Wow, there is truly no place like Brasilia. Relentless. modern. utopia.
In the 1950s, Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek called for the relocation of Brazil's capital city from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília. At the time, the land that would become Brasília was unsettled, as this photo from 1957 of Brasília's beginnings by Mario Fontenelle shows:
The project of Brasília was said to be an attempt to make the capital more geographically central for the entire country and to bring development further into the interior. One Brazilian friend told me that he still finds this problematic today; that the government is too removed from the action and the realities of the majority of the population. At the same time, my Airbnb host said she really likes living in Brasília, that the quality of life is very good, and that it is much calmer than other major Brazilian metropolises.
Kubitschek asked Niemeyer to design the city plan and the architecture. Niemeyer took on the buildings but delegated the plan, a competition for which was launched in 1957. Le Corbusier submitted, citing their previous collaboration on the Ministry of Health and Education building -- famously, he did not even receive a reply. Kubitschek and Niemeyer did not want an international star to design their version of modern Brazil.
The story goes that Lucio Costa nonchalantly submitted his proposal; he was not intending to enter the competition, but a solution came to him in finished form and he had to submit it. He won the competition with his "pilot plan." From the air, the plan resembles an airplane, with the "body" of the plane being the "Eixo Monumental," or the Monumental Axis, which contains the government buildings; the commercial, hotel, and banking sectors; and the bus station. The "wings" of the plane form the residential blocks and their corresponding commercial strips.
Being in Brasília was like being in a diagram on an architect's drafting table. As I mentioned, the entire city is divided into sectors, so all of the functions of the city are parceled out into different zones. The addresses indicate the zone of the city. For instance: SCLS 405, Bloco B, Loja 6 is the address of a restaurant in Setor Comércio Local Sul, not to be confused with SQS 405, Bloco B, which would be apartment building B in Super Quadra Sul 405. It continues: SEN = Setor de Embaixadas Norte (the northern embassies), SHS = Setor Hoteleiro Sul (the southern hotel sector), and SCS = Setor Comerical Sul (the commercial office-block next to the main shopping center)... just to name a few. You really know where you are if you know the system!
I got to spend 3 days in Brasília, staying in one of the residential "super squares" and walking -- yes walking -- and taking the buses everywhere. Brasília is decidedly *not* built for the pedestrian. Having grown up in Cincinnati, a city I love dearly but one in which you need a car to get around, I understood the shocked response when I asked, "how far it is to walk from the Congresso Nacional to the Cathedral?" "Oh you can't walk there!"
Brasília does funny things with scale. It was about a 30-minute walk between these two buildings on the Eixo Monumental, though it looks like it would be so much closer. You can SEE the building you want to walk towards for miles because the space is so open, yet you have very few visual reference points for how far away it actually is. You walk past identical government ministry buildings that are designed for a car's approach, not a pedestrian's, and there are few stands/shops at a human scale to engage your eye as you walk by.
But it's Brasil, so the buses are full and run frequently. There is a metro in Asa Sul (the southern residential wing) and points south of the Pilot Plan -- though because of a strike, it was only running during rush hour when I was there.
Here are some photos from my first morning in Brasilia, starting out at the Praça dos Trés Poderes -- home to the Congresso Nacional (the National Congress -- the "bowl" is the chamber of the deputies and the "dome" is the senate), the Palácio do Planalto (the Palace of the Plateau, the president's offices), and the Supremo Tribunal Federal (the Supreme Court). I passed by the Palácio do Itamaraty (the foreign ministry building) and Palácio da Justiça (Ministry of Justice), and strolled down the Esplanade of the Ministries with their 11 matching buildings.
Niemeyer designed all of these buildings between 1956 and 1960. Most of them work with variations of a "modern columnar order," i.e. thin columns and arches stretched and arranged in different ways, typically around a glass box. Vehicle-width ramps of varying heights lead from the street -- not the sidewalk -- up into the buildings. Most of the buildings (except the Ministries) seem to hover above the ground, just touching down in the lightest structurally-possible way.
It was a Saturday and it was was very quiet in the Distrito Federal. For lunch, I had to cab to the "commercial zone" of the city, with the malls and the food courts. There was absolutely nowhere to eat down by the government buildings. The last photo in this gallery is from Monday, and you can see the difference when the Eixo Monumental was packed with cars.
I couldn't miss the Catedral Metropolitana or the Museu Nacional either:
On Sunday, I trekked to the top of Costa's TV Tower for the best view in town. Even the addresses of the little fair and food court at the base of the tower follow the city-wide system!
I wandered around the lovely Super Square 308 -- the first residential block to be built and the "model" square for the residential sector. It contains apartment buildings, the commercial strips (the designated zones for shops), a Niemeyer-designed church, a school, a social club (think tennis and swim club), a health center, a kindergarten, a library, and a movie theater.
Here are some photos of other super squares nearby. They fit the "model" more or less, but do vary from block to block:
One of my favorite things about Brasília -- and I am sure this would seem normal to anyone who is from there (forgive me, Daniella) -- was how a little cafe would be nestled in the midst of one of the commercial strips between the super squares. Ernesto Cafés Especias was one of these spots -- a wonderful breakfast stop. Like many of shops in these commercial strips, Ernesto had this great grassy backyard with outdoor seating. (Apologies for the photo quality, these were shot from my little Brazilian cell phone since I left my camera at home that morning!)
I also visited the presidential palace, the Palácio da Alvorada, or "Palace of the Dawn" (1956-58). I could barely see it because this is as close as one can get! You can make out the gracefully curving arches, a similar style to the government buildings in town. This is the building supposedly inspired by the arches of Diamantina's market. I'm not sure I quite see it, unless you consider Niemeyer was working with inverted shapes, or playing with the market's shadows...
My Airbnb host Maria Sofia was so kind to give me an evening tour of Brasilia, when the Eixo Monumental takes on an entirely different and beautiful quality: