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Brasilia: How Not to Build a City

The South American master-planned capital is monumental hubris—and soul-crushing to its inhabitants.

Brasilia's Monumental Axis (Wikimedia Commons)

There is a popular legend that 19th-century Italian priest Don Bosco, the founder of the Catholic Salesian Order and a revered saint, had a prophetic dream in 1883 that predicted a flourishing, futuristic city between parallels 15 and 20 in central Brazil. Many Brazilians believe the dream of Dom Bosco, as they call him, found fulfillment in the modern capital city of Brasilia, built between 1956 and 1960. Indeed, even before Brasilia was completed, a shrine, located directly on the 15th parallel, was sculpted and dedicated to Dom Bosco. Today’s Brasilia is filled with references to him, including the Santuario Dom Bosco, a concrete box filled with thousands of differently-shaded bluish stained glass. I wish someone had bothered to ask Dom Bosco if his dream was actually a nightmare. 

In early 2020, I spent a couple of weeks in Brasilia, during which time I explored much of the city. Several things immediately stand out to the visitor. The first is that the city plan, designed by Lucio Costa, is shaped like an airplane with two principal components: the Monumental Axis (east to west) and the Residential Axis (north to south). The wings are where Brasilia’s bureaucrats were expected to live, the fuselage where they would work. As many residents explained to me, Costa’s was a time of great imagination regarding the potential of the airplane. 

The second is that Brasilia is remarkably spread out, an urban landscape defined by wide, many-laned roads and even wider, largely-vacant green spaces. This is not, by any reasonable measure, a walkable city. “It’s difficult as a pedestrian, observed journalist Lucy Jordan. “It doesn’t always feel like it’s on a scale designed for humans.” There is a metro system in the capital, with 24 stations on two lines. Yet the distances between stations, and the fact that many major residential and commercial areas have no walkable access to stations, make it comparable to Atlanta’s MARTA — potentially useful if you happen to be one of the lucky few residents who live and work anywhere near it. Again, as many residents explained to me, Brasilia was designed at a time of great fascination with the automobile.

Then there are the buildings. Many of them are simple concrete boxes reminiscent of Cold War-era planned cities behind the Iron Curtain (the chief architect of most public buildings, Oscar Niemeyer, was a communist sympathizer). Among Niemeyer’s Brasilia creations are the Congress, the presidential palace, the University of Brasilia, the Cathedral and the Chapel of Our Lady of Fatima, and the Palace of Justice. Nobody could ever claim that these buildings aren’t unique, with a strong emphasis on symmetry and faithfulness to specific geometric shapes (the two Congress buildings are shaped like bowls meant to be placed on top of one another). Yet, as many critics have noted, novelty for novelty’s sake has a tendency to minimize the needs of the people actually using the buildings, while elevating the egos of the designers.

Take Brasilia’s cathedral, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of Aparecida, a hyperboloid structure constructed from 16 concrete columns. I’ve heard it compared to an indigenous chieftain’s headdress, a crown, or a spaceship. Outside the cathedral are four ten-foot tall bronze statues of the four evangelists, as well as a bell tower, or sorts, which looks like a big fork. One enters the cathedral through a dark tunnel, as most of the actual usable space is below ground. The roof is sky-blue stained glass, while the sanctuary has a concave whispering gallery that is a favorite of visitors, as I discovered one Saturday.

Catedral de Brasília (Wikimedia Commons)

Though I spent over an hour at Our Lady of Aparecida, trying to pray and meditate, I kept being confronted by the fact that the church was not so much a place of solemn worship as a circus attraction to be gawked at. A group of Brazilian youth practicing some form of liturgical dance on the altar, with apparently no appreciation for the tabernacle, only compounded my frustration. The confessionals, meanwhile, were glass boxes unconnected from any wall. I’ll presume they were soundproof, but even so, who wants to confess your sins when everyone can watch you? Gimmicky and unique, certainly, but, in my humble opinion, not a proper church.

Costa and Niemeyer were both genuflecting to Swiss-French architect and modernism pioneer Le Corbusier, with whom both had worked in Rio de Janeiro. As the Financial Times explains: “Le Corbusier’s own vision of skyscrapers surrounded by grassy spaces seems utterly ignorant of the streetlife that powers urban interactions. Cities are complicated organisms that thrive when they are messy and filled with mixed uses.” Ricky Burdett, Professor of Urban Studies at the London School of Economics, was a bit more blunt in an interview with the BBC World Service. “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,” Burdett assessed.

Niemeyer, who died in 2012, remained remarkably impervious to these kinds of criticisms. He once declared: “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.” Which is nice, I suppose, if you’re a modernist architecture fan visiting Brasilia for a week. But unconventionality and “surprise” aren’t particularly useful for the people who have to actually live there. As another critic argues, Costa and Niemeyer’s “formal approach didn’t take into account how city systems work: transportation, economics, public life, and commerce.” But who cares about that given Brasilia’s UNESCO World Heritage site status, an award granted as a nod to its “uniqueness” and “artistry.”

Architect Oscar Niemeyer (Wikimedia Commons)

“I don’t take too much notice of the criticisms that people make,” said Niemeyer. “The project is done. Like everything else it has good points and bad points. People who criticize are either doing so out of envy or because they have nothing better to do.” Or maybe because they find your architectural experiment a day-to-day awful experience and a soul-crushing monstrosity. “Politicians leave as soon as possible to return to grittier, but livelier, Brazilian cities,” notes the Financial Times. “It’s a sort of office campus for a government,” explained Burdett.  “People run away on Thursday evenings and go to Sao Paulo and Rio to have fun.” 

Despite these egregious flaws, I’d argue Brasilia does have plenty to commend itself. The food is delicious, the residents warm and welcoming, and the climate, with an average yearly temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, delightful. In other words, modernist experiments gone wrong can undermine human happiness and flourishing, but they cannot expunge them. Humans, a creative bunch, will always find a way to try and make the best of a bad situation.

The modernist utopian vision of Brasilia has been labeled a “cautionary tale,” and rightly so. Hubristic central planners dictating to everyday people what they’re going to like, and that they’re going to like it good and hard regardless of the outcome, is a recipe for socio-economic disaster. To take one example, the city has 800,000 people (a third of the city’s population) daily passing through Brasilia’s central bus terminal, located where two many-laned avenues intersect. Strict monofunctional zoning laws, in turn, compound socio-economic disparities. 

As two Brasilia-based architectural experts have argued, the capital is “hindered by imprecise definitions of cultural heritage values and an obsession with its founding fathers, instead of taking into account today’s material and social realities.” In their obsession with creating the model civitas, its designers neglected the realities and needs of the everyday urbs. There’s nothing wrong with trying to create something new and beautiful, as long as novelty and aesthetics are respectfully and creatively paired with functionality and reference to the success of traditional approaches. Unfortunately for Brasilia, because of Costa and Niemeyer’s fascination with modernist absurdities, its inhabitants get to enjoy neither.

Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.

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