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Inside Brazil’s ‘cautionary tale’ for utopian urbanists

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Brasilia is reconciling its historic identity with the realities of contemporary life

The ramp of Brasilia’s National Museum, work of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer
The ramp of Brasilia’s National Museum, deigned by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
AFP/Getty Images

“Don’t bother visiting Brasilia if you’ve already formed an opinion and have preconceived ideas,’’ the city’s urban designer Lucio Costa once wrote. “Stay where you are. Let them say what they want, Brasilia is a miracle.”

By many measures, Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil, is a miracle. Built from the ground up at breakneck speed between 1956 and 1961, the year it was inaugurated, it’s filled with beautiful, sculptural, and symbolic buildings by Oscar Niemeyer—a true master of design—and majestic avenues that stretch far as the eye can see.

But by just as many other measures, Brasilia is failing to embody its original ambition as a progressive city that would guarantee a good quality of life to its residents. It’s been labeled a “cautionary tale” for urban dreamers. This backlash against the city’s design is what sparked Costa’s defensive statement.

The problems Brasilia faces today include inequality, congestion, and sprawl—which are far from unique in this city and common throughout the world. They’re direct ripple effects of the utopian thinking that went into its design. It’s a catch-22: The very things about the city that Brazilians hold near and dear to their hearts are also what’s causing many of its challenges.

“Brasilia is a mirror of Brazilian society,” historian and urban planning professor Vicente Del Rio says. “Those with power live in a little island or cocoon. Those who don’t—which is the majority—live on the outside.”

In the modern era, one question has tantalized urban planners and architects time and again: Can you design an ideal city from scratch? Examining what went wrong in Brasilia holds lessons for planners today.

Designed by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, Brasilia was intended to be a monumental modernist city.
Photothek via Getty Images

Fifty years of progress in five

The dream of a new capital city for Brazil dates back to the mid-1800s, when Brazil gained independence. Leaders envisioned an orderly city with distinctly Brazilian architecture, not the styles imported by colonial oppressors. It’s an ambition shared by many post-colonial governments, and was the driving force behind Chandigarh, India, the modernist city on the other side of the world. Meanwhile, Brazil’s government had its own manifest destiny and wanted a capital in the heart of the country, in “a healthy, agreeable location free from the confusion of the clamorous multitudes of people indiscriminately thrown together,” as historian Norma Evenson writes.

Through the late 19th and early 20th century, politicians tried, unsuccessfully, to authorize the construction of a new city. The political will came in 1955, when Juscelino Kubitschek narrowly won the presidency on a campaign of “fifty years of progress in five years.” A gleaming new capital would show Brazil, and the world, what he meant.

His administration launched a design competition for this national symbol. The winning entry came from Lucio Costa, a 55-year-old architect and devout modernist. He believed his role was to design a city “imbued with a certain dignity,” as he said when he presented his concept to the government.

In Costa’s view, a modern city needed to be deliberate, orderly, rational, and systematic—the opposite of messy, over-crowded cities that grew and developed organically over time, like Rio with its colonial architecture and favelas, the low-income informal settlements that surround Brazilian cities. He conceived of the city in four scales: the Monumental, meaning the long axes; the Gregarious meaning the civic architecture; the Quotidian for the residential areas; and the Bucolic, for the open space.

Costa’s proposal called for a monumental city oriented along two intersecting axes—a concept found in Paris’s Champs-Elysees, Vienna’s Ringstrasse, and Teotihuacan’s Avendia de los Muertos. From above the “Plano Piloto”—or the designed “Pilot Plan” of Brasilia—resembles the shape of an airplane or a soaring bird.

The city is oriented around car transportation.
Getty Images

“Brasília was a symbol of deep transformations, representing the culmination of the country’s dreams of modernization, industrialization, and advancement from an agrarian past,” Del Rio writes in his book, Contemporary Urbanism in Brazil: Beyond Brasilia. “It was Brazil’s biggest attempt to achieve a more balanced urbanization of its national territory.”

Costa sited all of the government buildings, which were designed by Oscar Niemeyer, on the monumental axis, or the body of the bird. Picture white buildings composed of curving geometric shapes, with green grass all around them. He placed the residential “superquadra,” or superblocks, intended for government workers and their families along a cross axis, the wings of the bird. (No low-income housing was part of the Pilot Plan.)

Each superquadra contained six-story residential towers in a park-like setting as well as a school, playgrounds, shops, recreation fields, and community spaces. He placed strict limitations on building height, land use, and rooflines. Transportation was centered around the car, which was the new, exciting mobility technology of the time.

Almost as soon as construction began, Costa’s idealized plan failed. He envisioned the Pilot Plan area to accommodate 500,000 people, with satellite cities buffered by a 15-mile greenbelt that would preserve the Pilot Plan’s form. However, “temporary” construction-worker camps cropped up around the city just as soon as they broke ground. Many workers were responsible for building their own homes, which were no more than shacks. These satellite cities lacked sanitation, transportation, and civic services. Meanwhile, squatters who couldn’t afford to live in the official satellite towns moved into whatever land they could. The government eventually evicted residents from these favelas.

Additionally, his formal approach didn’t take into account how city systems work: transportation, economics, public life, and commerce. As Jane Jacobs wrote in Death and Life of American Cities, the famous salvo against modernist urbanism, “To approach a city, or even a city neighborhood, as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life. The results of such profound confusion between art and life are neither art nor life. They are taxidermy.”

The architecture of Brasilia represents a break with colonial design of the past.
AFP/Getty Images

What life is like today in Brasilia

Jorge Guilherme de Magalhães Francisconi, a retired architect and urban planner, has lived in various areas of Brasilia since the 1970s. While he loves the city and views Costa and Niemeyer as national heroes, he acknowledges the problems in their design for the city: It was all about form.

“I have a beautiful quality of life, but I live in the Plano Piloto,” he says. “Elsewhere there is poverty and slums…[Costa] was a pure urbanist; he didn’t know about land economics and urban economics. Brazilian architects are interested in the formal point of view versus the functional point of view.”

For example, over 2.5 million people live in Brasilia’s metropolitan area, but only 300,000 now live in the Pilot Plan area, where jobs are located. Most people have to commute in. Every day, 800,000 people pass through Brasilia’s central bus terminal, located where the two monumental avenues intersect.

“You have the daily transportation of several hundred thousand people. People come in the morning and go back home at night. You have huge demand during peak hours and the rest of the day, you have no transportation. It’s a difficult economic equation.”

Brazil’s National Congress building.
LatinContent/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Costa designed the superquadra assuming residents would spend most of their time there and if they left, they would drive, not walk between neighborhoods.

“Costa never thought about pedestrians,” Francisconi says. “The design of the streets was just terrible. They’re not for leisure or walking or meeting.” Due to high rates of violence in Brazil, shoppers feel safer going to malls as opposed to storefronts on inhospitable streets, he adds.

What’s challenging in the city’s design is that it’s both loved and cherished—but it doesn’t thrive. In the 1987, Brasilia’s Pilot Plan area became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as preservationists were concerned that the city would be redeveloped.

“We’re so afraid of movement, that we froze the city,” Francisconi says. “That’s the easiest way to maintain a city...But on the other hand it’s hard to define the basic concepts of Costa, stay faithful to them, and keep a city growing. It’s a paradox.”

Efforts to improve the city are ongoing, coinciding with a national movement to reevaluate mobility. The city is centering design around pedestrians and cyclists. It’s improving public transportation by building Bus Rapid Transit lines. And in Fazenda Paranoazinho, farmland within the Brasilia metropolitan area, a developer is trying to design a neighborhood around pedestrians.

The work is ongoing, and there’s no silver bullet to fixing the city’s problems, no way to build from scratch. But each initiative is one step toward a more functional city for more people.

For more failed utopias, listen to Nice Try! Utopian on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or in your favorite podcast app, and subscribe for free to get each new episode automatically every Thursday.