it would probably evolve into a candle-lit vigil as the sun dipped below the horizon. He didn’t know what it was about and as he ushered me into the building he shrugged his powerful shoulders as if to say, who cares? Life here never follows a preordained or understandable pattern.

The building, partly due to the energy crises and partly due to poor internal design was badly lit and I stumbled from floor to floor looking for the room where I was meant to be. Neimeyer’s talent obviously didn’t extend to internal design as I keep running into blind corners, dusty stairwells and through rooms packed with empty cubicles where hoards of grey suited bureaucrats should have been beavering away. The mournful ring of the occasional telephone startled me and reminded me that I was not walking through a movie set or a computer simulation. This was a feeling that accompanied me wherever I went in Brasilia – a feeling of awe mixed with disbelief.

Later, armed with a map, I tried to walk to my next meeting. After a few minutes of walking through the syrupy heat I realised that I was alone on the street and that there was no one else in view. Twenty hot minutes later when I was nowhere near to my next meeting I flagged down a cab and dived into its air-conditioned interior. The taxi driver looked at me questioningly for a few minutes then gave a polite cough:

“Why were you walking down the street?”

“Oh, it’s a nice day and I have some time to kill between meetings.”

“But,” he smiled, “no one, absolutely no one walks in Brasilia. It’s just not designed for people. For cars, perhaps, for buses maybe, but people…are you mad?”

I spent the rest of the journey in deep contemplation of a world where everyone owned a car and lived in isolated, air conditioned, environmentally packaged units. I couldn’t help but shudder.

Brasilia architecture
Brasilia may just be the place where the next great civilisation will spring from. It may be the place where great legislative changes will pour forth and change the lot of the average Brazilian. It may also be the place where civil issues finally come to the front of a subdued national consciousness and rise phoenix-like from today’s chaos to bring long term stability and prosperity to the continent. It may be all these things, or none. But, despite its wide deserted streets, its science fiction inspired architecture and its strange compartmentalised layout I couldn’t help but bond with Brasilia and found myself quite quickly coming to terms with it.

Perhaps the real attraction of Brasilia is its population. Moving through the offices and ministries you continually meet the most nomadic of city dwellers. It’s not the surreptitious shuffling of airline timetables or the ghost-town-like feel of places on Friday afternoon or Monday morning but the way that everyone seems permanently on the move and in transit between Brasilia and somewhere – anywhere – else. People don’t seem to live in Brasilia in the true sense of the word – they exist on a more profound and yet transient level, moving from place to place like smoke blown from a guttering candle. For me, it was like a strange coming home.

Art critic Robert Hughes described Brasilia as “a utopian horror. It should be a symbol of power, but instead it’s a museum of architectural. It is a ceremonial slum infested with Volkswagens.”

Niemeyer responded, “I sought the curved and sensual line. The curve that I see in the Brazilian hills, in the body of a loved one, in the clouds in the sky and in the ocean waves.”

Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin said that, “…the impression I have is that I’m arriving on a different planet.”

However, my favourite quotes comes from Julian Dibbel who described Brasilia as, “…intended, after all, to give the impression of having been built neither by nor for mere earthlings. A race of hyperintelligent Volkswagens, perhaps, or aliens who speak a language made up entirely of Euclidean axioms, might be expected to feel at home in this sidewalk-poor zone of perfectly circulating asphalt arteries and relentlessly clean lines of design – but not any species as puny and unkempt as homo sapiens.”

But this is only one aspect of the truth, and compared to other planned cities I had visited, Brasilia definitely seemed to offer more potential. I guessed this was something to do with the difficulty of imposing meaninglessly rigid rules on the Brazilians rather then the failure of architectural idealism.

Close quarters
Impressive architecture, it seems, does not equate to ideal living conditions – a fact which many people overlook – and away from the glam and glittery life of embassy parties and governmental limos the less fortunate eke out an existence in the favellas which surround Brasilia. These people, who nightly watch the sun drain from the sky and colour chrome fronted buildings shades of blood, are also deeply ingrained with nomadic desires. Come nightfall, and after the first beer has quenched parched throats, there is only one topic of conversation – home and how one day, after making their fortune in the gold-lined streets of the nation’s capital, they will return to their homes – older, wiser and richer. A dream, perhaps, we all should share.

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