Brasília, the inland capital of Brazil, stands in a largely isolated region nearly 750 miles (1.200 kilometers) northwest of Rio de Janeiro. The design and construction of the city in such a remote place, uninhabited before 1956, was a major logistical achievement in planning and urban design. Conceived on the scale and in the grand manner of L’Enfant’s Washington, D.C., of 1789–1791, it followed in the tradition of such cities as New Delhi, India (Lutyens and Baker, 1911–1931), and Canberra, Australia (Walter arid Marion Griffin, 1913–1920). With its tall blocks in expansive landscaped parks, Brasília translated into reality for the first time the radical urban theories only envisioned in H. Th. Wijdeveld’s Amsterdam 2000 (1919–1920) and a little later in Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse.
The plan to move Brazil’s capital from Rio de Janeiro to an inland site, secure from naval attack, had been mooted first around 1789, and it was continually revived for the next thirty turbulent years. In 1823, soon after independence from Portugal was proclaimed, José Bonifácio presented the Constituent Assembly with a bill to fulfill the intention and to name the new city Brasília. Social and political upheavals dotted the rest of the century: burgeoning population; rapid economic growth; the spread of railroads; revolts and insurrections; civil and foreign war; the rise and fall of the Brazilian Empire; and, over thirty-five years, the abolition of slavery. The republic was proclaimed at the end of 1889, and the constitution of the United States of Brazil was adopted in February 1891.
That document defined the general location of the future Federal District: somewhere within the state of Goias on the sparsely inhabited 3,609-foot-high (1,200-meter) Central Plateau. The Exploring Commission of the Brazilian Central Upland was appointed, and it selected a 5,700-square-mile (14,400-square-kilometer) area—the “Cruls Quadrilateral” (named for the commission’s Belgian leader, Louis Cruls). In 1953 a 2,300-square-mile (5,800-square-kilometer) section of it was chosen as the general site for the new capital. The announcement was expected to encourage a population movement westward into what was largely unused land, relieving urban congestion in Rio de Janeiro.
In September 1956 President Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira, promising Brazilians an economic development plan that he ambitiously called “Fifty Years in Five,” initiated the foundation of Brasília. A design competition for a Plano Piloto (pilot plan) attracted forty-one entries from twenty-six architects and urbanists, and in March 1957 that of the Brazilian Lúcio Costa was announced as winner. His design was described by the president of the competition jury. British architect-planner William Holford, as “a work of genius and one of the greatest contributions to contemporary urbanism.”
The importance of Costa’s plan has been largely eclipsed by the beautiful, even spectacular, public architecture of another Brazilian, Oscar Niemeyer, who had been his student at the Escola National de Belas Artes early in the 1930s. They had collaborated before, and Niemeyer had also worked on urban design commissions for Kubitschek, when the latter was mayor of Belo Horizonte. For Brasília, Niemeyer designed the Congress Building; the law courts; the cathedral; the university; the National Theater; the Palácio do Planalto; the Palácio dos Arcos; and the president’s residence, Palácio da Alvorada (Palace of the Dawn). It is interesting to note that construction of this presidential residence, and the airport, began in 1956, before Costa’s success became public. The internationally reputed Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, who had previously worked with both Costa and Niemeyer, planned the major landscaping elements, a critical aspect of the capital.
Despite the general popularity of the vision, partly whipped up by the media, there was also strong dissension. But Kubitschek was determined to continue. Under the direction of Novacap, the corporation created to manage the project, the center of the city was built in the remarkably short period of three years. On 21 April 1960, Brasília was officially inaugurated as the capital. Soon after, Kubitschek was briefly replaced by Jânio da Silva Quadros, who solved national economic problems with draconian spending cuts, including projects at Brasília. That hiatus continued under the next president, reformer João Goulart. Then in March 1964 Goulart was overthrown in an army coup that brought military rule for the next twenty years. Although pressure would persist through most of the decade to return the seat of government to Rio, Brasília was confirmed as the national capital during the 1964–1966 presidency of General Humberto Castelo Branco.
The public cost of building the city remains unknown; some sources put it as high as U.S.$100 billion. The ways in which the money was raised and the efficiency with which it was spent are also under a cloud. It is claimed, for example, that the Banco do Brasil simply printed money for Novacap, almost on demand, and there were rumors that, at the start of the project, Brazilian air force transport airplanes carried equipment and building materials for the Palácio da. Alvorada. Soon, a massive road-building program was initiated and highways were constructed to São Paulo and Belo Horizonte in the south, Belém in the north, and eventually westward to the Mato Grosso.
What of the urban form? In presenting his Plano Piloto, Costa explained that he intended to make a city that was monumental yet comfortable, efficient yet welcoming and intimate, spacious yet neat, rustic yet urban, and lyrical yet functional. The cruciform layout—some critics have compared it to a swept-wing aircraft, an analogy accepted by the planner—has its framework defined by “two axes, two terraces, one platform, two broad highways running in one direction, one super highway in the other.”
The Monumental Axis runs east-west. At its eastern end, on the shores of Lake Paranoá (formed by damming the Paraná River), is the Plaza of the Three Powers. Around it are located the Supreme Court and the Congress Building with its twin twenty-eight-story towers and two striking hemispheres housing the Senate in a dome and the Chamber of Deputies in a bowl. The group is completed by the Palácio da Alvorada, surrounded by an inverted colonnade of white marble. The startling cathedral, redolent of a crown of thorns, and the university, are nearby. The lake wraps around the Plano Piloto, its shores dotted with embassies, private clubs, and sports facilities. From this grand focus, the broad Esplanade of the Ministries, flanked with buildings housing the bureaucracy, leads west to the central business district at the intersection of the main axes.
Each arm of the sweeping north-south Residential Axis is surrounded by nine bands of subdivision flanking an elevated highway. Those closer to the city core accommodate 780-foot-square (240-meter) residential superquadras (superblocks), most of which contain between eight and sixteen rectangular concrete-and-glass apartment buildings, usually six (but sometimes three) stories high, set in traffic-free parks. Each group was designed as a self-contained, middle-class neighborhood unit for an average of 3,000 residents, with shops, churches, schools, and playgrounds. Other recreational facilities serve a number of adjacent superblocks. The taller apartment buildings are raised on pilotis, so that at ground level the parks are uninterrupted. Open green space makes up about 60 percent of Brasília’s total area—about five times as much per capita as, say, São Paulo. As elsewhere in the world, the imposition of an international modernist ideal on house form has not been socially successful; while doubtless well intentioned it is not well received because it denies the tradition of household organization developed over centuries. The extensive, more upmarket residential developments, mostly one-family houses, are on the peninsulas known as Lago Norte and Lago Sud, across the lake.
Most of the people who work in support industries—domestic servants and others—live in one of the fifteen nearby satellite towns within the Federal District and commute by bus to the Plano Piloto. Some of the satellites are planned developments; others have grown laissez-faire. They have very little open space, and some have social problems stemming from high unemployment. Of course, government is Brasília’s primary function, but it was inevitable that banking and commerce would flourish. Mainly because of the famous plan and architecture, tourism has also developed. Construction is an important part of the industrial infrastructure, but apart from that, only light industry is permitted.
Originally designed for 500,000 people. Brasília has grown rapidly. The 1960 population was around 90,000, and by 1980 it had increased to more than 411,000. A 1996 census showed that it had reached just over 1.8 million, and it probably rose to 2 million—mostly civil servants and businesspeople—by the turn of the century. Since about 1990 traffic problems such as gridlock and inadequate parking space have arisen in Brasília. A Y-shaped, partly underground rail system was started in 1992. Linking the south wing of the Plano Piloto with five of the satellite towns and with a total length of 26 miles (42 kilometers), it was designed to cater to two-thirds of the population. Commercial operation has been promised several times, but it still had not begun by 2001.
In 1987, Brasília was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. According to some residents, that was a mixed blessing for a living city: while it certainly increased tourist revenue and helps preserve the quality of life (for some), at the same time it inhibits the character of future expansion.