It’s a modern utopia, a one-of-a-kind in the world: Brasília. The capital of marvelous Brazil is the wet dream of every architecture aficionado, the masterpiece of Oscar Niemeyer. This architect created an illusion of better living; thus, Brasília was declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. This is a homage to lines, curves, and boldness.
I just had to make one stop in Brasília on my trip to South America last year. There was no doubt and hesitation because this place has so much and is lacking at the same time.
The Brazilian capital was completely planned on the drafting table. At the end of the 19th century, it was decided that Brazil needed a governing city in the heart of its vast territory. Pretty soon it became clear that the new epicenter ought to be in the rather sparse area of the central plateau at an elevation of 1,158 meters. But due to political conflicts and the two World Wars, the whole thing only began with the Plano Piloto, the big road map, in 1956. The man with the plan was visionary city planner Lúcio Costa while the lead architect was Oscar Niemeyer who, unlike any architect before him, defined the face of an entire city. Roughly 50,000 workers were involved in the creation of Brasília and most of the buildings were completed in just four years—an incredible achievement mainly due to the immense political will of then President Kubitschek. But I guess the concrete was still wet when the first offices were opened.
Today, approximately 2.6 million citizens live in the capital. All of them have, one way or another, something to do with the administration or politics. All government departments, the Parliament, the Congress, and anything related to politics are right here. But it took until 1972 when the last public officer moved from the former capital of Rio de Janeiro to Brasília, not by free will but after an ultimatum! It’s hard to leave Copacabana behind.
I made sure that we will stay at least two nights in this utopia. From the get go I had been excited to see every single curve and line of massive concrete. Everyday I marched from the Congress to the Cathedral and tried to capture the federal buildings from every possible angle. At different times of the day, the light makes different turns and constantly changes the experience of this architectural wonderland. Perfectly displayed is the Grand Exposition Hall with a Saturn-like ring—an extraordinary planet-like structure. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Cathedral has an amazing natural light design from the inside. It is half embedded into the ground but utilizes every lit of light. It’s an outstanding and smart structure from the middle of the previous century. You actually have light until the sun sets completely because no skyline or skyscraper blocks the view on the glass.
Niemeyer’s Brasília was based on an utopian idea. In the ‘50s and ’60s, the zeitgeist was clearly futurism. The Second World War ended, nuclear energy promised eternal energy for free, and the first robots and computers painted a futuristic life which put man and his personal development in focus. Architecture was supposed to play a role in this process. Everything in Brasília was planned from the scratch, every line and curve serves a purpose. The city plan was based on the structure of a plane. The federal buildings, the Parliament, the Congress, the University—everything of great importance is in the belly of that plane. All the apartment buildings, on the other hand, are placed on the wings of the plane. In every street on these wings are the things you’ll need: shops, restaurants, and services.
Within the wings are parallel streets with the same scheme. But there are no crossroads. The whole traffic is organized in turnarounds and roundabouts. If you miss your turn, you are pretty much screwed and time won’t be your amigo. All traffic in Brasília ought to run smooth, and structures and systems are reduced to the most minimal. No fuss. The human inhabitants of this city are supposed to jump in the car in their basement garage and only get off at work. But now there are more people living in the city, even more than what was planned. The buses that run like a sewing machine in the wings of the plane are pretty packed. At least there are city bikes nowadays delivering some relief to the public.
Brasília is a very safe city, where most people belong to the middle and upper class. Slightly weaker societal layers live in the satellite cities around the capital. There was never meant to be space for them in big B. Because of that, and other elitist planning, there is simply a lack of cultural life here. The roof is rather on fire in Rio or São Paul; in Brasília, it cannot burn because it’s made from concrete. I think that if you don’t have any friends in town, two or three visiting days will be enough to capture the essence of this unique urban utopia.
In 2001, Niemeyer confessed that his experiment to create a better place for the people failed. Well, it was worth a try. I think you really have to see the phenomenon of Brasília in the context of its time. We have developed and experienced cultural and special freedom. We enjoy nature, take care of resources, and like to eat great food—after capturing it for Instagram, of course. One thing that has become obvious over the past decades is that the people are not part of a plan. Life happens in mysterious ways.
Nonetheless, Brasília is a place that makes you think about society and your very role in it. Nowadays, people stay much more at home and the Internet has become their utopia. Stones and roads play a lesser role. But Niemeyer’s legacy remains. He died three years ago at the age of 104. He had seen systems come and fail. He thought of the people and for the people. He was an activist and an incredibly bold artist. In 2013, all of his work and archive became elements of the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.
If aliens would finally make a pit stop on Earth, they will definitely land in Brasilia. And they will feel at home, I guess.