Thursday, May 28, 2009


January 2001
A planned city in the middle of nowhere

What is amazing about Brasilia is that it is the vision of a few men made into reality: Oscar Niemeyer, the architect, Lucio Costa, the loopy urban planner, and Juscelino Kubitschek, the ambitious politician who forever earned the ingratitude of Brazilian public officials by moving the capital from Rio to this godforsaken plateau in the interior.

Briefly, Brasilia was begun in 1957 and inaugurated in 1960, altho it took another ten years to flesh out the details. The city is laid out in the shape of an airplane. The main fuselage contains all the monumental buildings and the commercial sectors. In the cockpit are the Congress, Supreme Court, and Presidential offices. The wings contain the residential areas. All the main buildings are designed by Oscar Niemeyer in this tropical modern style very similar to Le Corbusier, but rather more sensual, as is the custom for everything in Brasil. The buildings are all glass facades and whimsical curves. The interiors contain large hallways covered with colorful shag carpet and space-age leather lounge furniture deisgned by Niemeyer himself. Hey, it was the 60s baby! Naturally, none of this can be changed.

Brasilia gets a lot of flack for being very pedestrian unfriendly. The main axis of the city is on a huge scale. Cars speed down the roads flanking the public buildings at freeway speed. There are few sidewalks and the crosswalks are few and far between. Of course, you can say the same thing about the Mall in Washington, DC, so I don't think the criticism is quite fair. There is a much more interesting story going on out in the wings where the people of Brasilia actually live and carry out their lives.

The residential area is divided into large blocks of small houses or long, seven story apartment buildings. The houses are on narrow, dead-end streets perpendicular to the main avenues that speed traffic to the center. On their backside the houses all share a common garden with the houses of the next block over. This makes it possible to walk between houses of different blocks without ever touching pavement. It's a nice idea, altho it does not quite work. This is, after all, Latin America, not Utopia. The backyards are uniformly guarded by high sharp bars. The common gardens are overgrown and unkempt.

The apartment blocks, with their hired securitymen and gardeners are nicer with their common areas. This is most of the residential wing and it all resembles a big college campus. Most colleges experienced a building boom right as the baby boom was entering colleges, leaving most campuses today littered with hulking concrete dormitories surrounded by common gardens and bicycle pathways. This in a nutshell is Brasilia. For you Harvard people, imagine 12 miles of building after building that all look like New Quincy: long, low apartment blocks of 7 stories (they are ALL 7 stories) with simple facades with highly emphasized horizontal lines.

In between each residential block is either a large green space or two small blocks of one-story buildings occupied by small shops, grocery stores and restaurants, with a very main-street feel. So in face, Brasilia has its own contained little worlds with all their services right there, easily accesible on foot: a place as if ripped from the pages of A Pattern Language, except for the seven story thing. It's quite pleasant really. I imagine it is like Cuba in its better days--everyone works for the government, housing, daycare, and other services are all subsidized and nearby.

There is, however, another Brasilia. The satellite cities. Built far away and out of sight, these areas were to house the workers who built Brasilia, the Candangos, poor immigrants from the Northeast and other poor areas of Brasil. Niemeyer was a socialist so I wonder what he meant for these satellite cities. Perhaps they were to live in pre-fabricated housing uintes and be shuttled off to ultra-modern factories in hovercraft where they would Manufacture The New Brazil. Something like that.

The reality is that these satellite cities are much more like South African townships--darker, poorer, and much more dangerous. People take the bus into Brasilia in the daytime and then clearout at night. My tour guide for the congress building commented that at night you only see good people about (her words). She kind of pinched her skin when she said this to silently emphasize what she meant about "good people". White people. Actually, she lamented that this is getting less so. Brasilia is a growing city with two million residents and counting. In an interesting twist on urban development (in a city that is full of them), the sprawl is encroaching *inwards* from the satellite city to the airplane.

There were a few more interesting aspects about the airplane wings that struck me:

- Hideous, brutalist monstrosities of architecture are Everywhere. Anywhere else a single one of these buildings would be a shameful landmark (I'm thinking of Boston City Hall). Here they are merely schools, churches, and hospitals.

- Street addresses are Very Logical. For instance I could live in Residential South, Superquadrant 108, Block B, apartment 312. A local would know exactly where this places me, both physically and socioeconomically. This plan is so logical, in fact, that street signs and building numberings are rarely necessary and frequently dispensed with. This makes it more than a little difficult for a newcomer to find his way around.

- The residential superquadrants are neatly contained pedestrian worlds surrounded by the freeways that bisect the airplane wings. Try to go to another area and you are faced with 16 lanes of speeding traffic to cross. If you look hard enough you can find the occasional dark, urine filled pedestrian tunnel. At the entrance to each is a newish sign with an illustration of a cat flattened by a car and a warning to use the tunnels because humans, unlike cats, do not have seven lives. Odd that in Brazil cats should only have seven lives.